How do I get a grant?

You first must get an application. Forget about those grants for which you cannot apply, such as MacArthur Fellowships, which are essentially designed for people already known, which is to say celebrities, or incipient celebrities.

Once you get the application, read its guidelines carefully to make sure you qualify and, if you do, then to organize your presentation. If you don’t understand something in the guidelines, call or write the granting agency’s administrators, who are required to give advice to applicants. Should you find them unhelpful or discouraging, you can either assume they want to save your time, or suspect that they are trying to lessen the competition, rather than increase it, in order to channel available funds to applicants who are administratively favored. Administrators, it should not be forgotten, are supposed only to administer, not to choose. The selection of winners is the responsibility of either the funding agency’s board or an ad hoc panel convened for a particular competition.

Application forms fall into two groups: those for individuals and those for organizations. The former are customarily simple, no more than two pages in length, requiring minimal information: name, birthday, birthplace, current address and telephone number, “education,” present employment, current income perhaps, as well as a brief professional resume. Individual applications customarily require you to submit a sample of recent work. In competitions for individual grants, the winning amounts are usually fixed in advance, either at a single level (e.g., $20,000 in Literature at the National Endowment for the Arts) or at successive levels ($5,000, $15,000, and sometimes $25,000, as in NEA- Visual Arts now). In nearly all competitions for individual grants, the ratio of applicants to winners is at least 10 to one; 30 to one is not uncommon.

Are there better ways to beat those odds?

You can bet on horses that offer better odds, or, if you are desperate, you can rob a bank. For more modest purposes, you can collect unemployment, which probably does more to support the work of indigent individual artists than all the arts councils combined. (In addition to acknowledging the 20th anniversary of the NEA, artists should honor the 50th anniversary, or whatever, of unemployment benefits.) If you have the taste or talent for bureaucratic paperwork, you would be wise to form a nonprofit organization or become part of one, simply because some petitions for its awards have far lower odds. The trouble is that organizational applications are more complicated, being at least four pages in length and requiring a detailed budget to justify a grant within a particular range. The application to the New York State Council on the Arts is especially complicated; and to compound the busywork (and deplete the applicants’ creative spirit even more), NYSCA during the application cycle issues a second set of elaborate forms, many of them with questions already answered on the original. All this complexity looks like an insidious device to favor two groups of people; (1) applicants who were previously successful; (2) the NYSCA administrators who can prejudice panel decisions by revealing minor fault amid the mass of detail.

The more complicated an application form is, the more reason you have for wanting to examine the applications of previous winners; there is, in my experience, no better guide to writing your own. When you examine successful applications, notice carefully what claims are made, how long the accompanying explanations are, and how detailed the budget is. Some agencies are more helpful than others in providing previous applications. At a public agency such as NYSCA, all previous applications, of winners as well as losers, are fortunately kept on file, available for public inspection and even photocopying! The man in charge is Joseph Wells, whose number is 212-614-2904.

Budgeting for organizational grants is a curious business. The NEA, for instance, requires that its grants be “dollar-matched” with funds obtained from elsewhere. What this means in practice is not as it seems (and probably not what was intended). Let’s say you are a small literary publisher with nonprofit affiliation, and you calculate that you need $10,000 to typeset and print 1,000 copies of a big novel. (This is cheap. A commercial publisher would require at least $100,000 to do the same job, because of all its overhead.) In order to get that 10 grand from the NEA, the small press must establish an expense budget of at least 20 grand. The organization then figures that if it needs that 10 grand from the NEA for book production, there must be at least lO grand more in expenses. In a small-press application, this extra 10 grand can legitimately include payments to authors and to the press’s editors, administrative fees, secretarial assistance, postage, shipping, etc. Now if by good fortune the $10,000 grant comes through, all these “expenses” must be donated, at least temporarily, until there is income from sources other than the NEA grant. In other words, one must budget at least $10,000 more expenses—at least twice as much than is immediately necessary—in order to get the $10,000 required to print the books.

The principal requirement of successfulorganization-applicationwriting is a credible budget, where every particular cost makes sense within the size of the grant and the promised result. If, for instance, it costs a thrifty small publisher roughly $10,000 to typeset and print 1,000 copies of a 500-page novel, no one on a selection panel can object if the application allocates $10,000 for typesetting. If, however, an applicant publisher allocated $20,000 or only $2,000 for a thousand copies of such a long book, some panelist might object that this small-press applicant was either extravagant or naive. (If, by good fortune, the applicant’s uncle happens to be a book-printer, it would be better to specify a credible sum [$10,000] as the printing cost and then list any reduction from this norm as his dollarmatching contribution to the nephew.)

On the other side of the ledger, by the terms of dollar-matching, an organization must also posit at least $10,000 income from sources other than the NEA. This other income may include grants from other agencies, sales of books, personal contributions, etc. In some applications (and in only some programs), the organization must budget income of “in-kind contributions,” such as the editorial time of its principals, because “in-kind” has always been the laudable convention by which poorer applicants can dollarmatch. The trouble is that most people asked to construct an application budget make the mistake of treating the question personally—to make a schedule to which they will indeed hew, as they would hew to a personal budget of monthly expenses. That attitude, let me suggest, would be a mistake, especially in filling out an organizational application to public granting agencies. The first truth to remember is that you must create a coherent, persuasive fiction in which the figures are appropriate to the scale of the project (and the possible size of the grant). It does not matter whether you actually expect $5,000 in immediate sales of books; if your application needs that $5,000 figure in order for income to match the amount requested, then you put down $5,000 sales.

Similarly, your description of what you want to do must create a credible fiction within the funding agency’s guidelines. If the funding program requires that the proposed book be written from scratch, forget about all the rough drafts you’ve been doing for the past decade. If it requires live performance, forget for now about the videotape or record you want to make from it. If documentary writing is required, rather than creative work, promise only to do documentaries, even if they might have a dash of poetry. And so on. The truth is that a grant application is not a proposal for reality; it is, as a proposal for a grant, a fiction that must, first of all, succeed within the conventions of grant-getting before it can generate the flow of funds that will, happily, allow the applicant to accommodate that fiction to reality.

A final truth to remember is that all awards should come to you as a surprise. Don’t ever expect to be funded; don’t ever make job (or marriage or whatever) decisions dependent upon the expectation of a grant, for if you make this mistake, the result can only be disappointment.

Are competitions fair?

In comparison to elections in the U.S., probably not. With respect to other selection procedures in this country, some are more fair than others. The rule to remember is that funding agencies differ from each other, with different mandates, different procedures, different tolerances, and even different secrets, which may not be immediately evident. For instance, while an individual NEA fellowship is simply a cash reward to an artist-applicant, a residency award is something else. For the latter, the selection committee is generally composed of people connected to the hosting institution who are looking not just to reward good work but to select individuals whose company they would enjoy. To win a residency from the DAAD Berliner Kunstlerprogramm, say, is more like being chosen a visiting lecturer at a university or an art museum.

How honest are the funding agencies?

Some are more honest than others. The truest rule is that administrators get away with what they are allowed to get away with. And if they get away with murder, as some do, the principal fault lies first with its trustees (“the Council”) and then with the failure of our watchdogs to cry foul. For instance, the major scandal at the NEA now is that the chairman exercises, far more frequently than his predecessors, his power to veto grants previously approved by NEA departmental panels. When I asked the NEA’s press office for a list of the chairman’s victims, the reply was that the NEA, in contrast to NYSCA, never identified rejected applications. They added that, “In order for vetoing to happen, there must be an error of fact or process.” However, the examples known to me had in common the facts that they were liberal do-gooding operations donating literary magazines to prisoners and that both had been previously funded by the NEA. They might not have deserved funding, but political censorship is as unpleasant on the right as on the left.

Everyone involved knows about this scandal but is, in truth, scared to go public about it for fear of the chairman’s wrath, which is to say his vetoing grants to them that would otherwise be awarded. (Believe me, as the recent recipient of NEA grants, as well as an applicant for more, I thought twice about revealing this.) When Grace Glueck mentioned this recurring vetoing in the New York Times (10 November 1985), she failed to note that it might be considered objectionable. The fear is that, until this abuse of administrative power is exposed as the moral and procedural affront that it is, all grants approved by NEA panels are vulnerable to the chairman’s veto. My own feeling is that this makes the NEA chairman, elected by nobody, a cultural czar on the Soviet model and thus makes me wonder why a putative Reaganite should be behaving like an antidemocratic Communist. If the House Un-American Activities Committee still exists, it might question his Bulgarian tastes.

The recurring scandal at NYSCA is another kind of administrative abuse: In presenting applications to panels, administrators are said to lie about applicants they disfavor, in order to prejudice panels against rewarding them. (And it follows that such lying would be unnecessary, if the applicant had no chance at all.) And when NYSCA administrators are caught lying, as they sometimes are, and the evidence of their lying is presented to the so-called Appeals Panel (which is itself a scandal), the initial negative judgment is always sustained. Let me tell a complicated story. A few years ago, a small press connected to me applied for a grant to do a book edited by the photography critic Mr. A.D. Coleman. A visual arts staffer who had a vendetta against Coleman reported to the NYSCA selection panel that Coleman had not fulfilled a grant he received two years before through another organization. In fact, however, not only was this grant just several months old (and thus not yet due to be completed) but also by the time the staffer reported on its status to the panel, her information was at least three months old and the earlier Coleman project was complete, except for the printing. She influenced the panel’s negative decision and then its vote by making prejudicial misinformation available to the voters. These lies were reported to me, curiously, by another NYSCA staffer who was, like the panelists, conned into believing them as truth! When the evidence of staff lying was presented to the NYSCA Appeals Panel, we were refused. The lamentable truth is that at many agencies, staff lying (and staff vendettas) is treated as a sort of subsidiary benefit of the job.

How accountable are these cultural funders?

They must issue thick annual reports itemizing every grant. Nonetheless, even these are not exempt from fakery. In the NYSCA Annual Report of 1976-77, the lump sum allocated for the literature program as a whole (p. 36) was considerably more than the total of the individual grants (on pages 37 & 38), which meant that $110,500 was, as they say, “unaccounted for.” When I asked about this discrepancy in NYSCA’s own Annual Report, I got a series of baloney letters that indicated only that people of putative responsibility were allowing themselves to be “faked out.” As far as I can tell, this public money has permanently disappeared, and there is every reason to believe that other NYSCA Annual Reports are similarly full of gaping loopholes.