Songs for the Struggling Artist

Is grant writing worth it?
January 26, 2011, 6:45 pm
Filed under: art, business, theatre, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , ,

Seriously. Is it?

I spent most of September scrambling to finish a series of grants that were all due simultaneously. I hadn’t bothered to apply for a grant in a while – my will had been broken a bit and I just hadn’t been able to muster the energy. But in September, I went all out. Grant, grant, grant. Working on them, writing them, attending the info sessions, editing them, wrestling with the video editing/copying software for the required work samples, enlisting help from at least 3 people, printing the grants, copying the grants, delivering the grants. It took a lot of time and resources but I figured, “Hey, if we could pull in a few grand for these theatre projects, it would make an enormous difference.” Also, this is just the way it’s done.

Four months later, I receive rejection letter after rejection letter, each recounting how competitive the process had been and how many worthy applications they’d received and how hard the decision had been. (Rejection letters are written primarily to make the rejectORS feel better. I know because I’ve written a few of them myself.) All told, if we add up the hours I and my colleauges spent and value those hours at $10 an hour (a cut rate, for sure, but it rounds up easy) as well as the money we had to spend on copying and paper and ink and DVDs, etc – we spent about $4000 to apply for these things. This is four times the value of one of the grants and roughly equivalent to the other two. In pure economic terms, this was an enormous waste of time. Even if I’d GOTTEN the grants.

Scott’s been listening to a lot of economics lectures and podcasts lately and he told me about this one that discusses something called All Pay Auctions (a form of something called Rent Seeking.) Grants are essentially an All Pay Auction. The economist on the show illustrates this concept with his students by holding up a $20 bill and saying he’ll sell it to whomever makes the highest bid in cash in a sealed envelope. If I put $10 in the envelope and I’m the highest bidder, I get his $20. If I’m NOT the highest bidder, I lose my $10. Everyone in the class (save the highest bidder) loses their bids. The teacher meanwhile has collected quite a lot and made a tidy profit on his $20 (or else he gets rid of the bids and all the money’s lost.) Munger points out that Grant Seeking is essentially the same proposition. Writing an arts grant means an artist puts $4000 of resources into an envelope which then gets shredded and pulped. We’re hoping we’re going to get $4000 back – but the chances are slim.
Now, what’s in the envelope in this case is not money (directly) but answers to questions, resumes, work samples, etc. Those making grants would likely say that they are choosing the best work – that the bids in this auction are about quality, not quantity. However, if we look at who receives grants, it’s clear that not ONLY good work rises to the top of this auction pile. Is everything we see that has received fat grants good? I think not. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite. Are the shows of mine that received grants BETTER than the those that didn’t? Not by a long shot. Very often the criteria for who receives a grant is based on some perception of public good or the possibility that the project will benefit the granting organization in some way or even the amount of resources that a company or individual had to complete the application. We can therefore say, in effect, to the society as a whole (and maybe even to those giving the money) it doesn’t really matter who gets the money. And as Roberts and Munger point out, a competition wherein it doesn’t really matter who wins has not only become meaningless but is an enormous waste of resources.
Munger and Roberts point to some situations when this sort of competition (Rent Seeking) can work. For example, when there’s an attempt to create a new technology or other things where advancement will benefit society as a whole. They mention the NBA, wherein all the competition (resources are lost by those that don’t get there) improves the quality of the game as a whole. In the realm of the arts, however, there is no societal benefit to grant writing. Artists writing grants don’t improve Art; they improve grant writing. Every hour I spend writing a grant only makes me a little better at grant writing, which has nothing to do with my art. In fact, it makes my art worse, because I’ve lost all those resources (time, time, time, especially time) that I could have spent making my art. Also, in an attempt to get this grant, I might change my art to make it more attractive to grant makers. I might try to be more what grant makers are interested in – which, in my experience, is not the same as better art. It also makes my art worse in that delicate balance of confidence that is a crucial part of making the work. Getting a grant can seem like a vote of confidence from the world – a “yes – you-are-worthy” sort of thing. This gives me a boost, sure, for a minute – but more likely, it just gives me a little check which is only a drop in the bucket in terms of the money I need to make my work. (Almost no grant makers are willing to be the sole funder for something.) Not getting the grant can feel like a slap in the face, like the world saying “Why do you bother?” In the wrong moment, that might be enough to stop me from moving forward.
All this makes me wonder about what I’m going to do the next time I hear about a grant I’m eligible for. Will I spend $4000 in resources to get $1000? I’d rather not. I’m just not sure what my other options might be. Let’s bust this system OPEN artists! Ideas? We’re creative people, right?


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