Maori Karmael Holmes
Associate Director, Leeway Foundation
In 2005, I was encouraged to apply for a grant by an associate who worked at the Leeway Foundation. I was fortunate enough to receive two grants and one award, which encouraged me to keep on my path as an artist. I’d only recently received my MFA and was beginning to define my practice. It was the first grant I’d ever applied for or received. I began to apply for other grants. Some I got, some I didn’t. But receiving that first award, gave me the confidence to try.
I was later approached by the foundation to produce a special event. I had previously worked in art administration. That producing job turned into a consultancy, and then came the offer of a full-time position as communications director. In the summer of 2011 I became the associate director.
The duality of my life–as both arts administrator and artist–is complicated. On one hand, it allows me to witness directly the overwhelming joy and gratitude that artists feel when they are awarded a grant. We often hear that being awarded validates their work and lets them know they are “seen”. Over the years, several grantees and awardees have shared that the act of applying for funding was a last-ditch effort to make a career out of doing what they love.
On the other hand, some folks apply, crossing all their ‘t’s’ and dotting their ‘i’s’ and still don’t get funding, even when (I think) they’re deserving. When this happens – and it happens quite a bit – it is heartbreaking. One artist whose work I thought was outstanding applied for the same award three years in a row, and was rejected by three different panels. The artist took each previous panel’s advice and improved their application each time. As a former grantee, I know exactly what goes into the application process; the hours spent agonizing over the perfect wording to best describe your craft and purpose. But this artist never received the grant. After the third attempt, they didn’t apply again. My heart sunk. Our submission process is an emotional one that requires the artist to describe intimate details of their lives. To not want to go through that for a fourth time – after it not being enough each time before – is understandable.
Those of us on the staff at Leeway have no input in the decision-making—it is up to an independent panel of peer artists and cultural workers. This is a great thing because it enables us to assist applicants with presenting themselves in the best light and in many ways protects our relationships in the greater arts community.
I’ve sat in on more than twenty panels since being on staff. It is an arduous process, which involves a group of 3 to 5 peer artists and cultural workers who receive applications in advance and then spend either one or two days (depending on the funding program) evaluating applications by reading them thoroughly and then come to consensus on which artists should be awarded. The panelists are supplied with the foundation’s guiding principles on it’s mission of art for social change and asked to do the very hard work of saying “no”—which none of them ever wants to do.
We consider ourselves “kinder and gentler” than most. We call folks when they are missing elements from their applications and work with people who are novice users of certain kinds of technology. We are often the first to give an emerging artist funding. We allow folks a lot of leeway, if you will, because we know that what they’re doing as artists and activists is important, not only to them, but to their communities.
This is where trusting the process comes in. Though I cannot help but to be emotionally involved with some of the work of the artists that we fund, I also understand that the panelists we choose ultimately have the best interest of the foundation and its applicants at heart.
There is often a mystification of philanthropy, when in reality, it’s just people making decisions—people with their own logic for what does and doesn’t work. I have applied for (and received) other individual grants since my early days with Leeway and I always remind myself of this fact when I get rejected. As I work to pick myself up and dust off my expectations, I relish the fact that a) I can apply again, b) some other panel will be interested in my work, and c) when I sing Jermaine Jackson’s 1989 single “Don’t Take It Personal” (sic), it always makes me feel better.
Written with assistance from Julie Zeglen
Published February 2013