Strategies for Arts & Humanities Federal Grants

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Ever wondered how to apply for a federal grant for your arts project? This post summarizes some of the current grant and fellowship programs for artists and humanists. Although specific in many ways to federal grants offered by the “cultural” agencies of the U.S. federal governement, the general approaches discussed here are also of use to anyone applying for grants. This post summarizes my August 12 webinar, “Strategies for Federal Humanities and Arts Funding,” which was presented for the University of Michigan’s research development team.

The presentation focused mainly on the two, national “cultural” funders in the United States: the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Since the formal names of these agencies long and cumbersome, in most cases people refer to the NEA and the NEH, or even more briefly as “the Endowment” or “the Endowments.” I started with an overview of the research funding landscape at the federal level and where arts and culture fit in (admittedly it is rather negligible in terms of overall dollars spent). The presentation offered background on both of the agencies, including their structure and how that influences the way that grant programs are formulated and funds awarded, as well as the peer review process that each agency follows.

Next, I outlined a few strategies to establish the “significance” of any proposed work within specific programs at NEH and NEA. Significance is a shorthand for how an application structures the argument for “why this work matters,” which will change depending on the funding opportunity you are pursuing and how the funder chooses applications for awards. The significance section covers the following programs:

  • NEH Fellowships (as of July 2020). These fellowships are awarded to individuals. They can support up to a 1-year term of work and a maximum of $60,000. The typical product of these awards has been a single-authored book, but they can also support work to create a digital publication, digital project, article, or translation. These are the bread and butter awards of the humanities, in fact in many disciplines when you hear of someone “getting an NEH,” this is the program that has given an award. These awards are very difficult to get—typically NEH receives more than 1,000 applications and awards around 80 fellowships, meaning about 7% are funded—and are accurately described as highly prestigious national “awards,” not just any old fellowship.
  • NEH Preservation and Access grants (as of July 2020). These are grants that are awarded to organizations. They range in amounts from as small as $12,000 up to $350,000 (sometimes more) and most support multi-year projects. The typical outcomes of these awards are to improve the physical preservation of specific, humanities-relevant collections (such as books or museum objects), although they also often go toward the digitization of collections, conservation, or similar work. These awards are slightly less competitive, and on average the agency chooses around 15% to be funded. (Beware, however, that awards are often made at levels of funding lower than that requested!)
  • NEA Arts Projects (as of July 2020). These are the most numerous of NEA’s grants and award a minimum of $10,000 and maximum of $100K; the average award is $20,000 to $30,000. These grants require a 1-1 cost share, meaning that each dollar must be matched by the applicant and effectively, a grant cannot cover more than 50% of any single project. Generally projects can last from a few months up to 2 years. All applications are reviewed by panels, which include at least one “knowledgeable layperson,” so these should be written so that a general audience appreciates their importance, even though applications are submitted according to artistic discipline (such as Media Arts, Literature, Visual Arts, Dance, Music, etc). Although the program has multiple deadlines annually, not every discipline/sector is open at each deadline, so check closely to determine the appropriate deadline. Many projects are evaluated on whether they reach underserved communities or how they strengthen the arts. It is always important to demonstrate how these activities will be evidenced in your project, not to merely assert that the project will do this or that.

I selected the above programs based on what I presumed would be of potential interest to the webinar audience, which was made of faculty, staff, and students at the University of Michigan.

Understand the funder!

If you take away one main idea from the presentation, it is that you must understand the funder, their priorities, and their processes when preparing any application for funding. A functional understanding of the agency structure and mission is essential. It is your responsibility as an applicant to convince the funder that your project advances their mission and the type of work that they have a mandate to support. Although you may be a researcher in the arts and humanities, or an affiliate working with projects in these or related fields, remember that it is always your job to present a proposal that convinces the funder you can forward their mission, not the other way around.

A functional understanding of a funder’s structure and mission is essential. It is your responsibility as an applicant to convince the funder that your project advances their mission and the type of work that they have a mandate to support.

This post is based on a webinar that I presented in July, “Strategies for Federal Humanities and Arts Funding.” The video offers more details on how researchers from the arts and humanities can develop strategies for increasing competitiveness in these types of federal grant opportunities. You can view the slides for this webinar at http://myumi.ch/DE8og, or view the video at https://youtu.be/38u7m9Zzrfo. For currently available opportunities, you can view currently open applications on grants.gov.

Researchers at University of Michigan are also welcome to get in touch with the Research Development team to discuss any arts or humanities related grant proposals, and more: https://research.umich.edu/research-development.

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