Elevate Your Art Career With a Strong Artist’s Proposal

How to write a great proposal for artist's grants, fellowships, residencies, commissions, and more.
A set of wooden building blocks stacked in a pile to resemble a staircase.

Artistic funding is like binder to pigment. Both are necessary vehicles for an art career to thrive. However, making art and obtaining funding utilize different frames of mind and sets of skills. Artists are generally abstract and imaginative thinkers. Unfortunately, these skills don’t apply to crafting a good proposal for residencies, grants, commissions, and fellowships. 

When determining whether to fund an artist’s project or award them with a grant, evaluators have to be able to clearly understand the artist’s intent. Good writing transforms implicit symbolism and complex concepts into concrete statements that can be the difference between getting funded or getting rejected.  

The good news is that all artists can generate a reliable formula for writing better artist proposals. There are a few key steps to follow in order to bolster your current and subsequent proposal applications. 

Step One: Research and Development 

The irony is that while you may be submitting a proposal to get funded, your time is also just as valuable. Writing proposals consumes a great deal of time and energy. 

With an ample amount of grants, open calls for exhibitions, fellowships, and residencies being offered on a consistent cycle, it is important to prioritize the ones that are most relevant to your work and career goals. Also, be realistic about what you can manage at any given time. The longstanding adage “quality not quantity” is popular for a reason. 

Before you get swept up in the application process, make sure that your work is well-suited for the grant. Not all opportunities will be appropriate for the work you do and that is fine. It will serve you well to be diligent and scrutinize the guidelines within each application. 

When applying to any opportunity, you’ll need to have a well thought out plan. After you have identified where you’ll be submitting proposals, begin creating and maintain a fluctuating schedule that will help you manage your time. Make a note of each key date and benchmark, such as when the application process opens, when the deadlines are, and when the various evaluation stages take place. 

Step Two: The Outline

Now that you’ve done your due diligence and have your ducks in a row with regards to where and when you’ll submit your artist proposals, it’s time to get to the actual writing. But before you get into the thick of the writing process, you need to structure your thoughts via an outline. This is a crucial task that will make the actual writing efforts go smoothly.  

Make the following questions your mantra each time you begin a new proposal: 

  • What am I going to do?

This should be the most obvious query you consider, but you’d be surprised at how many artist’s proposals don’t address this question enough. Describing the “what” aspect of an artist’s work is essential because, when done concisely, it can paint a clear picture in the evaluator’s mind. The answer to this question should largely focus on the physical or aesthetic features of the artwork or project. 

  • How will I make it? 

In answering this question, be sure to provide a breakdown of the actual artistic process.

Explain where you will make this work of art and what steps are needed to carry out its   completion. Mention whether there are any collaborators or participants and what roles they will have in the project’s creation. 

  • Why am I making this and what is the significance this project will have? 

State the connections the project has to a specific culture, population, or location. Mention who it will serve or benefit and why. Be sure to include all significant details about where the project will be visible, how it will be displayed, and whether there will be any associated programming. Think about how you want viewers to interact with the work and how the physical form and creative process will inform and influence its interactivity. After stating all of these the tangible logistics, then weave in the contextual details. 

  • How will this opportunity benefit my career? 

Oftentimes, a grant, residency, or fellowship opportunity will offer an artist a unique chance to expand their vision. It is important to mention how you will grow and how this specific opportunity will be beneficial to you. This might include getting interdisciplinary support for prior or future research; or building proficiency in a new media. Avoid generic statements and show you’ve done your research by mentioning particular ways that each funding or professional development opportunity will impact elements within your practice. 

At this stage you can simply respond to these questions in an informal manner, such as making a list, but be sure you have very concrete answers to these questions.

Step Three: Writing

With your outline in hand, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and write your proposal. In most cases, you’ll be provided with prompts that tell you what you need to focus on. Additionally, many application forms have strict word counts. This is actually a good thing because brevity and clarity should be your greatest concern when writing an artist’s proposal. 

Assume that the reader has little to no knowledge of the conceptual themes that influence your creative practice. Instead, focus on being specific and incorporate the answers from the outline in short sentences. 

Try to approach your descriptions as if you are presenting to a reader who has just come to Earth with a limited background in art and cultural subjects. This means avoiding art jargon. 

If you follow the trajectory of many renowned artists you’ll notice that they are able to fluidly discuss their work in a manner that is accessible to people with and without prior artistic backgrounds. Being a successful artist requires a combination of good visual and verbal communication. If you’re feeling apprehensive about what to say, try having a recorded conversation with a close confidant about your work. It might be easier to find your natural voice in dialogue with a friend.

Once you’ve written your proposal, take a step back and let it marinate. Send it to a friend or a colleague and get their opinion. Be sure to do a round of proofreading and copyediting, or seek the services of a professional editor who has experience helping artists with their proposals. I highly recommend making a checklist to ensure you’ve met all of the requirements for each proposal. 

It’s unlikely that every application will yield an acceptance, but don’t give up if you get rejected. Rejection is a part of the process. Remember how it took time to become the good artist you are today. By practicing the guidelines outlined in this post you will hone the skills needed to become more confident throughout the application process, and your writing will improve too.

About the author

Adam Zucker is an educator and curator. His interests include ways of integrating contemporary art throughout the education curricula. At Flatpage, he helps artists write impactful and effective artist's statements and proposals.

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