LivingArts: Grants

There was great profile of ‘Breaking Bad’ star Bryan Cranston published in the New Yorker a couple of years ago, just as the series was reaching its culmination. In one section of the piece, there is a story of how Cranston transitioned from being an actor stuck in commercials to a film and television star whose roles get increasingly juicier. 

According to the article, the switch happened after a motivational coach told him to change how he auditioned, to shift his focus onto the process not the outcome.  When he auditioned therefore, he wasn’t to worry about getting the job, but to use the audition as means to work his chops, hone his skills and hopefully learn something.  According to Cranston, every subsequent break he got as an actor was born from the kind of luck one only attains from this kind of focus.

I remember this story every time I have to write a grant.  An Ontario Arts Council or Canada Council Grant is very much the visual art equivalent of an audition, and I truly believe that you have to have your head screwed on in a similar kind of position to survive the experience, let alone be successful at it.

In the ‘90’s, back when I was primarily a painter, I avoided grants. I did this mostly because I think I was in the grip of a mania. I painted in such a way that allowed me to believe in only two possibilities for myself: either I was genius incarnate or I was a scuttling and worthless crab.  A grant could only therefore guarantee two outcomes: not enough validation or confirmation of my worst fears.  It was far too volatile an undertaking to be worth doing.

As I aged, my mania softened and I started to think that my practice might actually be sturdy enough to warrant government support. But it was amazing how wrenching those first grant writing experiences were.  Artist and/or project statements are around five to seven hundred words (shorter than my average blog entry), yet when those words have to be about one’s own work, they don’t come easy. Write a sentence, write another sentence, delete the first sentence, rewrite the first sentence, delete the second sentence, etc., until it’s 3am the night before the due date and there is still nothing on the page.

Worse, the harder the process of writing, the more vulnerable you become to voices whispering in your ear, voices of bullshit.   One voice might lead you to make statements that only make sense when your stoned, like ‘my art allows viewers to challenge everything they know about colour and immerse themselves in vast new worlds of creativity’.   The other, more common voice of bullshit will have you frame your work in dense academic buzzwords: ‘my work is interested in social dystopias, geopolitical synergies, and the body’, and so on.

A curator once told me that my paintings had a heraldic quality.  I used the phrase ‘my work explores heraldic possibilities’ in three separate grants before bothering to investigate what heraldry actually was (it’s about flags, right?).

Needless to say that my early grant attempts were painful and unsuccessful.   But they did have a good outcome in that they created a habit for writing grants.  Soon I started writing grants as an end of year ritual.  A taking stock.  And slowly I started to enjoy finding language for my practice; one that allowed me to scrutinize and advance my work in small, essential ways.  Eventually my writing shook off most of the bullshit and started sounding pragmatic, even minimal to some degree.

‘I am a Hamilton artist interested performance anxiety and stage fright.  I am looking for funds to build a big box into which I will put nervous performers. ‘

In other words, I took on an attitude that was similar I think to the one that worked for Bryan Cranston.   I stopped caring about the results, and started getting interested in the process of the grant. If the experience of writing the grant was valuable, then there was some likelihood that I might be writing a valuable grant.  I know this because eventually I started having success.

Somewhere during this journey I was fortunate enough to serve on an OAC jury, and had a chance to read hundreds of grants from all over the province.  I learned three things:

1. Good artists and bad ones are all just as prone to the forces of bullshit as I am.

2. Good images are worth so much more than good writing.  Writing only has to be good enough not to interfere with the images (which is still harder than it sounds)

3. Juries are just as fickle, weird, irrational, and capricious as individual artists, regardless how rigorous and accountable the process is.  Successful grants always rely on a little luck.