What if I told you there was an angel out there who could help you with things like gig referrals, grant funding, and other career opportunities?
What if there were several angels whose job descriptions included helping you thrive as an independent artist?
And what if I told you this was all free, and all you had to do was reach out to them? Too good to be true?
I can’t remember exactly when it first dawned on me that a) there’s an arts council right in my own community, and b) it seems like maybe they do stuff for artists.
But what do they do?
That was the part I couldn’t exactly answer. From what I’ve been gathering, there are lots of other performing artists in that same boat.
Discovering My Arts Council
I recall stumbling across the website of my (then) local arts council one day, and poking around a bit. (They’re now defunct and have been replaced, but that’s a long story…)
Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything that said:
Instead, I saw notices about theater auditions, and calls for artwork, and workshops on working with disabled populations – all great things, but none that were immediately relevant to my situation.
So, I moved on.
Arts Council Grants: Rediscovering My Arts Council
It wasn’t until a few years later – and I’m not exactly sure what brought me back – that I discovered an intersection between what I was doing and what they did.
I had received some favorable press in England and Scotland following the release of my first solo CD (of old New York State folk music!), and those reviews led to a couple of unexpected offers to perform over there.
I was thrilled, and really eager to do it.
The problem was that it was going to cost me upwards of $2,000 in expenses to take advantage of this opportunity. It seemed like a losing proposition without a little help.
Long story short: I learned about a funding category at my local arts council for “special opportunities.” I called, visited, and ultimately was able to secure a grant to offset some of the expenses for the trip.
That made a big difference.
The very next year, I was awarded a grant to teach at a low-paying but otherwise important music weekend.
A few years after that, a professional development opportunity was funded enabling me to study some occupational music at Mystic Seaport and bring what I learned back to my local community’s waterfront for some performances.
In the years since then, programs provided by the wonderful new arts service organization in town (Arts Services Initiative of Western NY, or “ASI”) have allowed me to:
- attend six or more high-quality professional development workshops
- learn about opportunities for funding at the local and state levels
- discover best practices for writing grants and getting media coverage
- work on two long-term music projects in a local school district (see the article “How to Get Gigs in Schools“)
I’ve been rejected too!
Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been turned down for funding on several occasions; sometimes after spending significant amounts of time and energy attending meetings and gathering materials for the grant application.
That hurts, but, I chalk it all up to learning how to do this, and each time I’ve been rejected, valuable feedback has come back from the council and/or the funders to help inform my next application.
Just as importantly, good relationships with the staff have been built in the process. (More on that in a minute.)
What Arts Councils Can Do For You
In my opinion, every musician, storyteller, belly dancer, mime, puppeteer, and performing artist should connect with their arts council.
Let’s take a look at some of the key things arts councils can do for you as a performing artist…
From individual artist grants (for you), to “presenting” grants (for organizations that can hire you), to knowledge of the larger funding picture in the community, your arts council is your first stop in seeking financial support for your work.
Most arts councils are “granting” and “regranting” organizations themselves, meaning that they can award funding to individual artists and/or presenting organizations who hire performing artists.
Arts councils also keep tabs on other funding opportunities at the state, regional, and national levels, and in the private sector.
As an independent artist, it’s really important to stay on top of all of these possibilities.
The people who hire you to perform (“presenters,” in arts council terminology) aren’t always aware of all the funding options either. Staying current on grant opportunities for the venues I work in – schools, performing arts centers, libraries, concert series, historical societies, museums – has allowed me to suggest funding channels to them, creating tremendous goodwill and very often leading to future bookings for me (so much so that I recently compiled a guide on Grant Funding for Performances and Lectures that you’re welcome to steal – share it with any venue that can’t afford to book you outright).
Workshops and seminars for artists, on both arts and “business of art” topics, are at the very heart of most arts councils’ missions.
A quick look at ASI’s website shows recent and upcoming sessions on each of the following topics:
- applying for county funding
- latest grant opportunities from the state arts council
- how to create videos
- DIY websites for artists
- a talk from the CEO of Americans for the Arts
- selling art online
- the artist as entrepreneur
Arts councils are well connected to the arts and cultural goings-on in the community, and that means new relationships and opportunities for you.
Here’s Joycelyn Reynolds from Arts Council New Orleans:
“Arts councils have expert knowledge of the arts activities in the community and can serve as a connector for artists providing introductions and access to leaders in the field, job opportunities, and funding opportunities.”
Even beyond the immediate arts scene, arts councils tend to be involved in the larger civic life of the community, helping to connect the dots between the arts/cultural sector and various public and private institutions.
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Arts councils are tireless advocates for broader arts support at the state and federal levels, and in our own communities, and they’re stronger with all of us involved.
(Interested in “going to bat” for the arts? Americans for the Arts gives five good arts advocacy ideas here.)
Performing Artist Roster
A major benefit of connecting with some (though not all) arts councils is the prospect of joining their vetted roster of “exemplary” performing artists.
Joel Gavin of the Oklahoma Arts Council explained to me how their statewide artist roster works:
“The Oklahoma Performing Artist Roster includes some of the finest performers in a variety of disciplines who are available to perform in communities across our state. Artists apply and are vetted through a rigorous process to ensure we maintain a high-quality roster. Each artist or group has a page on our website with a description of their services, bio, approximate fees, and contact information. Through our ties to hundreds of arts organizations, schools, and art presenters statewide, the roster often connects performing artists with potential bookings. We also encourage our grantees to consider hiring roster artists because it ensures the artistic quality of their events. Occasionally, we have been able to offer professional development opportunities exclusively for roster artists. We try to build in value for them when and where we can.”
Suffice it to say that inclusion on an “approved” artist roster, if available, is a fantastic opportunity for more and better-paying gigs. Even if you’re this guy…
If your performances contain an educational component or any humanities content, check your statewide humanities council for a similar roster of approved “speakers” or “scholars.” I was accepted to such a program with the New York Council for the Humanities back in 2006, and have done over 250 funded engagements for them since. (See the article “Educate Your Audience and Write Your Ticket” for more on this type of performing.)
Somewhat different from performing artist rosters, artist directories tend to be open to any and all artists who’d like to list themselves.
Again, not all arts councils maintain such a directory, but if yours does, by all means get listed there along with a link to your website, descriptions of your range of services, etc.
“If they don’t have an artist directory, ask them to view ours or others for ideas.”
– Shannon M. Linker, Arts Council of Indianapolis
Paid Performances & Gig Referrals
Also under the “some do, some don’t“ category, your arts council might (with any luck):
- run their own performance series, or
- book performances for other community entities, or
- provide referrals to organizations and events looking for entertainment
How do you know whether your arts council does any of these things?
Just ask them.
Want all the latest info on all of the above, right in your inbox?
Every arts council I’ve spoken with has one or more e-newsletters they send out on a regular basis.
For free, of course.
“Artists should sign up for e-newsletters sent out by local, regional, and statewide arts councils as these emails contain information about opportunities for artists.”
– Joycelyn Reynolds, Arts Council New Orleans
Anything Else You’d Want?
Ask for it! Shannon M. Linker of the Arts Council of Indianapolis told me this:
“We respond directly to the needs of our artists. Each of our programs has come from a random question, a disgruntled caller, or a friendly discussion at an arts event. If your arts council doesn’t hear from you, it is much more difficult for them to respond to the actual needs of the community with quality programs and services. I can almost guarantee you that the staff very much wants to help and be involved with (specific services for artists) if they are not already, they just need to hear from enough artists and other constituents to make it a priority.”
Where to Start: State or Local Arts Council?
That is the question.
And the answer, according to the experts, is “both.”
And, “it depends.”
“(Artists should connect with) both – though not all places have both. I think it’s worth starting locally and then expanding out as the many types of resources and opportunities that are available to performing artists span these different levels of arts councils. It all depends on where you are in your performing arts career and what you want to do with your career.”
– Jennifer Swan, ASI, Buffalo NY
“This depends on their goals. Some artists prefer not to travel too far or too often, so they may want to start by connecting with local arts councils. If they want to cast a wide net in hopes of enhancing their chances for bookings and increased exposure, it’s sensible to make connecting with the state arts council a priority. Connecting with the appropriate staff person with the local and state arts council who work with performing artists would be worth the artist’s time in both cases.”
– Joel Gavin, Oklahoma Arts Council
“Often state arts agencies have different services so they should absolutely connect with both. It depends on the location, but perhaps the state agency offers more than the local council in their area. There are things the state agency can offer that we can’t and vise versa.”
– Shannon M. Linker, Arts Council of Indianapolis
How to Connect with Your Arts Council
It doesn’t really matter how you do it; it just matters that you DO connect with your arts council.
Here’s one way it could go:
Step #1 – Figure out who (and where) they are. Try a Google search for “(Your state/province) arts council” and “(Your local community or county or region or city or town) arts council.” As stated above, there may be more than one you’ll want to connect with.
Step #2 – Learn as much as you can about them through visits to their website and talking with other artists. Spend some time figuring out what they do and where you might fit in, and be sure to make a list of any questions you have (for step #4).
Step #3 – Sign up to receive any and all email newsletters and communications offered on their site.
If they have an artist roster or directory, sign up or apply for those too.
Step #4 – Call or email them to touch base, or attend one of their public programs. If you don’t have any specific questions to ask, it’s OK to simply tell them what you do and see how they might be able to help you.
Step #5 (THE most important one) – Set up an in-person meeting and start developing a relationship with them. These are friendly people – angels, even – who really want to help the artists in their community. It’s what they do.
Some Networking Advice
Shannon M. Linker gives some great tips and advice for building a relationship with your arts council:
“Get to know the key players at both organizations (local and state) – make sure they know your name, your work, your website, and why what you are doing is significant. I appreciate when artists add me to their e-list so I get monthly updates on their work and upcoming events even if I don’t know them personally. It helps keep me informed of what’s going on. It also helps me to know they are engaged in professional practices and can write about their work and promote themselves in a professional way. Knowing they are serious and professional allows me to recommend them for opportunities more often.”
Joycelyn Reynolds echoed the importance of making yourself known to your arts council:
“Allow them to become familiar with your work, which can prove helpful in connecting you to opportunities.”
Have I convinced you? Were you already on board?
From funding to connections to learning to collaborating to gig possibilities and more, I hope you can see why every performing artist should connect with their arts council(s) to the fullest extent possible.
I don’t know why it took me so long!
I’d love to hear how arts councils have (or haven’t) impacted your work – the Comments section is just below.
About The Blog
Since leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.
Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.
The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.