Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Since the beginning of our fiscal year (July 1) the Arts Council has awarded 52 competitive grants to artists, arts organizations, schools and community groups. These awards were made at the recommendation of several panels who were gathered by staff from around the state to sit and review applications and make their recommendations to the Council’s Board of Trustees. Fifty-two applicants have thus far received good news. They are, for the most part, happy. But what about the 59 applicants who were not recommended for funding? How are they feeling?

Disappointed, to say the least, and in some cases angry. But the most prevalent reaction is frustration. Most people contact us when they don’t get a grant to find out why. (It’s interesting to note how many successful applicants do the same!). Inevitably they ask how many were funded out of how many applications. The answer is almost always a smaller percentage than seems possible.

What happens in the Arts Council panel meetings? Who actually chooses which applicants get funded, and which do not? These are just two of many questions about the Council’s grant process that we field every year. Some are based on assumptions people have about art, about the Council, and about people who appear to have a special “in.” Others are based on the disappointment of not getting funded at all, or getting only partial funding.

So let’s deal with some of these questions and assumptions.

Assumption: “If you know someone at the Arts Council, you’re far more likely to get a grant.”

Fact: The most influential people in the competitive grant decision process are the “peer-panelists.” These are people who are gathered for the various panels based on their availability, their expertise, the fact that they have no conflicts of interest with people applying, and their general knowledge of the arts and of Vermont. We also pay attention—all else being equal—to geographic and gender diversity whenever possible.

The role of a panelist is to familiarize themselves with the applications, understand the review criteria, and apply Council policies (such as no conflicts of interest) where appropriate in making their recommendations. Council staff’s role is to keep the panel on task and on time, to take notes of the discussion for applicant feedback, and to make sure trustees receive panel recommendations in a timely fashion. The trustees’ role is to ask questions if anything seems out of the ordinary and to direct staff in those rare instances where a panel recommendation is not taken. In my 10 years at the Arts Council, trustees have overturned only one panel recommendation and that was because the organization in question went out of business between the time the application was reviewed and the trustees met.

So, to be clear, the Arts Council staff doesn’t make grant decisions; panelists and trustees do. Having said that, however, I admit that there is one way that knowing our staff will help your application quite a lot.

Someone who has called the Council's program staff (Michele, Sonia, or Stacy or even, God help them, me!) for advice on what program to apply for, or how much to request, or what kind of support materials to include will no doubt fare better in the review process than someone who hasn’t. Does this mean that our word is gospel? No. It means that we see a lot of panel discussions and we have a sense of what tends to be important to a panel and what tends to be not so important. Someone who asks questions is more likely to fare better than someone who doesn’t or who, worse, makes an assumption and acts accordingly. In every case, whether you don’t get funding or not, we encourage you to ask for the panel’s feedback. It’s a key part of becoming a better grant writer

Assumption: “The same people get funded every year so there’s no point in applying.”

Fact: While it is true that some arts organizations' and cultural organizations' grants tend to crop up again and again, this is not so much a reflection of the review process as it is a reflection of the consistently high caliber of these particular applicants—arts institutions whose names come readily to everyone’s lips. I’d even go a step further—it is because of their consistently high standards that they have become institutions worthy of our funding.

As for educational grants, while there are many great artists who would like to teach, there are still relatively few artists who have achieved a level of mastery in their art form AND an understanding of the issues that all Vermont public school educators deal with in the “Vermont Framework of Standards…” and “No Child Left Behind.” But if a school can demonstrate how an artist fits perfectly into their curriculum, then—yes, you probably have a better chance of receiving funding than another school that doesn't have that level of preparation.

But getting back to the accusation that underlies the assumption: that there exists a cabal of arts-funding decision makers who have their favorite group of “go-to” grantees. The truth is that even those institutions that seemingly get a grant every year don’t! Instead, even they fall victim to the biggest problem the Arts Council faces: a lack of funding.

Reality: Lack of funding is by far the most significant reason why more grants aren't funded or funded in full.

The legislative appropriation the Arts Council receives for our grant budget has stagnated for 10 years while the rest of state government has grown 30%.

How can you help change this? Become an advocate! Contact your legislators and let them know you care about the health of the arts in Vermont. Invite them to be your guest at a concert or a play in your community that has received Council funding. Or, perhaps more notably, take them to an event or visit an organization that would have benefied from receiving grant funding.

The Council will thank you and, more importantly, so will all those folks that didn’t get funding they hoped for.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007


In Vermont, we have a very strong and independent-minded Congressional delegation whose legacy includes being among the staunchest supporters of our tiny Federal Arts Agency. During the darkest days of the early 1990s the Vermont delegation was among the small minority that stood up to the powers trying to eliminate the NEA.

This was not true of the delegations from many other states. Although the NEA’s detractors are diminishing in numbers, there are still quite a few who, despite all our best efforts to educate and inform them, still have residual feelings of ill-will towards the agency, feelings that are even more misplaced now than they were during the worst of the culture wars from 1988 to 1996.

In the decade since it was “punished” by Congress and its appropriation cut 40%, the NEA, like the field it serves, has transformed itself. It no longer simply responds to requests for support from artists and arts organizations, most of which thrive in our major population centers. It actually reaches out and cultivates the arts in all corners of our country. In the last couple of years it has finally made good on its promise to award at least one grant to a constituent in every one of the 435 Congressional districts throughout the country—including the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Marianas, the Virgin Islands, and American Samoa.

More importantly it has built on the “grassroots” legacy of former NEA Chair Bill Ivey and greatly improved its “brand identity” under the leadership of its current Chair, Dana Gioia. As a former brand manager for General Foods (word has it that he was responsible for introducing Bill Cosby to Jell-o Pudding Pops), Gioia has taken the NEA to a new level of participatory art-making and engagement. Projects like Poetry Out Loud, American Masterpieces, and The Big Read have made the arts more accessible to a much broader segment of the American populace than they ever were before. Sure there is probably not as much money going to symphonies, or opera houses as there was in 1992. But then, how could there be? The NEA’s budget is $50 million less now than it was then ($130 million if you factor in inflation)!

But the tide is turning back in the Arts’ favor. The House of Representatives wants to increase the NEA’s budget by $33 million—not because “punishment time” is over, but because the NEA and its network of regional and state partners (which includes the Vermont Arts Council) are, through the arts, making a positive difference in the lives of people throughout the country.

I have a request for everyone reading this column, and especially to those who are from out-of-state.

We need the Senate to follow suit and support the House’s recommendation. Right now the Senate has recommended a $10 million increase. That’s not a bad amount in the context of previous small increases, but it’s nowhere near $33 million. If the House version gets passed it means an increase to state arts agencies of at least $200,000. If the Senate version passes, it’ll mean an increase of about $70,000. I say the House version looks better.

In Vermont, we’re pretty confident that our two Senators understand the importance of supporting the arts in our communities and our lives. But what about the rest of the country?

If you are reading this in Vermont, please do two things. First, contact Senators Leahy and Sanders and politely remind them that you are counting on their support for the House version of the NEA appropriation, but more importantly to thank them for their leadership and support for the NEA over the years. Also, thank Congressman Welch for actually voting for the $33 million increase! Second, please contact everyone you know in other states asking them if they would consider writing a personal email to their Senators to support the House version of the NEA appropriation.

If you are not a Vermont resident and you are reading this, or it has been forwarded to you by a friend who is a Vermonter, please take a moment to contact your Senators and help them to understand just how important the arts are to your life and to your community. It doesn’t matter whether you are in northern Maine or southern California. The arts reach everyone, everywhere, all the time.

Over the years, I have witnessed many conversations on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. One bears repeating. A Congressman (not from Vermont) said, “I walked back to my office and checked to see how the letters were running on this issue. There were a grand total of three: two in favor, one against. I returned to the Chamber and voted in favor stating for the record that my mail was running two-to-one in favor of the bill!”

Your email WILL make a difference, especially if it’s from you and unencumbered by a lot of excess verbiage that our wonderful lobbyists in D.C. like to make sure get included in such messages. All you have to do is say "Please support the House version of the NEA appropriation, because . . ." and then tell your Senators a story about why the arts matter to you or to your community. The more personal the better.

Some need a lot of education, some simply need reminding. Either way, they deserve our personal thanks and best wishes, and our communities deserve more art.