Portfolios, Pitches and Projections: Overcoming Those Grant Application Blues

An interview with Allyson Esposito, Director of the Cultural Grants Program, DCASE
CAR Editor JC Steinbrunner interviews Allyson Esposito, Director of the Cultural Grants Program at DCASE

Budgets, work samples and artist statements—the bugbears of the granting process—haunt our efforts to get the free money we so richly deserve. No matter how many workshops or panels we attend, nor the number of articles we read, the apprehension we feel when it comes time to assemble what is (we hope) a winning proposal persists. Part of this frustration comes from dealing with those languages—math, English—which are not our fortes. Transcribing our artistic practice into numerals and grammar always seems a bit of a bother.

We sat down with Allyson Esposito, Director of the Cultural Grants Program at DCASE, and herself a dancer, to give us some straight answers on how to calculate a budget, prep a portfolio and write a statement to present a comprehensive and persuasive argument for your project. She also touched upon changes to the Individual Artist Program grant for 2014. Have a listen to the audio track above and read the transcription below for highlights of our interview. Attached at the bottom of the article is a spreadsheet template created by Allyson that is an excellent guide to ensure you are accounting for your time and costs.

The Individual Artist Program grant application window runs from Friday, December 6 through Monday, January 13, 5:00 p.m.


  1. Artists tend to undervalue their time, equipment and expertise. They should consider these "in-kind" expenses.
  2. The project budget should align with the project proposal. All of the project components listed in the project description should be accounted for. The story of a project is told through both the narrative and budget.
  3. Total expenses should equal total income.
  4. If the project expenses are larger than the grant size, great! Artists do not need to fit the project to the grant size. Identify additional funding sources—Kickstarter, fundraising, other foundations, donated time—even if those funding sources are not secured. List them as possibilities.
  5. Be honest about how long a project will take to complete. DCASE is okay with funding a process. Identify the portion achievable within the grant period and itemize the costs associated with that portion.
  6. Include all project costs (in-kind, other funding). Attribute value to the time spent on the project—this is the “in-kind contribution.”
  7. Be realistic about what can be achieved with the funds awarded, but do not underestimate the project's needs.
  8. Think through promotion expenses. How will the project be marketed? Consider how the public can experience the work. This is one of DCASE's key criteria. Include line items for marketing or promotion.
  9. Modest budgets that do not add up to the $4,000 maximum are taken seriously. Ask for what the project requires for successful execution. It is pretty easy to determine when budgets are falsified or padded.
  10. Double-check work! The budget is really important.
  11. During review, panelists are looking at whether budgets are complete, realistic, accurate and support the goals of the project.
  12. DCASE is trying to improve its timeline, but currently grants are really reimbursements.



  1. The work sample is an artist's chance to sell himself, yet remember that each component of an application must contribute to the overall narrative.
  2. The quality of the art sample itself is not hugely important. The quality of the work depicted is more important.
  3. Be sure to provide descriptive information about the work sample—the what, where, when and why. 
  4. How does the work sample connect to the project for which funds are requested? Provide specific context about how the it correlates to the grant request. Perhaps this is a point of departure from which the artist hopes to grow during this next project.
  5. DCASE allows applicants to share websites, Vimeo feeds, and other online media, but adhere to the grant guidelines. If guidelines call for six photos, then explicitly identify which six photos should be reviewed when visiting a website. DCASE reviews hundreds of applications. Make it easy.
  6. Panelists look to determine artistic merit based on artistic quality, creative and inventive use of the medium, innovation in style or concept, outstanding technical proficiency or craftsmanship and work that advances the art form.



  1. Artists should take their time (and budget the time to take).
  2. It is important that applicants answer/respond to the questions asked in the grant.
  3. Find an objective reviewer. Ask friends to read your statement. Does it make sense to them? Do they understand it?

Avoid being lumped into the Three Groups:

  1. The Ph.D.s: This group uses ten-dollar, abstruse and overly academic or florid language. Reviewers should have a clear understanding of what the artist does. Jurists appreciate deep thought, but clarity is key. Artists must sell themselves to a number of audiences to be successful both in this granting process and in their career.
  2. The Spartans: This group provides too little information. They are laconic and do not provide enough information. Why does an artist do what he does? How does he do it? What are the goals, the plans, the history?
  3. The Schemers: This group slants their language to what they think the funder wants to hear. As a grant applicant, an artist must know when not to waste his time. Spinning one's work to meet a funder’s criteria most often results in rejection.



  1. The online application contains survey questions addressing demographic information. These questions are for research only. Applicants' responses do not weigh into award decisions.
  2. Grants can fund processes. Work does not have to be completed within the grant timeline, but DCASE-awarded monies must be spent within that window.
  3. Curatorial practice is now eligible for awards.
  4. There are four main topics DCASE will consider when reviewing projects:
    ACCESS: Does the project create new audiences or exposure?
    ECONOMIC IMPACT: How does the project help Chicago, or the Chicago component, of an artist's practice?
    NEIGHBORHOODS: Will the project have an impact on community or neighborhoods?
    INNOVATION: Does the project present new approaches, directions, perspectives for the artist's practice and art form, or the community? Is the artist taking risks and/or growing their practice?
Series Assignment: 

Allyson Esposito is the Director of the Cultural Grants Program for the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). In this role, she is leading strategic efforts to streamline and digitize the grant process while restructuring DCASE’s funding to be most responsive to needs articulated through the 2012 Chicago Cultural planning process.

Prior to her work with DCASE, Allyson served as program officer for the Mayer & Morris Kaplan Family Foundation in Highland Park, IL, administering and overseeing the foundation’s giving in the arts, education and the environment. She transitioned into philanthropy after working for more than eight years in the for-profit sector in various roles as an attorney and as an information technology/risk management consultant with Deloitte & Touche. Allyson has been a practicing dance artist in Chicago for more than ten years. She has been creating and performing dance with The Space/ Movement Project since its inception in 2005 and led the company as its executive director from 2007-2012.

Audio mixing by Johari Palacio, CAR Music Researcher

Published by CAR_Editor on Mon, 12/02/2013 - 4:43pm
Updated on Tue, 07/15/2014 - 8:52pm