By : Sam Potrykus and Cliff Notez
8 min read
1. Cliff, what is your experience as an artist trying to apply for grants in Boston?
Cliff: So I got introduced to grants through my really early work in nonprofits and when I worked in the city. I was originally part of this Americorps fellowship which obviously ran on a lot of grant funding. I only spent 4 years working for other people before I became a full-time artist, and before I was making music that said fuck the system, I was spending a lot of time in the system and working for the system. I was asking questions, learning about access, and equity as it related to funding being dispersed in different communities. Unfortunately, at the time, I only spent enough time in that space to make myself angry. I was learning about structural/institutional racism but not enough to make any actual change, just enough to get upset.
It wasn’t until I became a full-time artist and started trying to build my own company and nonprofit, that I started understanding the game. All this information was out there, but the access, or understanding how to get that access didn’t become obvious until my back was against the wall. I started surrounding myself with people who were still in that system doing the work, people that I trusted, loved and people who believed in me: Cat Morris, Tim Hall, Matt MacArthur, Blair Benjamin, Kara Elizabeth Ortega.
I think they all sensed my frustration, but also my potential to harness that frustration into something bigger. I'm pretty sure it was Matt, who introduced me to the Lab Grant, and then Kara who introduced me to the opportunity fund. and I was like…wait what…ok how do I get all my people to have this same opportunity. That was like 2018 maybe?
2. Have you noticed any changes in availability/access to funding since first trying to apply to grants yourself?
Cliff: I think what I’ve learned about grants in the arts, they, like most things made in America, have a history rooted in racism; an exclusion (intentionally and unintentionally) I remember when I first started to search for grants. Most of them didn’t seem like they were made for me. A lot of those barriers came in the language used on the grant. From jargon to the requirements needed to even apply (degree requirements, medium restrictions, resume requirements). In context, I knew that I had the degrees, resume, and could make art in any medium I really wanted to, but what turned me off was that I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to share this wealth in grants with my friends, my partners, and colleagues. Even reading these grants can be intimidating. I was a believer that a rising tide is what truly rises all ships, so I can't really win unless everyone around me is winning.
I believe I wasn’t the only one who noticed this, there’s more people with a similar background to me, who are of color, from inner cities, who are now working on the senior staff of these grants, recognizing the barriers that are put in the language of these grants and we’re seeing grants become easier to apply to. We’re seeing these people as the higher ups recognize that there were gaps in marketing efforts to certain demographics.
Most importantly, we’re seeing grants be awarded to more people of color which is so important. It makes it much more convincing that a place is safe and for us when our closest friends are already going inside that space and benefited from it. I’m hoping that these trends I’ve noticed aren’t just my imagination and that organizations are taking note.
3. Let's talk about the MCC Recovery Funds. How did you first hear about this opportunity? Is this something our peers can tap into?
Cliff: Michael Bobbit haha, every time I see him he reminds me. I never forgot, but him doing that answers the previous question. Think about it; the Exec. Director of the MCC makes sure to remind me to apply for free funds every time he sees me. I’m not even sure if the previous ED knew my name despite the work that I and my colleagues were doing across almost every medium in art for years. But now, I have this person, who looks like me, making sure that I have access to funding.
That fact alone speaks mountains. I’m also now a part of the Create the Vote Fellowship, which is now taking those frustrations I had when I was younger and turning them into action items and goals I can approach with new knowledge to complete and achieve them. Now I’m all the way tapped into arts advocacy, which is part of the reason I jumped at being able to do this interview with you. Recognizing that I’m an ambassador of sorts or at least I’m trying to be.
4. We feel a serious disconnect between working artists/grassroots organizations and the funding institutions trying to reach them.
Do you think granting organizations need to do a better job of reaching the community or is it on artists to stay vigilant for such resources?
Cliff: I think yes, granting organizations do need to do a better job of reaching out to the community, and yes I do feel like artists should stay vigilant for such resources. However, having been and continue to be on both sides, I recognize the barriers both face. As an artist, yes we should be constantly looking for more resources to better our practice as a whole, how else do we become better artists. But I totally get, especially if you’re from a historically marginalized identity, why we would think an organization or institution giving money away can come off a little sketchy. Like what’s the catch, am I signing my life away, etc. I dont think it’s unwise to have those reservations. As an administrator, I recognize the pressure alot of orgs are under to make these opportunities happen as well. Working with several donors, the government, etc. to Get this pool of money. Then having to jump through a bunch of hoops to satisfy those donors, so they can keep giving you money, then getting the money on a really late time line which only gives you so much time to advertise and reach out to the communities you would like, but may not have access to because, historically, building an organization that can be trusted by billionaire philanthropists with their money doesn’t exactly align you perfectly with those demographics, geographically, or socially. But as an org, you actually do believe in what you are doing and have the right mission.
One key thing I learned about this cluster-fuck of a vicious cycle I’m trying to describe, is that a lot of these orgs with the right mission trying to reach our demographics are kept on a short leash. A lot of times we see Use-it-or-lose-it funding, where if an organization is given 500k of grant funding to give away, and only enough people apply for them to give 400k, the following year they will probably only get 350k or 400k if they’re lucky, which I think is another structural problem I can continue to learn about in the CTV fellowship and figure out a solution for. But in the meantime, while we as artists are being uncertain about genuine funding, and orgs are swinging and missing their demographics, we are all suffering and the cultural sector is being devalued every year by people who never see any of the action on the grass roots level. I think that's why it’s urgent for me to speak out about this, because although yes, I've been able to receive several grants over the last half decade that may run dry if I don’t become an advocate for more and more people to receive funding that we all need. If we don't continue to rise the tide, no ships will sail...period. So I think there’s a third factor on this list in the question you asked. You have Orgs doing better outreach, absolutely, Artists being more vigilant for resources, sure, but I think it's even more important for artists, like myself who have been privileged enough to garnish these resources to better my own practice, self and organizations, to not hoard this knowledge for themselves. The more the community wins the more we all win.
5. On that note, how can artists find out about these types of resources on an ongoing basis?
Cliff: 1. You can subscribe to my podcast Lust for Live Boston. It’s a weekly roundup of events every Wednesday, but I also do a portion of the show called Cultural Updates, where I’m keeping my eye out for opportunities like this. The podcast is shining a light on the Massachusetts cultural scene, but the segment is hopefully making sure that same scene continues to grow and blossom. You can find the podcast on any platform.
2. Bookmark the site www.artsake.massculturalcouncil.org. This is a blog run by the MCC which I stay on like a hawk. Every other week or so they have a specifically titled column which always includes the word “opportunities” in it. Once you see that word make sure you read that post. It’s always gonna be a roundup of new grants announced, fellowships, residency, calls for art, but it's not overbearing and hard to read.
3. That page is usually New England and sometimes Tri-State area listings of opportunities, but at least once a month I just do a Google search for things like Film Grants 2022, Performing Art Grants, National Art Grants to see what pops up. There’s a lot of national and global grants that are annual, and yes, I can see how that's intimidating, but billions of people are just as intimidated. It took me a couple years of not getting the LAB grant and repeating the same process each year to finally get it. Honestly, I'm really glad I didn’t get it those first couple years because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have much faith in my project. I didn’t have the time to commit, etc. But I would always see who got the award and study what made them successful. I got better at answering grant questions, and through that process not only did I get funding, I got a clearer vision of what my overall goals as an artist were and how to achieve that. Apply for grants if nothing else. The worst thing that will happen is that you don't get the grant, then you just keep applying. Trust me it’s all for the better. What’s the worst that will happen if you don't apply? Nothing. Nothing will happen to you. That's kinda my point.
Originally published in-print in Boston Compass Newspaper #150 September 2022
Check out all the art and columns of September's Boston Compass at www.issuu.com/bostoncccompass