How to Sharpen Your Application Skills

In our first-ever series of Mock Panels, arts professionals advised on how to write stronger applications for grants, residencies, and other art opportunities.

Back in June, we wrapped up our Queer|Art|Pride programming at Abrons Arts Center with a series of mock panels for artists working in performance, literature, film, and visual art. Think of it as a day of workshops where two panelists in each of these four creative fields review submissions of work samples, artist statements, and project proposals—with the artists who submitted those materials in the room with them—and provide feedback. You ever wonder what goes on in a panel review, how your application is being read and discussed? The aim of the mock panel is to lift the veil on this process and help artists sharpen their skills in submitting art applications by participating in a trial environment. It was our first time programming an event like this; we were introduced to the format earlier this year by LJ Roberts, who has been conducting mock panels for their students at the New School for years.

We paired arts professionals who are experts in their creative fields to serve as our mock panelists: Eva Yaa Asantewaa and Jay Wegman in Performance, LJ Roberts and Margaret Rose-Vendryes in Visual Art, William Johnson and Rachel Levitsky in Literature, and Ron Magliozzi and Nneka Onuorah in Film. It was incredibly valuable for our artists who submitted their work for review to get a chance to witness what happens on the other side of their submission—to see firsthand how our panelists interpreted their application materials, what they responded most to, what they disagreed over, and what they wanted to see more of.

For many of us, figuring out how to improve on our applications for grants, residencies, and other art opportunities can be a nebulous task. In order to help with this, outgoing Queer|Art|Mentorship Programs Facilitator Kris Grey compiled some of the feedback our panelists had to offer:

  • If you have a word count limit to describe yourself or your work, use it to your full advantage. Be as creative and vital with your descriptions of the work as you are in your work. Make the proposal match the excellence of your artistic production. 

  • Make sure to list specifics about your project in the project description. Look for other ways to weave in narrative about your practice and evolution, perhaps in your bio.

  • Try to describe what stage of development your project is in. Are you just beginning it? Have you been working on this project and you are ready for feedback to advance it? Are you seeking support to finish it? Is this project related to past projects?

  • When you are describing your practice, panelists like to see you acknowledge your lineage. They may want to know where you place your work in a larger context. This may be an opportunity to talk about contemporary and peer artists with whom you believe your work is in dialog. Once you establish where you come from (creatively) and where you are currently, you may want to talk about what’s next. Also, try to talk about how what you do is different or unique. Will this grant, residency, fellowship, or program support your growth and how will it be important to your evolution? Think about a trajectory in your field then place yourself along it. 

  • Your CV or Resume will do a lot to describe who has influenced and mentored you to date. This comes not from a place of trying to exclude those with alternative pedagogies, but rather to place you in context to others who have had a hand in delivering you to the present moment in your creative trajectory. It’s also helpful for a committee to know who has presented your work before, who has supported your work, and who has funded you in the past.

  • When you are preparing links and time-based digital content for review, test out different platforms and devices to see how they read. Some panels review content remotely meaning they may view your work on a tablet or laptop. Some panels review work together by projecting the content. Find out how the work samples will be reviewed and plan accordingly.

  • In describing the intended effects of your work on individuals, think about the panelist who may have questions about legal or moral implications. If you intend for your work to expose an individual or organisation, spell out the ways you’ve thought about the legal implications to demonstrate that you’ve thought through it in planning your project. Has there been an example you can point to? Has it happened in the past?

  • For work samples that document live performance, think about the sound quality and wherever it’s appropriate or possible, add closed captioning to help reviewers get the full content of your piece. Perhaps include a quick introductory slide listing the title, duration, location, and context for the performance documentation.

  • Use academic language sparingly. Sometimes it can be very smart but read as if it’s pointing to its own intelligence. Reviewers are much more interested in the emotional intelligence, history, and passions of the artist. Try to clearly communicate those with simple language. Remember also that some review committees will be comprised of experts in your field but some will be comprised of folks who have less exposure to or interest in academic discourse. Often panels are a mix.

  • Be expansive in terms of your practice and practical in your application materials.

  • Try to get all the elements of your application to match one another. Your descriptions should make sense set against your work samples. Craft your ask to the opportunity. Help the committee understand why it makes sense for them to support you given their mission and goals. 

  • What are the possible outcomes if you receive the award? Describe them.

  • Try to add context to what you do and why. Start with the ‘why’ and stay with it throughout.

As a final word encouragement, remember that an application is an invitation to the review committee to enter your practice. Use it to invite them in. Remember that even though you aren’t in the room with them, the process of reviewing your materials is a conversation. Anticipate the reviewer’s questions and curiosities then use the application fields to answer them. Support comes in many forms and you never know the effect your images and words will have on members of a review committee down the road. Every time you compile an application, it does the work of extending your practice to a new audience—even if in many cases, it’s only the reviewers. 

Good luck!