Friday, October 5, 2012

A Look Inside the Maine Arts Commission's Grant Review Process

The Maine Arts Commission supports Maine’s artists and cultural institutions in many ways, one of which is though the administration of various grant programs. We are often asked how the process of administrating these grants works.

As the agency recently made public an entire selection of grant awards, we thought it would be a good idea to explain the peer review process (mandated by the National Endowment for the Arts) of some of our grant programs.

By and large our grants are administered in the same fashion, but there are some variations. To cover these variations it would be good to look at two of our programs: the Individual Artist Fellowship Program and the Arts Visibility Grant. These were recently awarded and offer the variation previously mentioned.

The Fellowship award is the largest grant that the agency offers for individual artists; it has five categories and of those, four have the sole criterion of artistic excellence (The Traditional Arts Fellowship has separate guidelines that address the cultural significance and authenticity of the applicant.). Because the Fellowships are awarded solely on artistic excellence the agency is very particular with the process by which they are chosen.

Each applicant can self-select which category they belong to before applying. They may only apply for one Fellowship and Staff is available for guidance with this decision.

Once the artist submits their application it is assigned a number and all reference to their identity is removed in order to make the entire process a blind review. This number is assigned to all support materials that are submitted (images or videos of their work); these are assembled into a slideshow. The slideshow is sent to a panel of three out-of-state reviewers (chosen for their expertise in the field). The panel has several weeks to review the slideshow before coming together to discuss the applications. They make their decision based only on the materials they are given and reach a decision by consensus. Staff members of the Maine Arts Commission are on hand to advance the slideshow and to answer any questions relating to protocol. The staff does not offer input during the grant decision making process.

Once the panel has made their final decision the suggested recipient’s identity is revealed. Reviewers are asked to not make the decision public because it has to be reviewed before becoming a legal grant.

The panel’s choice is now brought before the full 21 member Maine Arts Commission and its chairman for scrutiny of the process. The members vote to approve the recommendation of the review committee and that vote is recorded in public minutes. This is when the grant becomes official and notifications can take place.

In the case of other agency grants, such as the Arts Visibility Grant, the general procedure is slightly different. However, the same degree of effort is made to ensure impartiality and fairness throughout.

The Arts Visibility Grant requires that applicants speak with staff members before submitting their application. This conversation ensures that the application is suitable for the program and that applicants (especially first time applicants) understand the procedure.

The applications are assembled in the same way as the Fellowship but are not constructed numerically as this is not a blind review. Once complete, the materials are sent to a panel of experts (in this case in the field of marketing) assembled from within the state and chaired by a commission member. The panel always includes artists and it is always put together with all demographics and artistic disciplines considered. The panel often consists of five members.

The panel has two weeks to review materials and then comes together in Augusta to review the applications. All reviewers are asked to sign a form declaring any conflicts of interest; if any conflicts exist then that panelist is asked to leave the room while that grant is discussed.

During the discussion, each application is represented by a lead reviewer. This reviewer presents the grant in terms of strengths and weaknesses and the panel discusses them thoroughly. The discussions are recorded in minutes so as to offer feedback to applicants who are unsuccessful. Once the application is discussed the reviewers score the grant individually on their scorecard. The scores are collected and entered into a database in a separate room. The reviewers do not know these scores, or the scores of their fellow reviewers, until the entire process is finished.

Once again, during this process the role of the staff is that of process explanation and technical support. No comments are offered on any of the grant applications; the review panel makes all the decisions.

Once all the grants have been reviewed the final scores are presented to the review panel and the top scores are proposed for funding. Panelists are asked not to make the results public until the full Maine Arts Commission has reviewed the process and made the grant awards official. Once that has happened the awardees are again notified and the grants are announced.

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