Arts funding as psychological torture

Sad monkey. No grants for you.

Does arts funding do more harm than good?

It’s no secret that arts funding is scarce, especially for smaller, unproven, “emerging” artists. I wrote a post a couple of months ago about how competitive it is to become eligible to apply for most grants, let alone to actually win any of those grants. The organizations that evaluate applications are doing their best with the limited resources they have, but they’ll be the first to admit that there are many, many worthwhile projects asking for funding that they have to reject.

As a result, the emerging artist applying for funding is subjected to an awful lot of unpredictable and arbitrary rejection, largely unrelated to the quality of the work they’re making. Imagine a caged monkey subjected to electric shocks at random. Sad monkey. Very sad monkey.

Grant decisions are one of the few bits of concrete feedback an artist gets. It’s hard to intellectualize away such a clear yes/no rejection. Even though your brain knows not to take it personally, it grates at the soul. It takes a resilient, determined, self confident artist to keep producing work in the face of such explicit rejection. Meanwhile, the less assured artist will take it all to heart and their output will suffer.

For any grant awarded, hundreds of rejections go out. That’s an awful lot of bad mojo being spread out. It seems unlikely that the positive effect of the grant outweighs the psychological damage of the many rejections, especially if you look at the relatively meager amounts of the grants (sometimes under four figures.)

That’s a pretty tough conclusion. It seems wrong headed to tell these small grant makers to close up shop, that they’re doing more harm than good. Artists should just suck it up, know the lay of their land, and produce art only if the fire inside of them is strong enough to endure the occasional (or frequent) bucket of cold water.

Anyone got a better idea?


May 2010

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  1. Brian Young #

    Well, I don’t remember the name of the event, or movement I heard about. But, NPR ran a story a few months back about a new thing in the arts. The basic idea is that groups of artists are throwing big dinner parties where the guests come with the intent to fund the art projects they like. I can’t even remember if during the parties, the artist pitch their ideas, or what. But, the guests are not meant to be deep pocketed well known patrons, but instead average art loving folk.

    The articles main point was that this direct connection between the artists and a larger pool of people giving smaller donations was working because the new patrons were feeling like they were important to the process.

    I don’t know if it’s a better idea. But, it’s an idea. 🙂

  2. Nolan Love #

    Here’s an idea: Have the grant makers accept no applications, and rather take it upon themselves to discover art that they want to support. Artists can keep channeling resources toward evangelizing their wares to the general public, among whom will be said patrons. No overt rejection, but instead delightful acceptance & support for the chosen few.

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