Dialing for dollars: Artist grants can offer key support

TOAST OF THE TOWN: Asheville-based glass artist Kathryn Adams received an N.C. Arts Council Artist Support Grant to enhance her business. Photo by Eric Thompson

Asheville-based glass artist Kathryn Adams describes individual creatives like herself as “smaller than a small business — more like a microbusiness.” In addition to serving as their own marketer, accountant and inventory specialist, artists also have to look out for opportunities to grow their enterprises.

“Nobody’s going to hold your hand and help you work up the ladder of being an artist,” she says. “You don’t necessarily have a big community of people that you’re seeing at work every single day. It can be isolating.”

And when it comes to applying for grants, it can also be frustrating because what might sound like exciting opportunities may turn out to be off-limits due to requirements concerning things like ethnicity or location.

In 2019, however, Adams learned about the N.C. Arts Council’s Artist Support Grants and attended an informational session. The grants, which range from $500 to $3,000 and target both emerging and established artists, can be used to help recipients create work, improve their business operations or bring their art to new audiences. The Haywood County Arts Council is the lead administrator for Region 17, which serves Buncombe, Haywood, Henderson, Polk, Rutherford and Transylvania counties.

The grants, she explains, support things “that can impact your practice and impact your income. I don’t know any other opportunities like it.”

In 2023, Adams asked for about $1,000 to buy torches, gas lines and regulators for a “hot popping” setup that’s used to finish the cups in her production line. She’d been renting the equipment, and her application detailed how owning it would greatly streamline her working process. As one of 14 Buncombe County artists awarded support in the 2023-24 cycle, Adams has high praise for the program, saying, “After applying and receiving [a grant], I will do nothing but encourage my friends to do it.”

Dismantling barriers

Rebecca Lynch of ArtsAVL, formerly known as the Asheville Area Arts Council, says her organization uses artist feedback to gauge the success of its grant programs. Every recipient, she says, is required to submit a final report that can help her and her colleagues more fully understand what the project accomplished and what challenges, if any, had to be overcome.

“We’re hosting our first-ever grantee celebration at the end of June,” notes Lynch, the agency’s development and grants director. “We awarded 97 grants this year, so it’s an opportunity to gather together and really see that collective impact that this group of arts organizations, arts businesses and individual artists is having in this community.”

Although Arts Build Community grants are also open to individual artists, she says it’s mostly organizations that wind up applying. Yet another program, titled Arts for Schools, targets artists who are partnering with local entities to teach classes or conduct residencies.

To make these grants more accessible and user-friendly for artists, ArtsAVL implemented a Google Form application process. And while applying for an Artist Support Grant requires a few hours of work, including uploading several documents and photos, Lynch says the application for Arts Build Community grants — which are aimed at projects benefiting underserved communities — is very short.

“It’s who are you, write us a paragraph about what you’re doing, give us a budget,” she explains. “There’s little or minimal in the way of attachments. We want this to be something that can be completed fairly quickly and not be a long, exhaustive process.”

Learning curve

Making it easy for artists to apply is also a priority for Buncombe County’s fledgling Creative Equity Mural Project, which funds art that conveys themes of racial equity, reconciliation and restoration. Projects selected for funding will adorn the exterior walls of county buildings. Rachael Sawyer, the county’s director of strategic partnerships, says that when she and her colleagues issued an initial request for proposals in October 2022, it was long and full of legalese.“When we drafted it and started sharing it around with others for input, we heard feedback very quickly and very strongly that that is not going to interest or be accessible to artists,” she reports.

In response, the team pivoted, creating a webpage and informational video, and using the county’s Instagram account to reach out to local artists. “So it was showing up in people’s feeds, which is a different way of getting information than participating in the government procurement program.” But the problems didn’t end there.

Asheville-based artist Jared Wheatley’s proposed mural — one of three chosen for the inaugural round — was slated for the wall of a parking deck at 164 College St. To ensure that the project was factually correct and culturally sensitive, however, the contract required him to consult with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and have them sign off on the design, county spokesperson Kassi Day told Xpress. Wheatley is a member of the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation, which is separate from the Eastern Band.

“They wanted all of this done in a year,” he says, “and I wanted to get it to them in a year. But it’s taken hundreds of years to belittle and remove our culture from this land. To ask an artist to bring together all these different communities … and bring together a mural inside of a year, that’s a lot to ask a community to digest, and that’s really difficult to ask one member of a community to lead that conversation.”

Feeling hamstrung both by the process and by what he calls the county’s “lack of understanding about the challenges that Indigenous members of our community face,” Wheatley did not submit an approved design or request an extension by the March 31 deadline, and the contract expired.

Try, try again

Lynch of ArtsAVL has been writing grants professionally for 20 years, and she sympathizes with befuddled first-time applicants and those who feel that the time invested on a gamble could be better spent elsewhere. But creatives, she maintains, have an “openness to rejection,” understanding that only a small percentage of gallery submissions or publication queries is likely to be accepted.

“Not everything that you put into the kiln is going to come out a success. Not every song that you write is going to land with your audience,” says Lynch, adding, “We’ve got to put it out there. We’ve got to create. We’ve got to do it and then hope for the best.”

To encourage that kind of resilience, the organization tries to give helpful feedback to unsuccessful applicants. Proposals are initially reviewed by ArtsAVL staff to make sure the projects are both eligible and feasible. After that, a review panel consisting of three to five experienced arts community volunteers scores them and, if the proposal is denied, often gives the artist tips on how to submit a stronger application in the next grant cycle.

“If it’s a no, we want it to be, hopefully, ‘Not right now, but come back with some improvements,’” notes Lynch, who’s now in her second year at ArtsAVL. “I’ve seen a couple of these grant cycles go and have seen that happen. An organization came in that was new, had a really exciting [proposal], and we gave them some feedback. And then this year they received a grant for the project.”

Time well spent

Perseverance has also proved key for Asheville-based painter Joseph Pearson, who’s had some success with grant proposals. He received Pollock-Krasner Foundation grants in both 1998 and 2006, among other awards. The foundation is based in New York City, and though the application process was time-consuming, he says it was ultimately time well spent.

THE LONG GAME: Grants have proved key to Asheville-based painter Joseph Pearson’s career. Photo by Caleb Johnson

“The impact was substantial,” Pearson reports. “They were a boost to my professional credibility as well as to my confidence. They provided financial support in times of need that paid for the supplies necessary to do my work, which allowed me to continue to hone my craft.”

Like Adams, Pearson encourages artists who’ve never applied for a grant to do their homework and ask questions well in advance of the submission deadline. Lynch agrees, advising prospective applicants to peruse ArtsAVL’s list of prior grant recipients and contact anyone with whom they might have a connection. And when it’s time to apply, says Lynch, “Keep it simple.”

Often, she continues, “Creatives come to the table with a lot of big ideas. And we’re not going to be able to fund that entire vision and all of those ideas. So think about that: If I were to get $1,000 or $2,500, what concrete piece of this big vision and idea I have is the piece that I want to ask for support for?”


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

One thought on “Dialing for dollars: Artist grants can offer key support

  1. Joseph Reed Hayes

    As a veteran of the arts funding dance, I can say that, in a climate of arts underfunding (which is nothing new, trust me) the odds are against the applicant. Particularly if you deal in words as your art. But everything now and infrequent then, it happens, and the work put into learning the rules and playing the game is worth it, allowing for the realization of long-held dreams. I’ve been lucky enough to succeed a few times, and the miracle of getting funding becomes the magic of completion, and recognition, and advancement. Just remember that applying for grants is not your art, and getting the money is just the start – you actually have to Do The Work.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.