Art proposals are the secret key of the art world game. They are how, armed with nothing more than an idea on paper, you can unlock money and opportunities, like this (deadline: 1 Dec 2014 / 1 Jun 2015), and this (deadline: 31 Dec 2014).
I’ve burned more hours than I can count putting together proposals for myself and friends in need. Do I wish I could’ve spent those hours making art? Yes, but this is the hustle I needed to learn to construct my dreams in reality. It’s changing – soon, knowing how to make a great Kickstarter video will be more important. But for now, Time + Sweat = I got good at art proposals, and I’m sharing what I’ve learned because I think it’s still useful.
I included an actual proposal at the end.
1. Read the guidelines
Stick to the guidelines and word limits. Read about the organization. Find out what projects or people they’ve funded in the past. Is there a pattern? Do they have a preference for innovation, collaboration, networking or community engagement? Highlight the parts of your project that might appeal to them.
2. People are gonna tell you to write your proposal early
Well, they’re right, and they’re not the ones who need to read this. For the rest of us human beings, a confession: every proposal I sent was worked on feverishly at and up to, the last possible moment.
Proposal writing is a dreadful, laborious chore. The best advice I have is to give yourself about 3 days to write the sucker, but for two weeks before, think about your project all the time – who it’s for, why you’re doing it, and how. Hopefully, when you finally sit your procrastinating ass down, your thoughts will have marinated enough, which is half the battle. This allows you to focus on writing clearly.
3. To start, write it out quickly, all at once
Seriously, set a timer for 25 minutes and vomit it on to the page. Don’t stop to edit or think too much until you fill all the sections of your application from beginning to end, once. Then go back and refine. Refine again. And again. Until it’s good.
4. Write it in the language you know best
Everything depends on clear articulation of your idea, plan and intentions. You can’t be thinking clearly in a language you don’t know well. Translate it yourself or ask a friend do it afterwards. But write it in your first language.
Note to funders: You can drastically level the playing field by allowing people to submit proposals in their own language, in addition to English. Proposal writing is real labour – the time required can deter many deserving applicants, especially if it eats into income generating work. In my opinion, the costs of translation should be borne by the funding organization, not the applicant.
5. Write it like a human being
Don’t use jargon. Don’t use big words or complicated sentences. Don’t be vague. Focus. Sharpen your mind and then sharpen your words to reflect your thoughts. Think of the human being reading it on the other end. They don’t need to be impressed. They just need to know what your project is.
Note to funders: Make your application simple to fulfill. Treat the person writing it like a human being. Don’t make it harder than it has to be. See above note about labour.
6. Order your information
Keep the conceptual (your motivation, ideology, objectives) and the practical (logistics, process, timeline) separate. Create sections with headings. Don’t repeat yourself. Make sure every section and sentence conveys new and vital information.
7. Make smart use of bullet points and tables
This breaks up the page and is easier to read than paragraphs of text.
8. Don’t turn your project into something you don’t want to do just to get the grant
It will create inconsistencies and weaken your proposal. Also, what’s the point?
Decide the total budget first and break it down from there – this lets you (and your funder) immediately sense the overall scale of your project. The expectations of a RM20,000 project will be very different to a RM100,000 one.
If the grant amount offered is less than what you need for the entire project, break it down into parts and state which parts you’re applying to get funded (see example proposal below). Do not attempt to fit your project into a vastly smaller budget than you actually need. It will show on paper like a sore thumb.
The budget is not set in stone. If you get funded, it can and probably will change. The point is to demonstrate that you have thought through what you’ll need and what it will cost. Basic research is too easy not to do. E.g. if one of the items is accommodation, find out what the real prices are.
10. Specific details win over arty idealism
Think of the latter as sugar and spice. The details of your project, and how you’re going to get it done is the meat and rice.
11. Treat this as reality bootcamp for your idea
It’s a merciless exercise in getting down on paper exactly what you want to do and what it’s going to take to do it. Write proposals even if (especially if) there aren’t any grants available right now. Give birth to your dreams in ink, so that when opportunity approaches, they can leap off the page like electricity to become something solid in the world.
12. You can do it. I believe in you.
This is the proposal for ‘In The Land That Never Was Dry’, my comics journalism project about water. It was recently awarded a grant from the Krishen Jit ASTRO Fund. This is for educational purposes only, please ask permission before you copy or reproduce any part of it. If you can’t see the reader below, go here.