Tabled: Funding and Social Justice


Tabled, a project by Chlo & Co Dance, takes what has been set aside – “tabled” – and brings it into conversation. The series ran from March through December 2021. The panel “Funding and Social Justice” was held on October 21, 2021 via Zoom and featured San Francisco-based theater-maker Erin Merritt, San Francisco-based administrator/dance artist Andréa Spearman, and Brooklyn-based dancer/administrator Megan Wright. This transcribed and edited version seeks to continue the conversation.

Questions for panelists:

  1. What role does identity play in funding?
  2. How is privilege related to funding?
  3. How can the arts reconstruct funding and grant applications?


Erin: I’m Erin, a theater producer, director, and formerly an actor. I have written my own grants for many years.

Andréa: I am Andréa, and I currently work for Dancers’ Group in San Francisco as an artist resource manager, connecting our local community with events, activities, and opportunities. We currently have our CA$H Grant program that we turned into a yearly program versus twice a year. I also have experience working with the California Arts Council doing grant review panels.

Megan: I am Megan, a dancer and arts administrator. I am currently in Brooklyn, New York, where I have lived for the past six years, but formerly I was in the Bay Area. I am not a grant writer, and I’m not somebody who applies for grants. I’m not a generative artist. I am an artist who gets hired by other people to do their work. I’m also a student at CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies, where I think a lot about government funding. So those are my entry points into this conversation.

Erin: Everything we say tonight will be undergirded by the fact that this country does not support the arts. There just isn’t enough money out there. Even the best-funded people don’t feel like they’re getting any funding. There aren’t enough jobs in the arts for all the artists. There is not enough money being put out there by government grants, foundation grants, corporate grants, any of those things. There’s not enough out there for all the people who need to be funded. It puts companies – I can’t speak to individual artists – in this creepy position where the artistic director is just hitting up big donors, on the phone all the time, schmoozing.

Andréa: It is very stiff competition with grants, so you have to seek out resources and think about what makes sense for your company or you as an individual artist. Go for something a little bit more in your wheelhouse that you might have a better probability of getting, or local grants, or grants specific to your identity. I’m seeing a shift of panel reviewers toward people from all different kinds of communities, geographies, and dance genres. It’s not just the ballet and modern dance. It’s spreading out and getting more perspectives. I think that’s changing the way funds are distributed.

Andrea wrapped in a shawl with a blue sky behind her.

Andréa Spearman, photo by Alexandria Spearman

Erin: The clearer you can be on the identity of your art and yourself, your company, and your mission statement, the quicker and easier it is for funders to know if they want to fund you.

Andréa: You also want to send an invitation so they can start to get familiar with your work, so when your application comes in, they’re like, “Oh, I went to see them.”

Erin: You want to make yourself inevitable for these funders. They see your name so often they start thinking, “That person or that group is doing a lot of stuff.” Funders are susceptible to the same kinds of trends and fandoms as anybody else. If you keep hearing about an artist repeatedly, you start thinking, “I want to know who that artist is.” This is why it’s harder to start getting funding but easier once you get going.

Megan: Remembering that institutions are animated by people who are differently empowered and invested is crucial. Take the time to figure out your values, and then try to find people within institutions who are aligned; they can be your allies. I think a lot about the itchiness of private cultural philanthropy. It’s a uniquely American institution that developed out of massive Gilded Age wealth inequality and continues today. Class identity plays a role in terms of access to individual donors. If you are rich, you probably have rich friends who want to give to your art. If you are not rich, you probably don’t have rich friends who want to give to your art. The resources an individual artist can leverage depends on their class. I would prefer more robust government support for arts and employment so we’re not so reliant on individuals. That would be my jam.

Andréa: The way the Bay Area is set up is, the more you get to know people, the closer you are to six degrees of separation from a Google employee who can do a matching fund. It’s really about networking. For folks who have applied to larger foundations and have not gotten the grant again and again, I ask: Are you on their newsletter? Are you going to their workshops to discuss the application? Take up those opportunities and email those people constantly.

Megan: I have a hard time asking artists, who are already so underpaid, to invest so much time, effort, and labor into the uncompensated work of seeking funding. Seeking funding requires a fluency, a kind of language, behavior, and approach that not everybody has access to. Have either of you had experience with organizations that will compensate you for the time it takes to fill out their grants? That, for me, is a compelling model — a funding body that says, “We know it takes time, and we know this is real labor.” If you’re not wealthy enough to hire a grant writer and you’re doing it on your own, I just don’t feel good about asking people to invest more time and effort into seeking funding when they’re not being paid to do so.

Erin: I’ve seen a move toward simplifying applications. Government funding, whether it’s local or federal, is focused on making sure they’re giving money to people who they won’t get sued to give money to. Those are contracts, and there will be a lot more paperwork, but you also tend to get more money from them. It’s almost easier to get money from them if you have the time and the experience of writing a grant. The way you write for them is also very simple; you just have to answer the questions thoroughly. But it’s a ton of work and a ton of backup material they want.

Foundations are run by people putting money forward, usually from wealthy families. Because they care about art and usually a particular type of art, they’ll be specific. That’s where you want to do emotional writing. You need somebody who’s a great wordsmith. And when you read it, and it makes you cry, that’s when you know it’s ready. It’s much less formulaic.

And then there are the little community grants. You don’t get that much money, but those tend to understand you might not have a grant writer. They’re much more likely to have simple questions. The CA$H Grant is a great first grant to write because it’s like, “We know you’re an artist, and we just want to know what you’re doing.” The people on the panel who are reading your application are your peers. They are other artists. And there will probably be somebody on a panel who actually knows you.

A headshot of Erin wearing a blazer and smiling.

Erin Merritt, photo by Lisa Keating

Andréa: With the Dancers’ Group CA$H grant, we’ve taken time to make the application simpler and easier to understand in the past few years so it’s a user-friendly experience for artists and organizations applying.

Erin: If you are able to get funding, it tells you somebody believes in you. This is also what makes it hard when you don’t get funding. I want to temper that by saying to people, if you don’t get funding, it’s not because you’re not worthy. That same exact application, if you put it to another panel, you could get it. It’s matchmaking.

Panelists are reading thousands of applications, and they get tired. If you’re using any kind of corporate speak, like, “We’re going to create a revolution,” it sounds exciting, but I don’t know what you mean by “revolution.” Fancy language is less important.

Andréa: Abstract language sounds good for a press release, but not for an application. I’d recommend finding a mentor, even a peer mentor, just someone who has been applying for a while. It also helps to get the history of what has been funded and how long it’s been funded so you can see where and when foundations or other organizations have given their money.

Erin: You don’t need to apply everywhere because applying takes so much time and energy. You find the agencies whose wording matches the way you talk about yourself because you’re going to want to mirror their language in your application.

Andréa: If you are a group or artist doing an annual event, you have to bring new life to it every year. You have to say why this year is different than the last.

Megan: In the pandemic, we’ve seen a focus and curiosity around mutual aid and alternative sources of funding and community care. I would love to hear from both of you what your experiences have been.

Andréa: A few people or organizations have been getting funds for re-granting. That way, they can trickle the money down into their community. It’s about looking for those smaller organizations to support you, and for you to support them in the same way.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to receive as many newsletters as possible from foundations, arts venues, dance companies, etc. You have to dedicate yourself. If you want to be a full-time career artist, it’s the work you have to do. Set aside time to really dig into those resources.

Erin: I want to second that. You also want to meet funders even if you’re not getting funding. You can start a relationship with them and say, “Hey, we’re not eligible for your money right now, but I want to talk to you about what we do.” It’s worthwhile having those conversations and getting to know funders as people because it’s their job to be responsive to the needs of the field.

Audience question: What are the panelists’ thoughts about when an artist who’s consistently gotten grants stops getting them?

Andréa: That’s something I’ve recently seen. I think of it as an opportunity for that artist to shift. If you’re doing the same thing year after year, that’s great for you and the audience you serve. But now funders need to shift and fund somebody else. That should be a wake-up call or an opportunity for that artist to think, “Am I getting stagnant in the work I’m presenting?” How can I move differently, collaborate with somebody new, take a break for a little while, or add a new medium or layer?

Erin: Funding is never guaranteed. It’s an ugly reality, especially as you get older and you start to need more money because you have family or health issues. It’s a tricky switch from early career.

Megan: It’s definitely not set up right, particularly if you are a generative artist and you’re hiring other artists who are then dependent on you. How transparent can you be about your granting situation?

Erin: Your artists did not sign up for the risk, so do not make any promises until you have money in the bank.

Megan: Thinking of it as a lottery is much more valuable. You detach your ego a little bit so you’re not wounded if you don’t get funding. You don’t expect that it’ll come to you.

Erin: I don’t think the arts are sustainable, and it’s not our fault. The arts will never pay for themselves because they are collaborative art forms. You need a lot of people to make them, and you need almost as many people to come and see them. They’re never going to make enough money to pay everybody a living wage. You’re always going to need contributed income of some sort. The way capitalism works is it wants you to keep getting bigger and bigger. But if you make more stuff, you have to pay more people, which means you need to make more money.

Megan: I think we’re at a point in the United States’ arts infrastructure where we have arts organizations that shouldn’t exist anymore. Why not plan to close your organization after an extended period? If we’re not going to be sustainable in the way the rest of the economy understands as sustainable, why not embrace that transiency?

Megan wears a red suit and points her foot in front of her with her torso hunched over.

Megan Wright, photo by Jaqlin Medlock

Erin: It goes back to our first question about how important identity is. If I started something because there was a need at that moment, and then there came the point where there wasn’t the same need, it is a natural place to close.

Audience question: Is arts journalism still helpful for artists? Does arts writing help artists pursue grants?

Erin: There are a lot of online reviewers, and people tend to know who they are and if they are trusted or not. Sometimes a quote that expresses an experience can be valuable.

Andréa: Previews are still helpful for artists. Feedback is also important. Will that help with granting? Sometimes yes and sometimes no, depending on the grant.

There is a privilege in having somebody speak on your behalf. Collecting articles and feedback on social media is great. Capture them and keep those screenshots in a folder. If it’s a more intimate audience, email those people from your event, “We would love to hear about your experience if you have the time; here’s the form.”

Megan: Writing can do what artists might otherwise look to funders for, which is to feel like you’re not alone. It gives you feedback and a place to feel seen outside the context of seeking funding, which is where artists spend so much of their time justifying themselves and talking about their work.


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2 Responses to “Tabled: Funding and Social Justice”

  1. stanceondance

    Absolutely! Thanks for lending your voice to it, Andrea!

  2. Andre Spearman

    I thought this was a very diverse panel with deep knowledge in the arts world. The tips were very insightful and actionable.

Comments are closed.