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Jerwood in Practice: On feedback

03 August 2021

At Jerwood Arts we receive thousands of applications from early-career artists, curators and producers every year. Due to the limits of our resources, the majority of these are unsuccessful, with our success ratios across different programmes varying from 2%-10%.  We know that sourcing funding for different projects can become a complex jigsaw and often the shape of an artists’ whole year of work can be determined by a single funder’s decision. Repeated rejections are cited as one of the toughest elements of being a freelance artist in today’s ecology, and so it has become a priority for us to make the rejection process, as well as the application process, as positive as possible. 

Writing bespoke written feedback has become one of the key ways we try to do this. Over the last few years we have piloted offering feedback on request across many of our funding programmes, and now offer it with all opportunities for individual artists and creatives. On average, around 50% of unsuccessful applicants take up the offer, and we send them their feedback within eight weeks of the request. We take all the notes made during the assessments and turn them into around 200 words of insight into how an application was reviewed, where it might have been strengthened and sometimes advice of where the idea in the proposal could be developed or find support elsewhere.  

We are regularly asked what our approach to feedback is by other funders and arts organisations, and how we manage it practically. Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve been aware of a growing discourse around the pros and cons of good, bad and non-existent feedback processes on social media, as debates around the inequities and power dynamics between arts organisations and freelance artists have come to the fore. Below we’ve explored some of the reasons we’ve decided to make feedback part of our funding processes, and the challenges, nuances and discussions this has gifted us.  

Context and nuance 

Feedback can provide context to the flatness of an ‘unsuccessful’ application outcome, which rarely reflects how an application has been received. There are always brilliant, challenging, experimental and thoughtful applications that don’t get through a selection process on a technicality. It is not news to say it, but there is never enough funding to support all the skilled and visionary practices we’re introduced to. An application may have a profound impact on one or more assessors, even if the project is not suitable for the funding opportunity. The writing and the work might inspire possible connections with other relevant funders, programmers, or even mentors. Too often a respect for an artist’s work is felt and expressed within a selection process but never shared with the artist themselves.  

Offering feedback is one way that we can address this breakdown of communication. It helps us to weave nuance and clarity back into a rejection for the artists who require it. It adds a layer of accountability and transparency into our process which feels integral. It also means that the time invested in assessing applications can be put to further, more generative use for artists beyond the decision-making.  

Capacity 

The main resource we offer through writing feedback to artists is our time. After the Live Work Fund open call for example, four members of our staff and three of our Artist Advisers spent eight weeks writing 636 individual feedback responses to applicants. Each feedback response is compiled by weaving together every comment or score that’s been made throughout the process, while considering specific questions or concerns the applicant might have identified in their request to us. We also re-read each application to fully contextualise the comments that have been made. 

For many arts organisations and funders supporting individuals, the time required to provide constructive feedback presents a very real challenge. For any feedback offer to be sustainable, it should be proportional, and carefully scaled to avoid burnout on all sides. We have found some strategies to streamline our approach. For example, if there are criteria for improvement which appear regularly, we write template explanations which can be adapted across multiple applications. We now write these for each of the eligibility criteria for a programme or award, so we can replicate key points quickly to support more personalised comments.  

Accountability 

Providing feedback has heightened our sense of responsibility at all stages of the process. Our assessors read applications more closely and write more considered notes in the knowledge this might need to be shared with the artist. If there is a particular piece of work we’re struck by, we write it down. If an artist has omitted key detail from their application, we take a moment to explain our view with more care. Offering feedback provides an insight into how we work and increases accountability. If comments on an application are ever flippant or curt – which they can be during time-limited selection processes – they ultimately need to be reconfigured into detailed and constructive recommendations. If our notes lack specificity or empathy, it takes twice as long to put these things back in during the feedback process. 

Of course, different assessors take different approaches in articulating their views, and sometimes assessments need careful unpacking before they can be shared with an applicant. Another challenge is that the views of our assessors don’t always align. An assessor that participated in a selection process might later be tasked with compiling somebody else’s notes on an application they disagree with. There are situations where we know that had it been our call at the time, an unsuccessful application would have found its place on the shortlist. This happens – all we can do is be honest about the differing perspectives in the process, and thread the feedback with our own energy and encouragement. 

Feedback on the feedback 

When we sent out our feedback responses for the Live Work Fund, over 100 applicants got in touch encouraging us to continue. This was unexpected and reassuring. One applicant described the feedback they received as ‘thorough, human and constructively-minded’, which reflects the intentions behind what we write. However, we know that not all the feedback we provide to artists is helpful or enjoyable to read. If an applicant’s work or vision has been misinterpreted it can be upsetting when this is made clear. The dialogue around our feedback occasionally exposes a mismatch between how our criteria are described to artists and how they’re applied by assessors. This is never comfortable but always useful to hear and helps us to discover some of the blindspots we might have in our assessments and funding. Feedback comes at a time when we can’t change individual outcomes, but we can change how we do things in the future. 

Where next 

Our feedback process is evolving, and it changes in scale and approach with each application process. We are becoming more aware of the limitations of what feedback can do, but also what it can unlock when done well. Finding a sustainable and proportionate feedback approach has taken trial and error within an unbalanced system. For many arts organisations and funders, there is simply no time to take it on with the depth and specificity they would like to. We would not like to suggest that everyone working in the arts has the same resources as us to provide detailed and bespoke written feedback. We do think more openness and dialogue is important to break down the us/them division between applicants and decision makers. For us, we have found the benefits outweigh the challenges, and are going to continue to learn from the feedback we receive and evolve our feedback processes.  

Sarah Gibbon, Project Manager