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Monday, May 16, 2005

Fuck Other Forms of Art

Fuck Other Forms of Art
How to Get Grant Money
By Jef Czekaj

Ron Rege Jr. said in The Comics Journal #205, "Museums, foundations, governments give money and support to dumb-ass pursuits like painting, poetry, dance and photography... fuck other forms of art." And we certainly agree with this sentiment.

Mr. Rege, hyperbole aside, is absolutely right. Look around you. You're surrounded by crappy art. From the devil girl paintings in the coffee shop, to the faux-Kerouacian poetry jams Monday night at the local rock club, to the local writers "workshop" at the library, we are constantly bombarded with passionless, unimaginative, derivative art. And look at the fine print: many of these pursuits are funded at least partly by grant money. Someone is paying that woman to hang doll heads on the wall and call it "transgressive." That "chapbook," (no, no, it's not a zine) is funded by the local Arts Council. Why don't comic artists get this money?

I have a theory: They don't ask for it.

As comic artists, we are constantly reminded that our work has no place in the "fine art" world. Sure, journalists will occasionally write the "Bang! Zoom! Comics Ain't Just Superheroes Anymore!" fluff piece, but for the most part, even the most informed and interested citizen has nary a clue about our work.

I was recently on the phone with someone from my town's arts council. She mentioned a piece in the New York Times Magazine in which she thought I'd be interested. I was excited because I knew that the Times had recently run comics by the aforementioned Rege as well as Ivan Brunetti, and was interested to hear how these comics had affected this non-comics artist. Turns out, she had seen a fashion spread written by Kevin Smith (and drawn by some popular mainstream hack). Kevin fucking Smith. This arts council member, a visual artist who presumably has a clue about art, thinks that anyone who cares anything about comics would be interested in Kevin Smith. This is horrendously typical.

So we, as comic artists, don't apply for grants assuming that we don't have a chance. This is baseless and just plain wrong. Getting grants is easy. You can get grant money.

I have gone to France for free. I've had my comics project funded by the local electric company, in which I was able to pay high school kids $500 each to draw a comic. I've gotten money for just being a "comic artist," without having to create anything. In addition to cold hard cash, I've also gotten lots of free publicity, good contacts and met lots of artists in other mediums who I would have never run into if I just sat around reading the Journal and waiting for SPX.

Applying for and hopefully receiving grants not only benefits you directly as an artist but also serves the loftier goal of "legitimizing" comics as an "art form." But mostly, it's about gettin' paid.

Here's how to get a grant:

1. Do your research.

The first thing you must do is find sources for funding. A quick and easy way to do this is to call your local arts council. The town in which I live has a great arts council that does a tremendous public outreach each year to tell local artists about possible grants. Your town most likely also has an arts council, though it might not be as well-funded or organized. Give them a call. Tell them what you do and see if they have any ideas where you can get money either locally, at a state, or a federal level. Local grants will be easier to get but will most likely give you less money than the highly competitive national grants. People who work at local arts councils are city workers who are probably pretty desperate to find someone who is actually interested in the arts. Be nice to them and they'll be nice to you. There are plenty of books on the subject. You're going to have to page through them and find grants that seem applicable to your work. You can also look online, duh (start at http://www.nea.gov/).

Okay let's assume you've found a grant that seems appropriate to you. Next step is filling out the application.

2. Follow directions.

This might sound painfully obvious, but there's no quicker way to have your application overlooked than to not follow directions. The committee that awards the grant is, more likely than not, overwhelmed with applications and looking for any reason to get rid of many of them. An incomplete or incorrectly completed application is an easy way to get thrown into the "rejection" pile. I've been shocked by how many compliments I've gotten on my applications, when all I really did was follow the directions. Artists are incredibly flaky. You will have one up on a large percentage of them if you curb your, no doubt, genius creative energies for ten minutes and follow the freaking directions.

If a grant asks for slides, send slides, not your comic and an explanation why you're not sending slides. If they ask for an artist's statement, write one. Don't claim that your "work speaks for itself." It doesn't.

For those of you who don't know, an artist's statement is a horrible document in which you have to spell out exactly why you are an artist and what is you are trying to accomplish. Of course it's ridiculous, and of course spelling out exactly "what you are trying to say" in your art is ludicrous. You'll find yourself writing the sort of thing that any artist with any shred of dignity or integrity would never say. You'll hate yourself. I am fairly certain that Gary Panter has never written an artist's statement. You, unfortunately, are going to have to bite the bullet on this one and lay it on thick.

Ask your pretentious art school friends about making slides and writing artist's statements. They spent tens of thousands of dollars to learn how to take slides of their paintings and look, now they're working in the art supply store right alongside you. Tee-hee.

3. Be neat.

Once again, this might sound like something your high school guidance counselor told you, but this gives the committee one less reason to misjudge your work. Go to Staples. Buy a nice presentation folder. Include a cover sheet that details the contents of the application. Don't handwrite anything.

4. Call the organization awarding the grant and ask for help.

This might seem like "cheating" to you, but it's someone's job at the organization to help you. Ask them what they like and don't like in an application. Read or e-mail your application to them and ask for suggestions. Once again, if you show an interest in their organization they'll be, most likely, happy to help. I've had people walk me step-by-step through applications telling me exactly what terms to use and what not to use.

5. Talk about MAUS.

A lot. I know, I know, we in the "comics elite" are bored to tears of the Spiegelman high concept, but everyone's heard of it. Anyone who has any exposure to art in general will know that it's a "serious" and "important" Pulitzer-prize-winning work. I often include photocopies of excerpts of it in my application, even if it has nothing really to do with me. It's a quick way of making the point that "comics sure are serious." Understanding Comics is another good book to name-drop. Assume that the people who will be reviewing your application know nothing about comics other than what they've seen in the newspaper. This may be a bit of an exaggeration, but it's better to make yourself too clear than not clear enough.

7. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT talk about other comics artists.

They won't know who you're talking about. I know, I know, we all looove Chris Ware and Dan Clowes. But guess what: Nobody outside our little insular indie comics clique cares. Honest.

8. Be willing to make yourself a novelty act.

I'm fairly certain that I was awarded my first couple of grants purely because I made a good case that comics are worthy of being funded. It had very little to do with my work. I was told by several sources that my application sparked debate amongst the members of the committee. You'll find that you can use the misconceptions about comics to your advantage. People somehow think comics are still a popular art form, adored by young and old alike. Work this very incorrect belief to your advantage. Play up the egalitariannature of the form, highlighting its accessibility to people of all economic backgrounds. Local arts councils love to prove that they're not elitist.

8. Be professional and take yourself seriously.

Even if you've only Xeroxed 20 copies your own crappy comic, you're a self-publisher. Learn the "fine arts" lingo. Call yourself an "emerging" artist. Use the word "community." Once again, talk to your art school friends. Feed the language used in the organizations web-page and description of the grant back to them in your application. Don't try to be funny or whimsical in your application, even if your work is both. You are not writing ad copy; you are not trying to sell books; you are not penning a press release. You are trying to convince a group of people that your art is valuable to them and their peers. Keep in mind that your application will be reviewed by people who are at least somewhat educated.

9. Make connections.

Attend local arts council and town meetings. Talk to people in other disciplines whose work you respect. Talk to your neighbors. My first project came about through someone I met in the swimming pool at the YMCA. Go to local artists' gallery openings. Attend open studios. You'll be frustrated by the number of crappy artists who have studios much larger than your entire apartment. You'll be shocked to see what absolute shite is taken seriously in the art world. But you'll find free food. And wine. Lots of wine. You'll find that the artists' work that you like are either already into comics or at least open to the idea of them. Have a drink with them.

10. Stop being such a goddam snob.

(Well, at least in public). You're going to have to talk to many, many people who will be excited to talk to you about comics. They love Cathy. They can't get enough of Family Circus. Bite your tongue. Try to find a middle ground. Two words: Peanuts. I met a gentleman who had been working at city hall for 30 years. He had every Hagar the Horrible since he had started work in binder clips mounted on the bulletin board in his office. He showed me his favorites. And you know what: Hagar the Horrible's pretty goddamn funny.

11. And stop being so self-centered, too.

You know, maybe you shouldn't get any money to publish your comic about how sucky it is to work in the coffee shop. Perhaps you should write a grant that involves other members of the community. I developed a project in which I, with help from the local youth program, worked with high school students to write and draw a graphic novel about a historic event in my town. It was incredibly frustrating and nerve-wracking, but really, really worthwhile. It might be worthwhile to talk in a little bit more detail about this project.

A grant like this is much more complicated. You will need to involve many more people, probably have to find a sponsoring agency, and generally ask for a lot more help, but this will establish yourself in the community. Plus you can write yourself a salary into the grant application. I was lucky enough to work with two people who have had plenty of experience in this field.

My project received something called a "matching grant." A matching grant is one in which the grant giver will provide money to you equal to the amount of money you receive from other sources. This was daunting at first. We were requesting over $10,000, how could we raise another $10,000? It was surprisingly easy. I learned that the matching funds that you provide can also take the form of services or donations. Thus, my time and that of other artists who had volunteered their time became valuable contributions to the project, once we assigned a dollar value to our time. Highwater Books agreed to donate books to the participants; a local art store, art supplies; a local paper factory, paper. A local comic store was willing to give a discount to the kids that were involved in the class. All of these small donations were very easy to get (usually just a simple call to the businesses) and quickly added up to the needed matching fund.

Once we were awarded this grant, we found that, indeed, money does attract money. With the first grant approved, it was simple to convince others to follow suit. With the money, we were able to pay myself, several staff members, the teen-age participants and eventually pay for the printing of the 96-page book (Fire on the Nunnery Grounds).

Ok, now you've got yourself a big wad of cash.

Most foundations require some sort of follow-up report explaining how the money was spent. Do this. It needn't be long or complicated, but should be complete. If you receive any press for your work let them know. Use their name and logo in interviews, publications, and press releases, they'll like the publicity. Keeping the foundation happy will help your cause if you ever want to apply for future money. Plus, it's just the decent thing to do.

Now go get some more money.

And oh yeah, use the money as it's supposed to be used: to allow yourself to grow as an artist. Make great comics.