ABOG Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art: Feedback for Applicants

It was both exciting and humbling for us as an organization to receive 510 applications for the ABOG Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art this December. We’re excited about how many individuals are defining themselves as artists who are actively working to enact social change, and we want to make sure we are supporting this broader community. One of the first ways we can do this is to be transparent about our decision-making processes, and provide as much feedback as we can.

This post describes our fellowship application process, and we hope it also provides constructive, holistic feedback to applicants who have not been invited to submit a full application this year. We want to keep nurturing and serving the community of artists who are committed to this difficult and important work. And we believe that by providing consistent information about how we make decisions, we can improve the quality and fit of each application, thereby making feedback more relevant over time.

We also welcome your feedback about how to make fellowship process more clear and manageable for applicants. Don’t hesitate to post a comment below, or if you’d prefer, send an email to info@abladeofgrass.org!

The Process: Eligibility Cut

December 1, ABOG staff made a first cut of the 510 proposals based strictly on eligibility requirements, whittling the total number to 470. Organizations (more on this below); students; non-US residents without legal work status; applicants younger than 25; applicants with no community engagement angle or website; and former grantees were culled from the selection pool.

A surprising number of individuals applied on behalf of actual 501c3 organizations or entities that have a great deal of organizational structure. We suspect that this is because we only fund arts organizations in New York City, and there are many great organizations working nationwide with social practice. These proposals were cut based on the applicant’s website presence, using the following criteria:

  • Does the applicant have 501c3 status?
  • Does the applicant have a mission statement on their website?
  • Does the applicant have an organizational title, such as Director, or Development Director?
  • Are other staff members listed on their website?
  • Is there a Board of Directors of Advisors on the website?

These criteria eliminated some applicants that behave like organizations but are working with fiscal sponsorship rather than independent 501c3 status. We made this decision because the ABOG Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art is designed specifically to support individual artists who are working without the institutional support structures listed above. The Fellowship involves active participation and consulting services that may not be relevant if you already have a board, the credibility that comes from an organizational title, or other organizational supports and routines.

The Process: Readers Meeting

December 18, a committee made up of an ABOG representative, a curator, an arts educator and a community organizer met to review the 470 eligible proposals and choose up to 50 finalists based on the selection criteria available on the ABOG website. As we discussed the proposals and applied the criteria, we found a number of common trends among the applications that were not competitive. Most of the proposals that did not make it to the next round showed one or more of the trends outlined below in either the writing used in the letter of intent, or in the framework of the project itself. If your proposal was not selected it’s possible that your actual project isn’t a good fit for the Fellowship. It’s also possible that you’re writing about your project in a way that obscures its fit.


Trend: didn’t read as art. Aesthetic impact or artistic gesture didn’t come through in the letter of intent.

Trend: lack of formal or conceptual innovation.

Many proposals sounded credible and effective in terms of enacting social change, but presented themselves so clearly and one-dimensionally as community development or organizing, activism, or teaching that they weren’t competitive. Similarly, many proposals for workshops, classes, community theater, and other known forms didn’t innovate beyond this existing form in a compelling way.

We believe that art and everyday life are and should be increasingly integrated, and are not suggesting that the forms of daily life cannot be art. But we are choosing to support projects that have a strong, rigorous aesthetic component, and that are formally and conceptually ambitious and innovative enough to be compelling as art projects. As an arts organization, we have a unique opportunity to enable work that is valuable for aesthetic or formal reasons, without holding artists to the same metrics for success as other social workers. To take full advantage of this opportunity, we need to evaluate the aesthetic, formal and conceptual value of each proposal.

Finalists’ letters of intent presented the aesthetic and conceptual aspects of the project in a compelling manner, and tended to integrate them with forms like activism or education in challenging and exciting ways.


Trend: representing a social issue, rather than enacting social change.

Trend: representing a social issue or community, rather than enacting social change or meaningfully engaging the community. 

Many projects clearly defined important social issues, and worked to represent the issue or make it visible in a public fashion, rather than enact a solution. These projects often took the form of a documentary or oral history project, and were often very compelling aesthetically, but did not involve a community beyond the role of being a subject.

While we understand that raising awareness is an important component of social change, we are choosing to fund projects that are innovating beyond art’s representational role, pushing more aggressively into the forms of everyday life, and positioning artists as leaders and problem solvers.

Finalists’ letters of intent portrayed credible and compelling problem-finding and problem-solving, rather than problem-representing.


Trend: prescriptive or poorly defined community engagement.

Trend: straightforward education or outreach programs framed as art projects.

Many unsuccessful proposals did not clearly articulate exactly who the artist would be working with, how this working relationship would evolve, and why the working relationship is relevant to the meaning of the project. Other projects had relationships with community that were prescriptive, rather than co-creative or cooperative. For example, this type of “top-down” relationship might look like a fully conceptualized project that involves the community only by using them as volunteers or producers. This was common in proposals occurring in schools, nursing homes, or prisons—settings in which the community could have little choice about their involvement.

We think that sharing the creative process and expanding authorship are the most powerful and innovative things an artist can do. We are specifically interested in artists’ ability to work with other people to create cooperative, collaborative outcomes that clearly transmit an artistic vision, while also sharing the creative process or distributing authorship in an innovative way.

Finalists’ proposals clearly demonstrated that the project will occur in active cooperation with other people, and that the final outcomes are dependent on the relationships the artist is building, and the contributions these other people are making.


The Process: Now What?

46 finalists have been invited to submit a full application, which is due January 31.

If you have not been invited to submit an application, we hope that this context has been helpful in terms of evaluating your project’s fit with the Fellowship, or maybe diagnosing how to write about your work next year.

One of the things we learned in this first year is how difficult it is to write about a socially engaged art project. This summer, we’ll be working on a set of resources, including examples, which will be available to applicants and form the backbone of our Fellowship Workshops. Should you decide to apply again next year, don’t hesitate to send us a brief project description or ask questions to make sure you’re on the right track!

It’s inspiring to see so many individuals working creatively to make the world a better place! I want to thank every applicant this year for applying.


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Deborah Fisher
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