I’ve written a few SSHRC grants as a researcher and recently learned that I am eligible for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts as a New and Early Career Artist. What recommendations do you have for someone who is used to writing sometimes-successful research grants, but is new to the artist’s grant game?
Anonymous, Literary Studies
Dr. Editor’s response:
Congratulations on beginning your foray into artist’s grants! Remember that SSHRC’s “research-creation” option is available to you as well, if that’s a route you’d like to pursue. To supplement my own perspective on this topic, I spoke with Jaclyn Arndt of jaclynedits.com.
When you write an application to the Canada Council for the Arts, you’re writing for an audience with a greater breadth of expertise than when you write a SSHRC Insight Grant (IG) or Insight Development Grant (IDG). With IGs and IDGs, you’re writing to a merit review committee with a specific disciplinary focus. The narrowest SSHRC merit review committees focus on a single discipline, like “literature” or “economics”; the most broad bring together fields as diverse as “psychology, linguistics and translation” and “communications, media studies, gender studies, library and information science, [and] related fields.” If you’re an information sciences researcher, you can’t take for granted that your readers will be familiar with your methods or theoretical framework the way an economist might be. When I edit IDGs and IGs, I always make sure that my researchers look at the membership of the previous year’s committee. You won’t necessarily know who might still be on this year’s peer review committee, but knowing last year’s members will help you to understand the full scope of expertise that your reviewers are likely to bring. That way, you can pitch and frame your work appropriately.
Yet even the broadest of SSHRC merit review committees isn’t as broad as a Canada Council peer assessment committee, which is truly interdisciplinary. If you apply for funding under the Concept to Realization stream – let’s say you’re working on a theatrical production – your readers might include a jazz bassist, a contortionist, and an animator. This interdisciplinarity, says Ms. Arndt, “means the people assessing your application may have very little familiarity with your discipline, let alone your specific subject matter. It’s important to not cut corners in explaining your project or outcome: do not assume everyone knows what you know, and avoid discipline-specific lingo unless you can succinctly explain it.”
But it’s not just in their interdisciplinarity that Canada Council’s peer reviewers differ from SSHRC’s. You’re being read by artists, not fellow academics, and the expectation is that you’re writing from a place of self-awareness rather than certainty. Ms. Arndt advises: “Artist grants require you to present yourself as capable and vulnerable at the same time – or for you to display an understanding of potential vulnerabilities, at least. They don’t want to hear you say everything will go perfectly to plan, your idea is the most brilliant anyone has ever had, or the world will be a better place with your art in it.” While your academic research might indeed make the world a better place by influencing policy or having societal impacts, it’s hard to substantiate such claims for your artistic practice – especially as a new or early-career artist.
Just as your peer reviewers differ between these two federal funders, so too does the institutional context. While SSHRC’s peer reviewers will always be interested in intellectually, socially, culturally, and economically significant research in the social sciences and humanities, the Canada Council has a mix of both ongoing and strategic priorities. Read the Canada Council’s strategic plan and make note of where your work may intersect with their priorities to enhance your chance of success.
I’ve also personally found that the grants officers at the Canada Council are better able to give detailed advice than their colleagues at SSHRC. When I’ve asked questions of the program officers at SSHRC, it can be hard to get answers that aren’t cut-and-pasted from some place on the SSHRC website; I assume this comes from an equality perspective, out of concern that some applicants may be able to access some insights that aren’t equally available to all. In contrast, says Ms. Arndt, Canada Council grants officers can “help you navigate how to frame yourself as a first-time applicant.” A videoconference conversation with a grants officer can help you to make sure that you’ve correctly understood the Canada Council’s priorities and articulated how your work can advance their goals.
The Canada Council for the Arts will provide applicants from particular equity-deserving groups with funding to support an application through their application assistance program. This funding is for applicants who self-identify as “Deaf, hard of hearing, having a disability or living with a mental illness,” or as “First Nations, Inuit or Métis facing language, geographic and/or cultural barriers”; it enables you to hire a writer or an editor to support your grant application. I checked with the Canada Council, and they said that artists who are neurodivergent or who have PTSD can also request application assistance.
In contrast, SSHRC advises applicants with a disability to go to their institution for support, even though not all institutions can afford to hire a dedicated writer or editor to work individually with applicants. While SSHRC provides an email address for those who need additional support, it’s not clear from their website whether they would in fact provide funding to support applicants to get one-on-one help with their applications. I’d love to see SSHRC – along with the other two federal granting councils (NSERC and CIHR) – bring in something similar to the Canada Council’s application assistance program, and advertise it openly, so that it is available to all who need it.