In the fall of 2012, I was in the beginning stages of preparing to quit my day job to pursue freelancing in dance.
I decided to apply for my first grant, because I had been led to believe that the process was something you had to do to be a real artist. I also decided to apply because I am me. Before I go any further with this post, it’s also important that you understand something about my personality and how I got that way.
I’m a Philly chick from a lower middle class family. The two main ways that we identify our people is by our nasal-ly accents and our big old chips on our shoulders. People often say to me, “Philadelphia is an angry town.” They aren’t wrong. We booed Santa.
I’m not an angry person. I do, however, have an edge. I inherited a big-ass attitude, a tireless work ethic, as well as an outsized ambition that comes from some past entrepreneurial ancestor in the universe.
Since I was a child, if I heard any version of the phrase, “we just don’t do it this way,” I would do everything I could to prove them wrong. Actually, I love proving people wrong. It is from this place where my creative fires start burning and I begin most of my ideas.
So, the first grant that I decided to tackle was the Pew Dance Advance grant. I really had no business applying for that Pew grant in the fall of 2012, but somehow, my letter of intent slipped through the first round. My project was based on bringing my mentor, Heather Cornell, to Philadelphia to re-stage repertory from Manhattan Tap on Philadelphia dancers (and lead workshops, panel discussions…basically the whole nine yards that Pew likes to see). From October of 2012 until February of 2013, I wrote draft after draft, had conference after conference at Pew, revised budgets a hundred times, chased people for their own letters of intent, committed multiple venues, and filmed work samples. Despite many people raising their eyebrows at me and subtly (or not) telling me I should throw in the towel, I saw that grant proposal to the bitter end. On the day it was due, I walked the package to the Pew offices in an stupor, and then I literally collapsed with a weeklong flu. (This is why people hire grant writers).
Oh, and I also lost. I tried to be cool and not show my disappointment to anyone I knew, but when I received that rejection email, I still recall the feeling of how it sliced open my chest and brought a flood of hot tears to my eyes.
Weeks later, though, I pulled myself together and decided to listen to the panel feedback. I only recall one quote: “we are amazed you made it as far as you did.”
Back-handed compliment? Maybe. I took it as a challenge.
I dove into business for myself in July of 2013. Once I did, I took this grant thing by the horns. I won two grants quickly and right around the same time. Small But Mighty Arts awarded me $500 to produce the 11th and final installment of Philly Tap Teaser. Then, the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts awarded me $1100 to work with Dorothy Wasserman, Jane Goldberg, Philadelphia dancers and a jazz quartet on new and re-staged tap dance choreography by Dorothy herself. It was just the right amount of beginner’s luck to make me grind on and keep logging projects, shows, collaborations and the inevitable failures.
From 2014-2018, I wrote and won the PA Council award three more times, and I also won three grants from the Philadelphia Cultural Fund. My primary focus of the grant writing in these years was to support new choreography commissions for the swirling tentacles of this organization that eventually became The Philadelphia Community Tap Project. I commissioned choreography from Heather Cornell, (we finally did the project that was originally rejected by the Pew), Max Pollak and Ray Hesselink.
I don’t regret the process of writing those grants for community projects, because it was what I needed to do at the time to crystallize my vision and strategy for my multi-faceted interests in tap dance. I love community work, but I love other things, too, like choreography and performance. I also learned so much by writing these proposals all by myself. Up until five years ago, I took everything associated with my dancing so personally. When you write grants, you have to learn how to separate your passion for your art from the purpose of your art. I had never written previously about exactly what I did and why it should be important to others besides me. I had never had to evaluate my projects as profitable (and therefore, doable).
I learned how to apply my knowledge of business: sales, market analysis, P&Ls and features and benefits to my artistic projects. Similar to how you might launch a widget or a new fashion line, every project needs a budget and a timeline. It needs to have a market. It needs to show some kind of profit margin. And, if it doesn’t, you need to be prepared to write off the loss and have a plan for how you are going to do that.
OK, but here’s where it gets tricky. It is hard to propose a new idea in the field of tap dance, if the market you are in….isn’t even really considered a market.
I live in Philadelphia, where our tap dance scene has been under-funded and under-represented for at least the last twenty years. What that means is: any past market data is not currently co-signed by any major presenter, venue or institution. It’s grass-roots and self-reported. In other words, we are trying to obtain funding for a market that nobody (in a position of arts power, anyway) believes to exist.
Here’s just the tip of the iceberg:
1) none of our academic dance programs have a tap dance major, which means we don’t have any kids training to be professionals in this art form;
2) as a corollary to that, academic teaching positions in tap dance are almost non-existent;
3) a lack of local young choreographers means that no major venue regularly supports new works in tap dance,
4) and, there is no reliable institutional incubator for emerging and established tap dancers or their work,
5) since it’s hard to see new works in tap dance, I encounter local professional dancers who admit they’ve never even seen tap dance performed live,
6) and since we don’t have a professional society or department or standard in this city, I witness provincialism, lowering standards, and a real lack of interest in maintaining the integrity of the art form.
Our art form needs true professionals who are committed to absolute excellence on a daily basis: people who teach at a high level, create at a high level and execute on an even higher level. Tap dance evolved alongside of live music accompaniment, and it will not persist into the future without it. If we can help it, we cannot accept any public, professional presentation of the art form to recorded music. We should not support any entity that allows the art form to be presented incorrectly. Tap dance will cease to exist, unless dancers train and perform and compose and play as strongly as musicians. In Philadelphia, especially, we have such a deep tradition of street hoofing and the artistry it takes to be able to execute at the highest level.
I wake up every day with the drive to preserve the art form of tap dance with honor, respect, and integrity. I received that drive from my mentors and teachers who taught me how to conduct myself as an artist. They gave me everything that they had. I have a deep responsibility to carry it forward. Since I was a child, I’ve given so much back to this city, and for free, because I love tap dance so much.
When I started out five years ago, I wrote grants because I believed I needed to state a case for tap dance. I wrote them because I believed I needed to legitimize the cause.
However, I have decided not to write grants for the foreseeable future, because when I look at how much time I have spent, and how much I’ve received from the city and the state in return, it’s pretty clear: I am wasting my time going this route.
(I am, however, NOT wasting my time continuing to build an infrastructure. Just Google me).
The applications are full of obstacles, hurdles, hoops, moving goal posts - you get the picture. I used to work in corporate America, and I am familiar with how frustrating it can be to follow every last regulation and rule to make that sale or win the customer. However, when I wrote the proposals back then, I was getting compensated for it. When I write grants, I lose money every minute I’m sitting at the computer, trying to write the perfect turn of phrase.
For example, here’s a feedback quote from an application I submitted this time last year:
“The panel felt that you needed to include more info about Philadelphia tap history and why it’s important to tap dance education.”
Where to begin?
Well, first, I focus on the word “more.” More implies that my response lacked information about Philadelphia tap dance history, and that the panel did not have enough information to understand why my organization’s programming is relevant today.
I re-read my response, which I felt included as much information and detail as I could provide in 750 words. Just to give you some context for my expertise in writing about this topic, I was interviewed on a nationally-syndicated public television program about Philadelphia tap dance history and I’ve also done numerous radio interviews on WRTI and G-Town Radio. I think I know my stuff, at least well enough for others to call upon me at times to be a credible source.
What did the panel feel was lacking in this one answer, where I explained the roots of Philadelphia tap dance, how I grew up as a part of the legacy, why I created my first community project in 2008 to preserve and promote the Philadelphia scene, how the project grew over ten years of time to spread the history to hundreds of people, and eventually, how the demand and growth for the educational programming was one of the factors behind my opening of the first dedicated percussive dance space in Philadelphia?
What does “more” mean?
What does “important” mean?
In short, the panel suggests that this project is obviously important to me, but they need some sort of tangible proof, besides audience and participation numbers, that it’s important to anyone besides me.
Remember - my community data and project participation history, while I think it’s impressive, is not blowing up the skirt of anyone else on the panel, and as of this writing, no established venue or presenter is co-signing it.
If it’s really a catch-22, then there is nothing I could write that would answer the question in the manner that the panel would like. See, that’s where the grant game begins - - where my job becomes a rabbit hole investigation of the panel’s current definition of the word “more,” “why,” and “important,” and I write myself into an endless editing corner….for a $700 check.
On top of all of this, there’s no guarantee that these definitions won’t change from year to year.
Which brings me to the numbers, the data, the profits, the proof that any arts project is viable.
Viability in the arts is a relative term, just like success is.
I define viability in the following ways:
- people liking what you do
- projects that contribute positively and necessarily to the field in which you practice.
What I’ve also realized about institutional viability is this: I’ve worked so hard and so consistently at building my own multi-faceted arts business that I’m not even working off the same financial playbook as the grant organizations.
If you want to make artists adopt good business practices, it’s bad business to take weeks of our lives to write grants and prove our worthiness via an online data portal.
I am a busy creative artist actively engaged in making, producing and presenting new projects in tap dance. In order to do that, I created and implemented my own scalable structure…that works. Here’s the proof:
Grant organizations seem to be so afraid of giving artists autonomy over any amount of money that they require them to adopt revenue models that, as far as I can see, have no measurable impact on improving artists’ profitability. I would say they do a good job at decreasing artistic productivity, because now it’s become part of the standard practice to push applicants to watch webinars, set up frequent conference calls with administrators and hire professionals to make the models work the “right” way. The revenue models push us to pad budgets with ancillary professional services, in-kind donations, staff and perfunctory activities to improve the look of the overall yearly budget and therefore, the margin. I don’t understand why current best practices don’t encourage and reward true creative resourcefulness. My time is far better spent making fantastic art with brilliant people and then supporting it with a real donor base, audience sales and new revenue ideas.
Algorithms don’t support real, innovative, emerging and new projects in concert tap dance. What I do doesn’t fit neatly into a profit and loss model that will produce me a big fat check. And I’m totally OK with that.
I understand the need for the process, but I need to get myself out of this process, really, to grow. And, while I do that, I’m going to keep proving everyone wrong.