A Highly Competitive Mystery Solved

Emily Davis
4 min readJan 29, 2021


A Highly Competitive Mystery Solved

January 28, 2021, 8:41 pm
Filed under: art, art institutions, Art Scenes, Non-Profit | Tags: applications, arts funding, competition, funders, grants, lottery

A mystery just cleared up before my very eyes. I was reading the alumni magazine from my grad school and there was an article about a brand new artist residency set up by some funders. The story was really about the funders and this generous thing they’re doing. It sounds nice enough — but what popped out at me was the description of the application process as highly competitive. This explained many things for me.

As someone who applies for this sort of thing, I have often wondered why the process is so onerous. Why do they make us write multiple essays? Why do I have to upload my resume again? Or, in some cases, type it out into their format? Why do I need to fill in a box for Awards and Recognitions? What is this for?

It’s not because the people reading these applications have a shortage of reading material and have a bizarre taste for reading Artist mission statements. It’s because, like in the press release they put out about the thing, they want to be able to say it’s “highly competitive.”

It does not matter that EVERY SINGLE THING that artists can apply for is highly competitive by nature of the scarcity of opportunities and the numbers of applicants. It matters that they feel confident in saying that their residency (or grant or opportunity) is a highly competitive process.

By almost every measure, a lottery would be more equitable, inclusive and democratic, as well as the least onerous for artists. It would very probably yield better results in the quality of the work produced, as well. If we had a lottery, the hours saved that artists would have spent on time-wasting applications could be used to actually make art.

But almost no one ever doles out their opportunities this way because seeing their opportunity as highly competitive is part of the appeal in funding such a thing. People who fund artist opportunities want to be seen funding the artists they think are the best based on what they perceive as a highly competitive process. And all of those processes are onerous in their own way because each funder imagines “competitive” differently.

What is best for the artist is an easy lottery. But no one will choose the way that is best for the artist because it doesn’t sound as good in the press release. It all makes sense now.

It sucks, of course. For the artists.

And this is a symptom of a capitalist system that somehow thinks that this bizarre system of individual donors funding opportunities for small numbers of people is the best way to get a vibrant arts culture. It’s not.

The best way to get a vibrant arts culture is to fund one, on a national scale, in the most democratic and inclusive way. It would still be highly competitive, of course. The numbers mean that it always is in this field — but privileging the artists’ experience over the funders’ would really flip the whole thing on its head in a way that I would love to see.

I’m accepting applications for funders. It is a highly competitive process. Very selective.

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Originally published at http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com on January 29, 2021.



Emily Davis

Theatre Artist, writer, blogger, podcaster, singer, dreamer, hoper