Grant Seeking Tips for Seattle Jazz Artists

Originally published in Earshot Jazz January 2013

Happy New Year jazz artists! What will you create in 2013? How will you build on your passions, experiments, and expressions? Where will the money come from to fund your projects and pay your collaborators? Seeking grants is itself an art.

Determined to improve my success finding grants, I researched books and websites, cobbled together an approach to work for individual jazz artists, used it to apply for a 4Culture Heritage Site Specific grant and was awarded $15,000 to develop a performance piece inspired by Jamie Ford’s novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

This article shares my process then suggests tips for successful grant seeking from Miguel Guillen, Program Manager at Artist Trust.

Step One: Help a Total Stranger Get to Know You

Organizations that offer grants want to give away money. To decide which proposals are worthy of funding, they typically rely on a panel of expert volunteers to review and rank applications based on certain criteria.

To participate in the evaluation process, you need to supply information so this group of strangers can make a funding recommendation on your proposal. The review panel will require a resume, career narrative and work samples.

A resume catalogs your artistic accomplishments. My resume included a tally of compositions and arrangements, honors and awards, discography, list of major performances, publications and educational certification.

A career narrative describes your passions, obstacles you overcame, defining moments and current challenge. I told my story beginning with the feelings evoked by my first encounter with a jazz recording, summarized my 37 years of technical development, mentioned my recording with drummer Elvin Jones, elaborated on my concerts inspired by composer Heitor Villa-Lobos and concluded with my current work that combines storytelling with music improvisation.

Work samples demonstrate your best musical presentation. I took three excerpts from my Villa-Lobos concerts that featured my improvising and composing. I wanted the review panel to be a little surprised at how different the next track sounded from the previous one but not turned off by a jarring change in volume or sound quality.

Step Two: Make a Shopping List

You won’t get any funding if you don’t ask for it. And you can’t ask for it if you haven’t thought it through.

Create a list of activities and items to achieve your artistic goals. In my case, I wanted to create a new program of music inspired by Seattle history. My list included research, composition, rehearsal, performance and recording.

From this list, build a set of keywords that describe your projects and needs. You will use these keywords when you search for funding later.

Now that you have described what you want, put your best estimate of cost next to each item. I calculated my costs by estimating the number of hours for research, composition, rehearsal and performance multiplied by a reasonable hourly rate, multiplied by the number of people involved.

Step Three: Match Your Needs to a Grant

Take your list of project keywords and budget items from step two and see if you can find matches with eligibility from a specific grant or align generally with an organization’s giving patterns and mission. The closer the match, the stronger a proposal you can submit. Reach out to potential collaborators that could raise the quality of the work, complement your strengths, and match the grant guidelines.

Contact the grant administrator or program manager to pitch your idea against their funding guidelines. Ask them for any advice that would help make your application stronger. If there is not a strong match between your need and their funding, ask if they know of other programs that might fit better.

When I searched for funding, the 4Culture Heritage Site Specific grant aligned with my need to fund research, composition, rehearsal and performance. The deadline was just far enough away that I could assemble a proposal. I scanned the list of eligible project sites to see if they sparked my interest in local music history. One of the sites listed was the Panama Hotel in the International District. I recalled that the building is a location in Jamie Ford’s popular novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In the story, a fictional recording by jazz musician Oscar Holden links two of the main characters and the record was stored in the basement of the Panama Hotel during Japanese internment. From Paul de Barros’ Jackson Street After Hours I knew that Holden worked with pianist “Jelly Roll” Morton and performed in Seattle for six decades beginning in 1919. Holden’s photo graces the book’s cover and he is referred to as the “patriarch of Seattle jazz.” Bingo!

I imagined a performance of new music inspired by Oscar Holden and the history surrounding the Panama Hotel. It would combine my passions for research, composition, performance and collaboration. I approached Jan Johnson, manager of the Panama Hotel, and asked Ford, de Barros, and pianist Deems Tsutakawa to participate. The performances could take place at the Panama Hotel Café during weekends in August.

I asked employees and patrons at the café if they liked the idea. They did. I pitched my idea over the phone to Charlie Rathbun, the grant manager at 4Culture. He was interested in the proposal.

All that was left was to assemble all the material and follow the instructions for submitting the application. I compiled a project description that included a summary, background, identities of collaborators, previous experience, description of my creative process and list of relevant published sources. A few weeks later I was notified that the review committee recommended funding.

Words to the Wise

Miguel Guillen, Program Manager at Artist Trust, thinks of proposals as three-legged stools – budget, writing, and work sample. The stronger each of the legs, the better the proposal will stand up against the evaluation criteria and other applications. Writing and budgeting may not be a musician’s strong suit but just like mastering music, they improve with practice and a good mentor.

Need to see an example? Guillen suggests looking at projects on crowd funding web sites Kickstarter and Indiegogo to see what might compel you to fund another artist. Then use their language as a model for your proposal. Also, many grant programs allow access to past applications so you can see what worked and what was rejected.

Most music support organizations have an annual grant cycle so you need to become familiar with the timing of deadlines (see chart for a sample of local grant opportunities). Find out the specific dates for the current year’s grants and create a calendar to remind yourself of upcoming deadlines. Crafting a strong application takes time, especially if you have not done several and are still building up your set of documents and work samples.

Each grant program publishes material describing what is eligible for funding. Understanding these guidelines is critical to a successful application. Fortunately, each organization employs someone who can help you assess eligibility and strengthen your proposal. Developing relationships with these staff members saves you and the organization time and energy. Many grant programs offer free workshops to guide applicants. Make sure you attend these and learn as much as you can from the grant administrator and the other artists.

Not everything on your budget is likely to be eligible for funding. Some things in your budget may only be eligible for partial funding. Regardless, know what you want and what it might cost. Don’t forget to consider costs for promotion, performance insurance, supplies, equipment and space rental.

Guillen recognizes that it can be challenging to put a dollar value on an artist’s time, especially your own. But review panels will favor applications that include a realistic and thoughtful budget.

On the income side, expecting income from a single source is unwise. Grants, ticket sales, crowd funding, merchandise, royalties, licensing, your own resources, and in-kind donations all need to be considered in a project budget to cover artist fees.

Remember, review committees typically have dozens of work samples to hear in a brief session so they make qualitative decisions within seconds. There is rarely time to allow a theme to develop or an idea to coalesce. Keep each sample short (60 to 90 seconds) and make a selection that varies in tempo, energy and mood.

Guillen advises that collaborating with other artists will help you overcome your blind spots. Negotiating among artists can help transcend individual limits and improve the quality of work. Review committees prefer collaborations.

Understanding your audience and how it might grow is called “community engagement” by funding organizations. Guillen observes that as philanthropic resources shrink, organizations are pressured to get the biggest bang for their cultural support dollar. Community engagement is becoming a more important evaluation criterion that review committees use to compare your proposal against others.

Start counting the attendance at your performances. Survey your email list or social media network to find out basic demographic information. Home zip code, age, education status and frequency of concert attendance are all data that would provide basic descriptive statistics. If you can articulate your community engagement, you can help the funding organization demonstrate progress toward its goals.

A plethora of publications are written on finding grants. I found Demystifying Grant Seeking: What You Really Need to Do to Get Grants by Larissa Golden Brown and Martin John Brown very helpful even though the book describes a process for organizations, not individuals, to seek funding. The book contains detailed instructions for how to organize the grant seeking process, down to what office supplies you need!

Guillen recommends that after you are notified of a decision on your grant application, find out why your grant was or was not funded. This will help you craft stronger proposals in the future. If you aren’t building a stack of rejection letters, you’re probably not pursuing grants regularly and persistently.

Annual Deadline
Max Grant
Grant Name
Fellowship (Music in even years)
Artist Trust
Individual Artist Project
Grant for Artist Project (GAP)
Artist Trust
Arts Innovator Award
Artist Trust
CityArtist (Music in odd years)
Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs
Conductive Garboil Grant
Artist Trust
Historic Site Specific

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