This letter comes from my viewpoint as a writer and artist. It also comes from experience in public service over the last 8 years, engaged in the field of art, literary arts and public education in a national library group.
In this letter, I would like to examine some areas of:
∙ art applications and evaluations,
∙ work and division
arising from my affiliations and conflictions.
Part of my job for the library entails procurement for straightforward logistical needs (transportation trucks, courier services, catering), marketing (media buying, artwork adaptation, video production), semi-creative and technical needs of production (designers, exhibition designers, contractors, lighting, live-streaming, audio and visual technicians), as well as the not-so-straightforward provision of artistic content (by writers, artists, calligraphers, translators, editors, podcasters).
Yet, before anything can happen, the requestor, who is usually the project manager, will write and publish submission and application guidelines, and later evaluate applications that come through.
Such lines below will not be unfamiliar to artists who apply to variations of open-calls, bids, funding and commissions:
How does your project relate to the organisation’s long-term vision and mission? How will it contribute to your career and progress as an artist/collective? (10 marks)
Artistic merit – 30%
– Highly original concept
– Well-planned project and execution with sound illustration of proposed idea
– Strong relevance to objectives
– Visually imaginative and impactful
How will activity from funding contribute to the progress and sustainability of the applicant’s practice / organisation increasing audience access and audience development? [16%]
Applicant has a bold and impactful style and experience in media that are relevant to this commission?
[ ] / 10
I have had the task of writing similar statements, and have experienced first-hand the difficulties in crafting such guidelines and evaluation scoring criteria. Can administrators like myself accurately isolate and quantify what is “impactful” and “original”? How “bold” is bold? Actually, what does “visually imaginative” mean? What should the percentage allocation be? How many other colleagues should evaluate it?1 What about in other organisations where a lack of manpower means that decisions are simply conferred and approved, without counter or contest?
As an artist, I have also experienced a different kind of agony in making my way through such applications. Artists are expected to be their own (social media) marketing, design, copywriting, HR and finance personnel – going by the guidelines and characteristics of a desirable application. After all the energy channelled into paperwork, there is often little mental and creative room for actual artmaking.
I understand evaluations are needed for documentation, accountability and transparency. I accept they are here to stay. Hence, we should reconsider a few things to make it more hospitable for administrators and artists alike. It can begin with changing the expectation, often of councils or commissioning bodies, that managers insert these air-tight ideals in paperwork.
There needs to be understanding that proposal writing for the arts, and art itself, is nothing straightforward like HTML, a kind of formal language and writing in which any deviation from the syntax or logic in the code can cause an error. Whilst it appears to be common sense, it is not reflected in the way that rubrics are built.
In developing criteria for assessment, there must be reasonable room to navigate the non-tangible fluidity of art attributes, and to be extremely wary that criteria do not become demarcations. How about a small percentage allocated to open-ended comments for the merit of the application not bound to precise attributes?
Administrators should not be complicit in closing the door to potential new works and talents that do not slide easily into these pre-fabricated parameters.
Applications are an open door to possibilities, and should not set artists up for failure where the first step of assessment is already elimination.
Lastly, application forms must be clear and simple, requesting the most important and relevant information. Ironically, sometimes, the simplest things are the most difficult things to achieve.
It is common to find a section of a funding application where the artist is to write in length on what the impact of the disbursed amount might have on their career in the next year. I have filled in similar segments like that myself.
Administrators and artists will tell you more often than not, chances of success are slim. Funding, at that point in an application, is often hypothetical.2 Artists will hope that presentation and exhibition opportunities from funding will further their career. They will have some inkling of their audiences and responses, but ultimately, artists are not market forecasters or specialised in fields of strategic planning management. It would be challenging to anticipate outcomes in the form of quantifiable metrics. Though the section will be answered as sincerely, reasonably and thoroughly as possible, evaluators should not expect an answer that is indicative of anything precise. As such, segments like this should be removed altogether.
In my years of looking through proposals and quotations, I have read between the lines of ego, earnestness, ambition, over-promise, laziness, passion, haste, potential, endurance, snootiness, humility, sincerity and compassion, but what remains most persistent is unrealistic budgeting.
Under-budgeting stems from the hope of increased opportunities for acceptance, like silently willing a potential employer to choose you over an equally qualified applicant whose asking salary is higher. Or bait and switch: get the commission first and think of the budget later.
In many cases of funding, an artist is awarded up to 75% or 80%. Artists often dig into their own pockets to make up for the shortfall. Is it any surprise that a line item like production costs is inflated? Over-budgeting stems from a scarcity mentality – to hoard now for fear of insufficiency later.
I have been guilty of all that in my early years as an artist.
I have two thoughts at once: financial management must be taken more gravely as part of art school curricula. An artist must know how to communicate with suppliers and contractors, how to seek out comparison quotations, how to allocate a production budget and importantly, how to pay themselves. Also, it is my belief that if artists had always been fairly paid, we would be more inclined to understand and develop a budget that is realistic.
When I entered public service, I started off in a team involved in cultural and community engagement through public arts education. My colleagues were like me: other artists with their own practices in theatre, music, acting, writing, design, visual art – desiring some kind of stability because what we were doing was not financially sustainable.
An artist might get a commission-based gig which would be the equivalent of a month’s salary – before taxes – if truly generous. Yet, that was sometimes meant to cover our artist-fee, travel expenses, insurance and material costs. Even if it didn’t, how many commissions would come in in a whole year?
This full-time job came with medical and dental benefits, paid annual leave and flexible hours. We would engage in our own art activities outside of the office, and sometimes took on part-time teaching and guest-lecturing gigs to keep the practice going. We need money, and the employer needs people who know the ground.
Through both of my fields of work, I have never been confident that what artists or decision makers in public service set out to do are rendered as close as possible to the needs of whom they are serving – in spite of their best intentions. There is always some floaty aspiration, ambitious key performance index, or some out-of-touch notion at play.
At work, I have given public lectures on how libraries have shaped my own art, and how programmes within libraries are also partially shaped by these interests. Look, this work-life balance is real! Look, public servants too, have informed industry practices to make rounded and grounded decisions!
It is not untrue. Sometimes, we have to make paradoxes work.
I am (also) an artist when it serves the institute.
Actually, I am an artist with a continuous practice because a regular salary sustains me. It is not possible to make and think about art while pretending to rise above money.
I am (only) a public servant, my personal and artistic beliefs embargoed whenever public service, a ministry or the institute is attacked by naysayers.
How may I be free and situated at the same time?3 I have been ignored by certain people in art circles because they found my connection to an institute meant that I am less of an artist: surely my identity, beliefs and morality are tied to my employer’s. If I were that good at all, my art itself would have sustained me.4
At this point, I can hear imaginary snorts and scoffs, which happens quite often in my line of work – from the disgruntled public to a passionate complaint of an artist quite openly. You can’t have your cake and eat it! You are the one in a position of power! Individuals can make their stance openly when their agency is not tethered to public accountability.
For public servants, there is often a need to negotiate pressure, noise and voices of different groups, their standpoints and agenda. It is not uncommon to see two or three communities with differing and indisputable beliefs attempting to influence and exert change through public policies. Whose rights? Which rights? Whose duty is it to provide these rights, to whom and to what degree? It is not something that people who are angry have thought about at length, but public service is not unburdened by the fact that decisions they make will be subject to scrutiny, and must be accountable to the numerous diverse communities.
Social media managers and corporate communication officers are often heightened to a negative comment that may or may not escalate into a public relations crisis. Over the years, it has not been uncommon to see activists, writers, artists, academics and public service officers whose private and identifying information about their personal lives has been leaked on the Internet. This is not an issue of whether these recipients are deserving of such treatment or the success and pursuit of justice in such instances.
Rather, I am concerned about groupthink, polarity, collectivism in communities that seek to exclude. Continuous division can be exhausting and acidic. It can erode any little similarity while spotlighting the differences, making them all that exists. I feel that there must be less bifurcation, less division of who belongs to where or the mutual exclusivity that we already witness so much of in the everyday – even outside of the arts. Urgent attention should be given to how we progress from a reaction to a response, and learn to disagree constructively.
The world is complicated, but also enriched by individuals with storied identities, fluid belongings and affiliations. To make better sense of this complexity, there is a need to drop back from simplistic and disjunctive fashions of categorising and assuming a situation, a person or persons.
We can, and must do more.
1 I have colleagues who are counter officers. They are like assigned partners who help to counter or oppose leading questions, statementsor criteria. These colleagues may also come from finance and procurement. However, it is not always possible in a lean organisation. I was an artist-in-residence in a small art space where the producer was also engaged in managing the open-call, curating, programmes and technical set-up. In instances where manpower is stretched, what are the checks and balances in place for developing guidelines and their subsequent evaluations?
2 Some advertising and design firms charge a pitching fee because of the time, effort and research that go towards a well-thought proposal for an assignment which might not even be awarded to them. I am not proposing that artists be paid for their proposals but there must be some form of recognition by the organisation for the value, concept and time an applicant has put in. Kindly rejections can come in the way of personalised feedback. At other times, artists receive automated, system-generated responses. But there are just as many occasions where many people never hear back at all.
3 To make the distinction between my work as an artist and as an arts administrator, I do not have much of an active arts practice at home. Most of my art participation, creation, residencies and exhibitions are overseas. Due to the pandemic and having to stay where I am, I am focusing more on writing and online participation which does not require an on-site presence.
4 I saw an old friend recently who is a theatre director and actor. He told me he had a full-time job as a lecturer in an art school whilst I informed him I was at the library. We gave each other sarcastic looks, rolled our eyes and mockingly referred to each other the way others might call us: sell-outs.
The contributor is a writer, artist and librarian in a national library group somewhere in the world. The contributor is anonymous due to the long process of approval from bosses that will not come in in time for the publication of this article.