a numbers game

grant-numbersSound familiar? Artists and writers applying for grants nowadays get used to seeing those kinds of sentences in their rejection letters. Here are some more:

We received over 700 applications and were only able to fund 28 of them.

We received over 1,300 applications and were only able to fund 10 of them.

We received over 2,500 applications and were only able to fund 12 of them.

We received over 1,200 applications and were only able to fund 19 of them.

Yeah, ugh.

This works out to between a 1 in 25 and a 1 in 208 chance of funding. These are standard figures for the bigger awards, the ones that run upwards of $5000. Similar but marginally better odds attend applications for smaller grants.

Let’s get real: these are pretty lousy odds. The kind you see at horse races when you’re betting on a long shot, not the favorite. So let’s make them better. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that fully half the people applying for a major grant have no real chance because their work just isn’t very good. That effectively doubles a real artist’s chances: 28 in 700 goes to 28 in 350, or 1 in 13. One in 208 becomes 1 in 104. Or to look at it another way: 75-99% of viable, worthwhile proposals will be rejected.

So: Still in long-shot land. At best, given these kinds of numbers, you have to send in 12 applications for an average shot at getting 1 grant (no guarantees!); at worst, an average of 100 applications to get 1 grant (again, no guarantees!). But let’s even say that your proposal makes the jurors’ short list. You didn’t get kicked out for work that falls too close to the margins of the guidelines. You didn’t get kicked for doing a kind of work that is seriously out of favor with one of the jury members. Surprisingly you didn’t even get kicked because of some other kind of juror bias: gender, race, age. (That kind of thing can really zero out your chances.) There you are on the short list, and guess what? It’s still a crapshoot. Where your name falls alphabetically, the demographics of the applicant pool, whether your application got reviewed right before or right after lunch, whether your letter writer is someone’s enemy—all of these can become factors in the final decision.

Each grant takes from half a day to a day to write, especially the big ones. Very rarely can they be reused verbatim, and modifying an application to suit a different funder will take a minimum of another couple of hours. That adds up to a lot of hours you could be doing something else. Nonetheless, artists continue to put in time and energy on these applications. I know someone who took more than 20 tries to get a Guggenheim. Someone else who is on their 16th try. Someone else who took 19 tries to get a different big grant. You’d think artists might just give up, but they don’t, and there are five reasons for their perseverance:

1. Money. $5000 or even $1500 can make the difference between a project happening and not happening, especially for artists just starting out. Artists further along in their careers, especially those with developed skills sets by which they can earn a living, are much more likely to feel they could make the same amount of money quicker if they just stopped writing the damn applications and worked during those hours instead. That they don’t is down to reasons 2-5.

2. Street cred. Getting grants has become one of the signs that curators, critics, and collectors look for that certify an artist’s worth, along with being included in biennials. It doesn’t matter if you, personally, think it’s a major waste of time (see: point 1): you now are obliged to have these on your resume. In addition, having at least one on your resume greatly improves the odds of getting another. Like all other lazy substitutes for actual thought, it’s a curse on those forced to live under its sign.

3. Exposure. Grants are chosen by art world insiders, and these are the very people artists want to have see their work. There is always the hope that a curator-juror will notice and remember one’s work for a future show. I know for sure that it does happen. It’s also about as rare as sightings of coelacanths.

4. Luck. Everyone hopes they will be lucky because luck can compensate for lack of a lot of other things, including talent. So gambling in the grant lottery is a simple way of testing one’s luck. (Although if you win, you will not be thinking I got lucky, you will be thinking I am a genius.)

5. Sunk costs. No one wants to give up after investing all those hours, and doing so without result every year for 15 consecutive years.

I didn’t say they were all good reasons.

I don’t have any evidence, but I’d guess the numbers are much worse today than they were 50 years ago. There are many more artists than there were in 1960—due both to population growth and to other factors such as more women and minorities in the profession—and they’re all trying to drink from a pool that has hardly changed at all. Sure, a few new grantmakers have sprung up (e.g. Creative Capital), but meanwhile the NEA’s individual artist grants have gone to oblivion. I don’t have a solution for this situation that isn’t the obvious one (more grants!), but I do know this: It’s bad enough that the grantmaking system turns artists into beggars. Worse that it makes them simultaneously beggars and gamblers.

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Update June 21, 2014: A writer friend just sent me an email regarding an “on board”  literary residency program that Amtrak has apparently just started. Herewith a quote from his rejection letter: “We had over 16,100 applications and had the difficult challenge to select only 115 semi-finalists.” That is a 0.7% success rate just to get into the second round.