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Reimagining Equitable Applications and Awardee Selection in ACF’s Funded Opportunities

As Vice President of Artist Services at American Composers Forum, I am one of many in a collaborative team ideating the development of new programs, reimagining existing programs, building upon past processes, and growing as we learn. Over the past several years, we have conducted a deep internal review of how we approach our programs and invite artists–whether they identify as a composer, music creator, or sound artist–to feel like they belong here. I’m excited to share the changes we’ve made to our application and selection process with you, as well as the things we’ve learned along the way.

ACF provides direct funding and mentorship to a broad and diverse field of music creators, highlighting those who have been historically excluded from participation. Our direct funding programs include ACF | connect, ACF | create, McKnight Visiting Composer Residencies, McKnight Fellowships for Composers, and the Minnesota Music Creators Awards. Artists submit applications for each of these programs, and materials are reviewed by a committee of curators.

We’ve started intentionally using the word “curator” instead of “panelist” to identify the artists, arts advocates, and administrators selecting who receives support through our programs because we feel that this more accurately describes their role in the process. Our curators are selected based on their areas of expertise, life experiences, and geographic location. They are tasked with reviewing many samples and narratives on their own, then they come together as a group to make final collective decisions on the selected artists.

As we craft new programs, develop our applications, and moderate the curatorial process, a few of the key questions my colleagues and I continually ask ourselves are:

  • Who are we reaching and welcoming?
  • How are we centering the artist?
  • How do we find a shared language in the curatorial process?
Photo by Shyam on Unsplash

Photo by Shyam on Unsplash

It might be helpful to provide a little context to understand the lens through which I conduct my work at ACF. I’m originally from Hampton, Virginia. My Mom worked for the phone company almost all of her life, and my Dad was a plumber, then a machinist welder in nuclear power. In middle school, I started playing trumpet and percussion, but I didn’t really know what being a composer meant until undergrad. Always creating, I finally found the medium in which I wanted to express my thoughts. Looking back, being a first generation college student, the only musician in my family, and a gay person has greatly impacted they way I view my work. The first opportunity I applied for was advertised through the American Music Center paper newsletter, and I was naive about all of the processes and systems behind the opportunity at that time. Twenty-seven years later, I find myself in my role at ACF creating opportunities, as well as being a practicing artist, continually applying and seeking to connect and collaborate.

Who we are

American Composers Forum’s mission is to support and advocate for individuals and groups creating music today by demonstrating the vitality and relevance of their art. We frame our work with a focus on racial equity and include within that scope diverse gender identities, musical approaches and perspectives, religions, ages, (dis)abilities, cultures, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and broad definitions of being “American.” Our Statement of Commitment to Racial Equity includes action steps to reach the goals that are part of our new five-year strategy.

Collaborating and Reexamining in Community

In 2019, American Composers Forum started incorporating practices from Eleanor Savage’s RE-TOOL: Racial Equity in the Panel Process. RE-TOOL, and the annotated guide with Tariana Navas-Nieves and Kathy Hsieh, provides guiding principles for each stage of the panel process. Each year, we are making adjustments in response to feedback on our processes and diving deeper into our practices.

Part of my role at ACF is serving as staff liaison to our Artist Support Working Group, a subcommittee that includes members of ACF’s Board of Directors and a diverse group of additional artists. Led by co-chairs Mary Kouyoumdjian and Patrick Castillo, this group’s task is to review and explore ACF’s role in supporting individual artists through commissions, fellowships, and professional development; researching important topics in our ecosystem; and providing services for artists/organizations seeking to support music creators.

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

To start, we reviewed the application guidelines and applications for ACF | connect, ACF | create, McKnight Fellowships for Composers, McKnight Visiting Composer Residencies, and Minnesota Music Creators Awards (formerly Minnesota Emerging Composer Awards). We have looked at the impact of our programs, outreach specific to each program, advising of applicants in the pre-application phase, the application itself, ways in which data is being collected, selection of curators, and the overall curatorial process.

Some of the key questions we sought to answer in the Artist Support Working Group were:

  • What changes in language do we need to make across all artist support areas in order to clearly communicate our mission, vision, and values?
  • What resources are we best positioned to provide for artists/organizations supporting music creators in order to share what we have learned?
  • What micro and macro mechanisms can we implement to engage with potential applicants in order to reach artists who might not know about ACF, or who don’t see themselves reflected in past awardees?
  • What aspects of the application and curatorial process do we need to change in our current commissioning, fellowships, residency, and project grants to ensure an equitable and transparent process?
  • How can we utilize the Aesthetic Perspectives in our application and curatorial processes in order to have a shared language that doesn’t rely on Western classical music’s definition of “excellence” during the curatorial process?

Modifying our Applications

Based on what we learned through this extensive review, ACF has made some key changes in our applications for 2021. One of our important early discoveries was the need to explicitly state that ACF is intentional in our interchangeable use of the terms “artist,” “music creator,” and “composer,” as we recognize that not everyone identifies themselves by one of these terms.

We have also uniquely tailored the order of the application questions for each specific program. For example, in our McKnight Visiting Composer Residency application, we placed the Project Proposal question before work samples, since the primary focus of the residency is the curation of an 18-month relationship between artists and Minnesota communities. For ACF | create, a commissioning program for artists in the early stages of their creative development, we are asking for a more casual personal introduction rather than a fully-developed artist statement.

One of the discussions among ACF staff has been the collection of demographic information. We request information about artists’ identities to learn more about who we are reaching, which helps us continue to evaluate and improve our programs and communication. This year, we have incorporated the practices in Relationship of Data and Funder Practice: Supporting Individual Artists with an Equity Lens by GIA Support. In most of our applications, we now provide both checkboxes and open fields so artists have the option to self-identify their ethnicity, race, and gender. It was important to us that artists be able to express their identity in their own words, should they choose to provide this information. This allows us to see how applicant cohorts relate to demographic information from other organizations, funder requirements, and geographic areas.

Photo by Numendil on Unsplash

Photo by Numendil on Unsplash

Improving our Curatorial Process

Most of our curatorial committees in the past have consisted of three members, but we felt it was necessary to expand the number of curators for each program to five. Moving forward, we recognize that we need more people to share their knowledge and experiences during the curatorial process.

One of the first tasks in assembling our curatorial committees is finding a shared language for reviewing applications as a group since many of our curators come from different geographic areas with different areas of expertise and different ways in which they create. For insights regarding this, we have studied the Aesthetic Perspectives Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change written by John Borstel and Pam Korza with Andrea Assaf, Chris Dwyer, Mark Valdez, and Denise Brown, as well as the case study Diving into Racial Equity: The MAP Fund’s Exploration by Vanessa Whang. While we have not adopted using the Aesthetic Perspectives at this point, we are considering how to best implement them in our curatorial process.

Developing Systems for Cultivating Curators

We are continually discovering artists/advocates/administrators that might be interested in serving as a curator for one of our programs, and we now have a process for connecting with prospective curators to get to know them and their music better. Here are some of the questions we ask during our conversations with potential curators:

  • What are your areas of expertise?
  • Have you been on any kind of selection panels before? What was valuable or meaningful about the experience?
  • Tell us about a couple of music creators (performer/composers) whose creative output is currently inspiring or impressive to you.
  • What is artistic excellence to you? ACF frames artistic excellence in terms of models of rigor in our own work. Quality is always defined by a cultural context.

We are continually working to change and update these questions, as well. This information provides some insights on how we pair curators with one another.

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Focus Groups and Rebuilding

The reimagining of these processes must happen in community. As we change as artists, the ways in which we are able to present and communicate about our art within an application/curatorial process must change. Over the next several months, we are planning to convene focus groups made up of past curators, past applicants, and artists who have not applied to a specific opportunity in the past in order to imagine new processes. We know that in order to innovate and rebuild, we need to hear from artists and curators in multiple ways. The focus group participants will be compensated for their expertise, and we will share the information learned from this process.

We are learning, growing, sharing, and making changes, and each day we start again because we know we need to continue evolving. Throughout these processes, we have the honor of experiencing the music shared with us and getting a glimpse of the people creating and illuminating music for the world.

Explore the opportunities and resources we offer on ACF’s website, and take a look at some of our programs with open applications. If you meet the eligibility requirements, I encourage you to apply. Please email or call me should you have any questions. I hope we have an opportunity to connect. One of the best parts of working for ACF is talking with people about what brings us together–music.