Grant Writer and Multi-disciplinary artist Julia Barbosa Landois shares advice on Funding Strategies for Artists

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your artistic background

Sure. I’m a multidisciplinary artist. I do performance, video installation, and works on paper.  I grew up in San Antonio and moved to Houston in 2017 with my family. I worked in the arts for a long time as an educator and exhibitions coordinator before I became the Grant Writer and Fiscal Sponsorship Manager for Fresh Arts, and I’m currently working on a big performance project about motherhood and reproductive justice that was funded by National Performance Network


How did you go about securing the funding for that project?  

I think the first thing to note is that I had my idea for the project first, rather than finding this grant and trying to fit a project to that opportunity. This was a project that I started working on probably 2 years ago, already had a preliminary draft for, and then started looking for funding opportunities later.


One of the things I keep around is a running list of opportunities that are good for my current projects, or maybe for something that I might do in the future. I already knew of this NPN grant, but didn’t yet have something that completely fit. So as I was starting to think about this project developing, I had the knowledge of that grant in my back pocket, and found the right time to apply. 


Where do you start with research when you’re building that kind of a list?  

Well, I’ve been doing the research for a while and so now I have this running list and a spreadsheet with dates…I’ve gotten really sophisticated. But it really started with a few things:

  1. Signing up for newsletters (some great places are Fresh Arts, Creative Capital, Fractured Atlas, and Glasstire).

  2. Looking at artists whose work I really like and whose careers follow a path that is similar to the one that I’ve envisioned for myself and seeing who funds those artists

  3. Looking at places where I might really love to show my work. Do they have open calls? Do they have grants? Are their artists funded by X, Y, Z? 


So we’ve talked a little about grants, but what are some other funding strategies that you’ve seen success with?

There’s grants and then there’s awards. A grant is often project specific, but sometimes there are open awards like Artadia or USA Artists Fellowship that are just like, “Hey, you’re a really amazing artist. We just want to give you some money and you can do whatever you want with it.” Those can be much harder to get, but  there are no restrictions on what you can use it for.  


I’ve also seen our fiscally sponsored projects have success working with foundations, teaming up with a school district or the city government to offer programming, or with universities that may have research or exhibition dollars that are related to the subject matter that they work with.


I know another one that is popular, especially for film projects, is crowdfunding. Can you speak on that at all?

Yeah I see that definitely the most often with film projects, but I have seen it with other projects.


With grant funding, you have one funder to whom you are accountable. With crowdfunding, you have potentially hundreds of people to whom you are accountable. You really have to balance  how worth it is to the person who’s donating. And also is it worth it to you in terms of the incentives that you are providing and the amount of time and money that it takes for you to provide those incentives? That can be a difficult calculation sometimes.


For example, when you’re making a film you can offer an incentive like early access. You make one film and then that link to early access is just something that can be replicated and pasted repeatedly. Or if you make an album, you can make one recording then have it mass produced. 


What about some other pros and cons to different funding sources?

With grants, the reporting process varies wildly. Some people will give you the money, expect a one page report and are just very happy to empower you to do your project. Others want five different pages of narrative plus a follow up budget. 


It’s important to think about, again, what your time is worth. And if they’re giving you a very small amount of money, then it may not be worth all the time that you will spend reporting and you may want to try to raise that small amount, like if it’s a thousand dollars, with something else like crowdfunding.


So it sounds like determining which funding source to aim for also includes having a clear idea of how much you actually need to raise

Yeah and if you can, spend a lot of time on that budget and even have different versions of it. 


Is there a fat version and a lean version? Is there a version where some of it is funded by one opportunity and some of it by another? Are you putting all of your eggs in one basket? Does your project have multiple parts? If you want to have an exhibition, a public event, and a printed catalog, maybe you can have a budget prepared for each of those and use them to apply for different funding sources.


Do you ever have to compromise your artistic vision for the sake of financial restraints or other practical considerations?

I would say that happens most often with having to pare things down in a way that you did not anticipate. Not necessarily in terms of vision but more in the sense of the project’s scale.


Usually if someone is privately donating to you, contributing to your crowdfunding campaign, or giving you a grant, they’re probably already aligned with your vision, but there may just not be enough resources for you to get all the things done that you had hoped to do. 


What additional tips or advice do you have when it comes to writing project proposals?

If it’s a grant, it can be helpful to look at who was awarded this grant in the past. What kind of artist were they? What kind of project was it? What stage of their career were they? How community-focused was it? You can even go to that artist or project’s website and see how it turned out. 


Maybe you’ve done a project similar to that in the past and you can say “Here’s the kind of impact it had” or “This is the potential impact I think it will have and why” or “I’ve done events like this before, and this many people came so I can expect to do that again.” Especially with grants from public entities, like the city government, they love to hear about impact. They love any way you can quantify or have proof that something will be successful.


And tailor your proposal to your audience

Yes, for sure. Because even if there are multiple parties interested in your project, they all might be interested for different reasons. So with research, again, you can predict what will be most important to each audience and what they’ll want to hear.


Also: save all of your materials. It sounds obvious, but not everybody does that. Take that extra step to just copy and paste everything that you’re working on into a Word Document or Google Doc so that next time you have something to work from rather than starting from scratch each time. Sometimes when I just need language, that’s the first place I go.


Based on your experience as a Fiscal Sponsorship Manager, what are the success stories you’ve seen projects have with fundraising?

So fiscal sponsorship is a way in which small projects or organizations can “borrow” our nonprofit status to help get funding from more diverse sources like corporate sponsorship or tax deductible donations from individuals or funding from entities that require 501-C3 status.  


Our longest running projects definitely do all the things I’ve suggested like a lot of planning and research, having a really clear vision, clearly communicating their benefit to the community, etc. 


I also think the most successful projects try not to grow too fast.  A lot of people come in with the expectation that their project is going to explode and become a nonprofit and be funded by the biggest foundation in town.


But it really takes time to develop relationships with the community and with funders and to have small successes, and document those successes. Such a huge part of it is not only doing great work but telling people about that work and showing impact.


If you can have a small success and then tell a really great story about it, then that sets you up for success for your next big step and people will believe that your next big step is possible. 


Another thing I would say is that successful projects have diversified income built into their plan. They’re not just relying on grant funding for all of their public programming. They’re also offering classes, or charging ticket prices at different levels for different audiences.


What advice would you give to someone struggling with the first steps or is just overwhelmed by the entire process in general?

Fresh Arts has both a grant writing toolkit and a budgeting toolkit, so you can start with those. 


But I just want to say again: research, research, research, research. Because it is so disheartening to spend the time applying for an opportunity to realize later from the fine print that you actually weren’t even really eligible by some technicality like your address, which happens often.


But also, is this even the right thing for this time in your career? Maybe this is something that’s going to be eventually right for you, but it’s not right now. And you don’t need to rush into it if you feel like it’s too much of a stretch, because that’s time that you could spend trying to problem solve for your project in another way.


Also, this goes back to planning, but things like grants or working with big institutions involve much longer timelines than individual artists are often used to working on. So if you have already set up this project to launch in four months or two months or something, and you’re expecting to get a grant or to get corporate funding, a lot of times that’s just not possible for them, even if they love your project.


So really, when you’re starting to think about outside funding and larger projects, remember that it’s kind of a long game and expect that it’s going to take longer to get the money, set up the project, have your debut, etc. That’s the way it is with big projects. And that’s also how you accomplish really cool, big things. 


You’re not always going to get every opportunity that you apply for and rejection is just par for the course. It happens to me all the time. But you learn from each rejection and if you already have a few different versions of your budget and a few different ways of talking about your project, then you can just use those for the next opportunity. And the next one that you write is going to be better because you put in that work on the front end. 


Also it takes practice. It’s hard not to become discouraged, but it’s a skill like anything else, like the art that you practice. You may not have to get as good at it as you are at playing the cello, um, but, but you do have to practice to get a little better at it.


And always ask your friends or mentors for feedback. Sometimes it’s helpful to ask an artist from a different discipline, because sometimes the panel members for funding opportunities don’t understand everything about your discipline.


Also a lot of opportunities now are offering info meetings. Houston Arts Alliance, Houston BIPOC Arts and Network Fund, The Idea Fund…even some national opportunities that I’ve wanted to apply for. They’re really helpful. Sometimes it shows me that it wasn’t actually suited to me which is great because now I’m not going to waste my time applying.


And if you get rejected, see if you can request feedback. Not everybody provides it, but more places do these days and it can be really helpful for the next time. There have been times where we didn’t get the opportunity the first time around, got feedback, reworked the proposal or came up with something that was more appropriate, and got approved the 2nd time around. So even if you’re rejected once, it doesn’t mean you will be again. 


You mentioned a ton of great resources already. Are there any more you’d like to mention before we wrap up?

Organize gatherings. Do you know other people who are going for the same opportunities as you?  I think we’re trained to think of each other as competitors, but nobody does exactly the same kind of work that you do. And  you’re going to be much happier and better resourced if you treat your artist friends as colleagues and you’re all trying to lift each other up at the same time. So do that with your friends. You don’t need somebody to formally organize it.


Awesome. Well hopefully someone reading this is now less intimidated or confused about how to start securing funding for their project or practice. Thank you Julia!


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