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Jerwood In Practice: Nominations vs Call for Entries

What we’ve learned from Jerwood Curatorial Accelerator about reaching and identifying potential applicants to our opportunities.

Introduction

Jerwood Arts has an extensive history of using different approaches to identify the most promising artists, curators and producers. Given that all funding processes are imperfect, we are mindful every time we start designing a new opportunity of the importance of thinking carefully about exactly who we are trying to reach.

For Jerwood Curatorial Accelerator (JCA), our new programme supporting curatorial and leadership development for early-career curators from working class/low socio-economic backgrounds, we used both a nominations process and a call for entries to reach potential applicants. This was the first time Jerwood Arts has run these two different processes simultaneously. We have now had some time to reflect on the experience of running a ‘dual process’ and want to share some of the things we have learned.

As always, we are interested to hear others’ experiences so do get in touch on info@jerwoodarts.org if you would like to share your own reflections on processes for reaching applicants.

Harriet Cooper, Head of Visual Arts

Jon Opie, Deputy Director

Lilli Geissendorfer, Director

Background

Two of the most common approaches used to identify applicants for funding, awards or opportunities are via a nomination process or a ‘call for entries’. Below we are outlining the structure of these, and some of the characteristics of each method.

Calls for entries have been used regularly in Jerwood Arts’ opportunity making over the years. We prefer this term to ‘open calls’ because we feel an opportunity with eligibility or selection criteria is never totally ‘open’. Recent projects that we have used this method for include the 1:1 FUND (2021), Live Work Fund (2020), Jerwood Art Fund Makers Open (2011 – ) and the Jerwood/Photoworks Awards (2015 – ).

The common characteristics are that the guidance and application form are published on our website and then pushed out far and wide through Jerwood Arts’ digital communities and our partner, artform and artist networks. Anyone can consider applying and we provide access support and information to help people to make the best application they can. As a more common model of opportunity making, the strengths are fairly well rehearsed:

  • It is the most open and inclusive approach – anyone eligible can apply
  • Marketing can be targeted to address under-representation in the arts in demographics, geography and artform/discipline
  • Applicant support can help people make the best applications they can and increase accessibility
  • It enables funders to be more transparent about how applications will be read and decisions made, with the process being fully visible online

The downsides to calls for entries have been widely discussed across the sector and social media, especially in light of the pressures the pandemic has added to artists’ livelihoods. Last summer we published a Jerwood in Practice blog about how funding for individuals is broken, which highlighted some of the key weaknesses:

  • the unpaid labour that goes into application making
  • the high numbers of applicants and lack of control over number of applicants
  • the lower chances of success
  • it requires existing fundraising confidence to decide to apply
  • the support and marketing efforts often only generate a marginal shift in who decided the opportunity is ‘right for them’.

Nomination processes involve developing an extensive list of ‘nominators’ who are best placed to identify early-career applicants in the specific artform or discipline an opportunity is targeting. We have used it recently for selecting artists for major commissioning opportunities such as Jerwood Survey (2018-19) and Survey II (2020-22) and Jerwood Collaborate! (2019), as well as three rounds of our celebrated Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowships (JCPF) (2017 – ).

The strengths of the nomination process lie in the list of nominators. In our experience, if you have identified the right nominators this approach can reach new applicants and generate exceptional applications in a more targeted way. For this reason, we spend significant time developing nominator lists for opportunities, thinking carefully about the geographic spread and the diversity of nominators, and including key people with insights and access to individuals/networks outside of the ‘usual suspects’. We have also learned to brief nominators with clarity and care on what is being asked, particularly where there is guidance on areas of under-representation that the opportunity seeks to address.

One of the many benefits of working with nominators is that it establishes a community of support around an opportunity – people who are pre-disposed to be favourable toward the goals of the programme and invested in its outcomes. This has certainly been true of the Jerwood Compton Poetry Fellowships where, as a new significant award within poetry, we managed to establish its values and purpose quickly by working with a large group of nominators who for personal, professional or altruistic reasons wanted to see it succeed. Another huge positive is the confidence that a nomination can give to an individual; to know that their work is being seen and advocated for is normally well received.

There are also drawbacks to working with a nomination process:

  • It can be time consuming developing the nominator list and communicating with them.
  • The response rate can be low, which means there is a risk that the nominations received do not reflect the diversity of the nominator list. (For the last edition of JCPF 38% of 181 nominators submitted names, for JCA it was 47% of 185 nominators)
  • It is a closed process, meaning there will inevitably be many individuals who would fit the opportunity that do not have a chance to make an application.
  • Many opportunities carry eligibility requirements, and it can be difficult to put nominators in the position of guessing an individual’s eligibility or interest in the opportunity. This can lead to a lot of assumptions, biases and second guessing.
  • It can be more frustrating for applicants who are unsuccessful, as they may not have decided to spend time on an application if they hadn’t been nominated.

In summarising the two approaches it is important to add that there remain many further institutional barriers, administrative processes and biases that are built into both, and the interplay with the individual psychology of applicants is multifaceted.


Our approach for Jerwood Curatorial Accelerator (JCA)

For JCA, we decided to experiment using both a call for entries and nomination process to help us reach potential applicants.

Our rationale for this was threefold:

  • JCA is specifically for UK-based early-career curators from working class/low socio-economic backgrounds meaning we were targeting a focused group of potential applicants who may not be reached with either process alone.
  • It is a UK-wide programme and as a funder based in London we wanted to ensure the opportunity was widely seen in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. A combined approach would strengthen our reach and advocacy for the programme, hopefully resulting from more applications from across the UK.
  • We know from previous processes that being nominated for a programme can give applicants the extra confidence to apply. As JCA is a new programme, we knew it would not be as easy for applicants to visualise themselves on the programme as there are no examples of alumni or programme outcomes to refer to.

With the help of the seven JCA Host organisations, we built a list of 185 nominators from across the UK. We asked ourselves and the Hosts to think about who they knew that was engaging with early-career curators, what the different pathways into curating are in their geographic area, and if there were specific networks we should be trying to reach. The final list of nominators included curators, artists, arts professionals, academic course tutors, community organisations, collectives, learning and engagement leaders, and key arts networks related to both curatorial practice and socio-economic diversity.

We sent all of the nominators a briefing pack about JCA prior to the call for entries opening and invited them to submit the names of up to three exceptional early-career curators who they thought would benefit from the programme. The briefing pack included clear guidance on what we would do with their nominations, and crucially confirmed that we did not need them to make a judgement or assumption about an individual’s class or socio-economic identity – we would invite applicants to self-define if they decided to apply.

The call for entries for JCA opened on 31 March 2022, and we promoted this through our own networks, the seven JCA Hosts, and via key organisations on social media. On this date we also emailed the 153 individuals who had been nominated to tell them about the programme and their nomination. We encouraged them to have a look at the application guidance to see if they were interested in the programme and if they were eligible for it. Alongside the guidance we provided support for all applicants in the form of 1-1 advice sessions, a public event Q&A, access to support workers and accessible formats, Welsh-language guidance and responding to individual questions on email.

By the end of the call for entries we received 181 applications to JCA, with 36% of them being from individuals who were nominated.

One of the important questions asked to us by applicants who had been nominated for the programme, was whether their nomination would have any influence on the selection process itself. The answer was no: we decided that nominations would not be revealed during the assessment and selection process itself as we did not want to introduce any bias in assessors from knowing someone else had vouched for the quality of an applicant’s work.


What did we learn?

There are various stages that we have gathered learning from, both through practical data and from nominator and applicant feedback. Not least, how this process impacted the selection of the JCA Fellows who will be announced later in 2022.

At the nomination stage, we found that around half (47%) of the 185 nominators submitted names to the programme, with most using the full opportunity to nominate three individuals. This percentage of nominations is similar to other nomination processes we have run and resulted in 153 individuals being nominated for JCA. Just under half of these (43%) made an application. Anecdotal feedback suggests that many individuals were proud and excited to be nominated, even if they didn’t end up applying or being eligible. This relatively low percentage of applications from those nominated could be due to us not asking nominators to consider eligibility factors or could suggest that our briefing to nominators about the programme could have been clearer.

At the application stage, 64% of the 181 applications were from individuals who had not been nominated, meaning that the majority of applicants found the opportunity via the call for entries and showing the importance of this method for reaching applicants.

When we got to the selection stage, we saw a significant increase in representation of nominated applicants being shortlisted or selected. While only 36% of the total applications were from nominated individuals, 74% of those shortlisted for interview had been nominated for the programme. The final group of JCA Fellows that were selected is made up of 75% nominees.

More widely, we were interested to understand how the applicant pool who applied to JCA compared to other applicant pools from recent Jerwood Arts’ opportunities*. Some of the things we noticed were:

  • 25% of applicants were from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Our percentage of applicants from these countries in 2020/2021 was 14%.
  • 47% of applicants from England were from outside of London. Our percentage of applicants from England based outside of London in 2020/2021 was 39%.
  • 33% of applications were from those identifying as coming from an Arab, African, Caribbean, LatinX, South Asian, East Asian or mixed ethnicity background. Our percentage of applicants identifying as coming from these backgrounds in 2020/2021 was 24%.
  • 35% of applications were from those identifying as a d/Deaf or disabled person, or having a disability or long term health condition. Our percentage of applicants in 2020/2021 was 19%.

*These figures are taken from our published applicant data for 2020/2021 which can be viewed here. This data represents applicants across all of our opportunities across disciplines from July 2020 – December 2021.


Our reflections

Overall, the dual process helped us to identify a cohort of exceptional curators from across the UK, for a programme with a very specific eligibility focus. We were pleased with how engaging with individual nominators in the visual art sector started to build knowledge about JCA, which will no doubt support advocacy for its aims and the participating curators in the longer term. The call for entries reached many fantastic applicants and we were struck by the number of applications from independent curators, who, in the early stages of their career, may still be developing their networks in the sector and so less likely to be on nominators’ radars.

While there are nuances between applicant journeys and the data gathered, some of the key reflections we have drawn out are:

  • There is a large increase in nominated applicants in the final group selected: Although we did not make it visible if applicants had been nominated for JCA in the assessment and selection process, the representation of nominated applicants rose significantly from 36% of the application intake to 75% in the final group. This suggests that the nomination process helped us identify individuals with exceptional practices for who this programme was a good fit.

 

  • The geographic spread of applicants was broader than our normal application processes: The increase in geographic spread is no doubt in large part due to working with seven partner Host organisations based across the UK on JCA. All of the Hosts shared the opportunity widely in their networks and were essential in helping to develop a strong nominator list including relevant individuals for their own local contexts for early-career curators. We found that 51% of the applications from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and 37% of the applications from England outside of London came from nominations. As a funder working across the breadth of the UK but physically based in London, we know that increased visibility, presence and awareness of our work is important in developing our support geographically and collaborating with partners on this clearly has an impact.

 

  • The combination of both methods helped us to reach applicants currently underrepresented in the arts: Compared to our 2020/2021 aggregated data, we had good numbers of applications to JCA from those who are currently underrepresented in the art sector. In looking at how these applicants had found the opportunity we discovered that there was not one clear method that encouraged more applications, with a similar split between nominees and call for entries applicants across much of the data (for example, of applicants identifying as a d/Deaf or disabled person, or having a disability or long-term health condition, 43% came through the nominations process with 57% finding the opportunity through the call for entries). This suggests to us that the combined strengths of the dual process are important in reaching underrepresented applicants.

It is worth noting that other factors may also have been at work: the increase in applicants identifying as d/Deaf or disabled may have also been due to the enhanced access materials and support we gave around the fund. The specific remit of JCA to target curators from working class/low socio-economic backgrounds is likely to have had an intersectional impact, whereas our overall data includes funds without such specific focusses on a particular aspect of representation.

 

  • Relationships are key: Above and beyond the specifics of the nomination and call for entries process, the results suggest to us that relationships are at the heart of the success of JCA in attracting a more diverse and broader pool of applicants. Building strong relationships with the Host organisations and developing the nominator list as advocates for the programme is likely to have played an invisible role beyond the nomination process itself, by increasing the sharing of the opportunity by trusted sources more widely.

 

On balance, we feel that the dual call for entries and nominations process has worked well, and it is certainly a process we will think about using for future opportunities. As a relational funder, it’s no surprise to find that ultimately, it is likely to have been the time committed to building relationships and generating support for the programme across the sector that helped most in increasing its reach to applicants. Finally, it is worth noting also that these two methods are only two of many, and in our continued work to support applicants and reduce unpaid labour, we recognise there are other methods such as invitation-based applications which also have a place in the continuing conversation on how to fund in the arts.

 

If you are considering trialling a nomination and call for entries process for your own opportunity, some top tips from our team:

  • Don’t be put off by the additional labour: While running two types of processes might sound like double the work it really isn’t. Because we linked the processes – nominees used the same application process – the only additional capacity needed was to manage the communications with the nominators and nominees. While the care needed for this should not be underestimated, this process also linked into our communication strategy for the opportunity meaning it contributed to workload in this area.

 

  • Put your energy in to building a strong nominator list: As mentioned earlier – the strengths of the nomination process lie in the list of nominators. The more time you put into building a broad, diverse and relevant list, the more likely you will get strong nominations. Think about asking other people who you should include on that list and consider different ways you can reach outside of your existing networks, particularly where you are trying to increase applications from underrepresented groups. We encouraged our nominators to tell us if they thought there were other people we should be inviting to nominate, enabling us to continue to increase the pool. Alongside this, it is hugely important to be clear and specific about what you are asking of nominators – especially when they are contributing knowledge unpaid. Put time into the briefing information you give them and make sure you are clear on what happens next once they have nominated. Inherent to being a funder is that we tend to get good response rates but be prepared for your opportunity to be scrutinised by the nominators.

 

  • Be clear in your communications to applicants about the dual process: On the whole, we found our communications with applicants through both the call for entries and nomination routes went smoothly, however there were a few cases where we could have been clearer. We used nominations as a method to reach potential applicants who might otherwise not have seen the opportunity or thought it was for them. For some applicants this caused some confusion as there was no eventual privilege to being nominated; in the selection process itself it did not matter. Being clearer up front about this might help applicants’ expectations and also enable them to make a more informed choice about whether they want to make an application or not.