Vermont Arts Council

On Impact

Spending a day with the Arts Impact Grant panel was an exercise in appreciation. I’ve done some work with the Poetry Out Loud program and have served on Arts Council committees, but have never seen a grant panel at work until recently. As a Council board member, I was an observer. What became increasingly clear to me throughout the day how much thought, preparation, and meticulous hard work goes into the process.

There were applications from tiny new organizations, large, well-established institutions, and everything in between: schools, libraries, community and civic organizations, theater and dance groups, senior centers, and youth service programs. I was amazed at the quality and variety of projects presented. From what I could tell in reading the proposals beforehand, each of the applicants were already doing good work. I didn’t envy the panel’s job of selecting projects to fund.

A Matter of Perspective

The panel itself consisted of a half-dozen individuals with experience both in the arts and in arts organizations, all intimately familiar with what it takes to produce an arts program that will have a positive effect on the community it serves. Following strict grant criteria, the panelists were looking for potentially high-quality art experiences which would include partnerships between arts and non-arts groups and reach out to new audiences, including underserved populations. A successful applicant had to show measurable goals and a clear evaluation plan as well as a reasonable budget with appropriate compensation for artists. It was important to have a plan for promotional activities, and critical to provide ADA-compliant access.

Langdon Street Alive referenced the success of this pocket park in Montpelier.
Langdon Street Alive referenced the success of this Montpelier pocket park in their application.

Panelists read all the proposals in advance. Before each proposal was discussed with the group, the “Primary Reader” would present the project to the panel as a whole and a “Secondary Reader” would follow with further comments and points to consider. Some of the panelists had to recuse themselves during the discussion of a proposal, due to a professional or personal connection with one of the applicants. This happened infrequently, and in every case there was a thorough, detailed discussion of each project submitted.

I have served on other grant panels in the past, but have never seen this kind of presentation. It seemed an excellent way to focus attention on each applicant in turn. Whatever reservations a panelist might have had on first reading, it is impossible not to give the material serious attention after two respected colleagues have done so. By the same token, a particularly appealing application can lose some of its allure once inconsistencies in the budget have been pointed out. The panelists are serious about their work — evaluating, presenting, discussing, and finally scoring the applications.

Getting it All Down

Staff members from the Arts Council were present and took notes throughout the day. As Sarah Mutrux, who facilitated the panel, explained, “That way, if one of us misses something we generally capture it elsewhere.”  Scoring guidelines were visible always. We took 10- to 15-minute breaks after each hour-and-a-half discussion period, and were very well fed. I’d come back for the brownies alone, any day.

High school students work with professional musicians in Music-COMP.

Panelists gave scores out loud following discussion of each project, but had the opportunity to reconsider (and several of them did) at the end of the day, before the numbers were “locked in,” the scores totaled, and the applicants ranked in order. The scores were not terribly far apart. It was an intense, animated, carefully structured process, with strong emphasis on the criteria and on the effect — the impact — that a project was likely to have.

The entire group of applicants was impressive, and the best-articulated, most clearly defined and promising projects emerged at the top of the list. Applicants whose projects were not funded this year will receive feedback so that they can come back again another year. Maybe I’ll come back too!

Image top left: Students can choose from many hands-on activities at the Vermont Performing Art League’s Vermont International Festival.

FY2017 grant recipients

Reeve Lindbergh