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Kick-starting Your Career with a Canada Grant

It’s a truism and an understatement: Starting a career in the arts or a creative industry is difficult. But for some, a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts could be the first step. You don’t need to belong to the stereotypical “arts crowd”—thespians, musicians, illustrators, etc. Canada Council supports a range of creative types: programmers interested in emerging digital arts, gymnasts interested in circus arts, engineers interested in the artsy side of robotics—the list goes on. You can apply for grants at any time, for substantial amounts (tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands), for projects of any span (okay, most spans—think weeks to a few years). A grant can help you develop a portfolio for that dream company or provide the needed expertise to start your own company. If you want to build a non-profit (say an arts program for low-income families or a festival that celebrates deaf and disabled artists), then developing your own artistic practice may be the first step toward future funding and opportunities. Regardless, Canada Council grants look great on resumes and CVs. They show that professionals in your field—who are hired to assess applications—believe in your project and abilities.

Obtaining a grant is a particularly competitive process, but don't let that sway you. Applications are free, and Canada Council is committed to supporting new voices. Peruse the website: you might qualify for as a “New/Early Career Artist,” an applicant profile that requires little experience and keeps you from competing with veterans who’ve perfected their craft. Canada Council also commits to supporting underrepresented voices. There are particular opportunities for Indigenous or deaf and disabled artists. If you have a disability or face cultural or language barriers, you may qualify for “Application Assistance” where someone helps assemble your proposal. And while the application process is long, it’s straightforward: introduce a project, supply a sample of your work, and create a tentative schedule and budget. Four or five months later, the results are in.

I’ve talked to those who have applied for Canada Council grants and those who have assessed Canada Council applications. I've also won one myself. If you’re interested in applying, here’s some wisdom I’ve gathered:

  • Start early. Like, months before the deadline. This pertains to both the application and your project. Before applying, you must create a “profile” that, among other things, shows you’re committed to your discipline. The “New/Early Career Artist” profile, for instance, asks for some evidence of “training, experience or accomplishments” within your field. Then, once your profile is accepted, the application may require long responses to difficult questions. Five hundred words explaining how your project will contribute something new to the genre and yourself: more difficult than it sounds! Also, if you begin your project before applying, you will have a better sense of what you’re proposing and how to propose it. Projects can billow in unexpected ways; you want your budget to cover your costs. Grant writing is an artform. Start now and take it slow!
  • Don’t get fancy. I’ve heard a grant assessor emphasize the importance of clear, unpretentious project proposals. Often artists will have a strong intuitive grasp of their project, which, when translated to paper, seems convoluted or ostentatious. Remember: assessors may read your application at the end of a long day, hours beyond their last coffee. Keep it neat and down-to-earth. You’re selling a proposal, not a finished product. Assessors are artists too, and they know projects have nuances and theoretical underpinnings that cannot be fully articulated in an application. They know end results may look quite different than what’s first proposed. Concentrate on writing an elegant, compelling proposal, even if means leaving out certain aspects of your project.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for money. Assessors find that emerging artists frequently ask for too little. You want to demonstrate a realistic understanding of your project’s viability. Don’t be sheepish; be fiscally truthful.

All in all, don’t be discouraged by rejection. I’ve heard a grant assessor call the process a “lottery.” Assessors, no matter how open and fair, are humans with preferences and perspectives. A rejected project isn’t necessarily a subpar project. An editor at a respected press told me that one of their authors, despite years of applying, hadn’t received a Canada grant. Why? Who knows. He’s a talented writer who’s published several books with a respected press. The point: rejection, or the fear of rejection, shouldn’t keep you from trying. Keep going for it!