[Image Description]: The MRAC logo is on the left and is broken up by a photo by Anna Min of Min Enterprises Photography. The photo has four panelists of diverse ages, races, and genders. The panelists are sitting around a curved table and are holding up number cards.
Since its inception, MRAC’s mission is to improve arts access for communities in the seven county metropolitan area through support to artists and organizations. To advance this mission, our primary tool is grantmaking, and intuitive to this approach is to ensure access to our resources is fair and equitable. This requires building trust with the community and paying close attention to who is (and is not) applying, who is successfully receiving grants, and how we are engaging the public.
MRAC’s grantmaking process includes the selection of community members to serve as panelists who review and score grant applications based on specific grant criteria, and then they make recommendations to the MRAC Board for approval. This form of public participation allows for us to uplift community voice, experiences, and perspectives.
The Challenges and Unintentional Impact
While the intentions for our grantmaking process were grounded in community engagement and to minimize gatekeeping, the outcomes have resulted in funding disparities for BIPOC, Disabled/Disability, and LGBTQIA2+ individuals and groups. That’s why in 2020, we explicitly announced the prioritization of BIPOC, Disabled/Disability, and LGBTQIA2+ communities at MRAC. We set funding goals to grant funds proportionate to these populations in the Metro which included the creation of programs specifically for groups with more than 50% of leadership identifying with these communities, and for individuals from these communities. We were deliberate about our outreach and engagement with these communities.
To address the unintended consequences, we’ve updated the application questions, diversified the panel, modified grant criteria and adjusted trainings and workshops. As part of our efforts to identify challenges and barriers we continuously:
- Track our funding progress;
- Collect feedback from applicants, panelists and grantees after every grant round and;
- Conduct a deeper needs assessment with surveys and focus groups every 4 years.
However, the changes we made have not solved the systemic barriers nor closed the funding disparity gap. We continue to hear from grantees and the community that the current grant system allows the following challenges to persist:
- A more complicated and labor intensive application;
- A system of judgment that can be detrimental and discriminative to applicants that are not English proficient, have limited grant writing experience, and/or come from a different cultural perspective and;
- An unbalanced emphasis on the application part of the process over the implementation part of the grant.
Reimagine With Us
In fiscal year 2023, with support from the McKnight Foundation, we worked closely with BIPOC artist advisors and hosted focus groups with more than 100 participants to develop the Artists’ Futures program. During this process, participants identified the same challenges as above. To truly make tangible change, we needed to boldly shift our grantmaking approach by removing the panel. This allowed us to:
- Simplify the application process, and reduce applicant labor;
- Mitigate a biased decision making system and;
- Allow for more emphasis on grantees to create a more accountable system.
Using the knowledge from Artists’ Futures and wisdom from other grantmakers, the decision to remove the panel process will be implemented in fiscal year 2025. We believe this will best serve our efforts to achieve better and more equitable outcomes in all of our programs.
MRAC wants your help to reimagine how the public can participate in this new process. What are creative and more intentional ways the public can participate? What would be beneficial for you as an applicant, as a grantee, and/or as a community member who wants to be engaged with the arts community?
We have a two-phase engagement process:
- Take our Public Participation survey. The survey allows you to tell us what you need to feel confident about the new grantmaking process to improve our funding and to share ideas about other ways that the public can participate in the process.
- Participate in focus groups. We’ll use the data from the survey to deepen our exploration of other possibilities and new innovative models for public participation.
Your input in the Public Participation survey is crucial in better understanding what is missing in the design of our new grantmaking model. We encourage you to take 5-8 minutes to fill out the simple 11 question survey, as well as share it with your communities, to expand our reach in engagement.
For assistance filling out the form or to request the survey in another format or language, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.