Balancing Act: Adapting the Jerwood Bursaries

Rebekah Ubuntu, commissioned performance 'trans.mission.q' at Tate Britain, 2019. Image courtesy of Tate London.

Today we announced the 30 artists, curators and producers who have been awarded a Jerwood Bursary for 2020-2021. To find out more about this fund, and the selected beneficiaries, please click here.

This announcement comes during an extraordinarily challenging time for freelance artists. As resources are being diverted and shared in a state of emergency, we have been thinking carefully about our role as funders of early-career artists in the UK within this turbulent context. Jerwood Arts is a relatively small funder, reliant on investment income from the stock market. The further rounds of funding we were due to offer in 2020 are now under review, and we are not in a position to make emergency funding available.

Since lockdown started, we have committed to supporting all existing grantees and moved forward with as many projects as were possible including this selection. We have also been working with all 20 of our Development Programme Fund Partners, including: the Jerwood Arts | Apples and Snakes Performance in Poetry Programme, whose recipients were also announced today; the Jerwood Jazz Encounters Fellowships with Cheltenham Jazz Festival; and Sonic Terrains with Somerset House and immersive sound agency Call & Response.

The selected artists, curators and producers

The 30 outstanding Jerwood Bursary artists, curators and producers are all within the first ten years of establishing their practice, and presented unique and insightful ideas for how to shift their work forwards. Their ideas were conceived in a world before Covid-19, and we are now working with each of them to ascertain what might need to change, and how, for them to realise their ambitions. Our intention with this fund is to ask artists what they need for their practice, and to provide resources to carve out space for this, on their own terms and without the pressure of an outcome. This feels more pertinent than ever, and this has been reinforced by our conversations with each of the brilliant beneficiaries over the past few weeks.

The Jerwood Bursaries deadline and Covid-19

Early in 2020, we opened applications to the Jerwood Bursaries for professional development activity taking place between May-November this year. The deadline for this fund was Monday 9 March. This was just a few weeks before the official lockdown and before we or the applicants could have anticipated the level of disruption to our lives to follow.

We understood the 530 applications that had reached us would include planned activity – collaborative practice, access to new facilities or materials, skills development courses or conferences – that would be impossible in these new circumstances. It was also clear that this would be a devastating time for many artists, arts organisations and their communities. It became apparent that, in most cases, priorities around professional development would need to shift significantly, for artists to create space to manage new pressures, sustain their health and practice into an unclear futures.

In the weeks following the deadline, we worked with our existing network of early-career artists to navigate cancellations and delays. We completed the installation of Jerwood/FVU Awards 2020: Hindsight at Jerwood Space, and held a virtual exhibition opening with the artists from our homes in the knowledge that the gallery may not open for many months. Having contacted each of the artists and organisations working with our funding, we worked to lift pressure, listen, and help re-work plans where necessary.

The assessment process for the Jerwood Bursaries

Our responsibility to the Jerwood Bursaries applicants was to assess their proposals according to the funding guidelines published in January. This meant, counterintuitively, considering each application as though nothing had changed. We assessed the applications on the basis of the original criteria: the quality of the artist’s work, the strength of their planning, and the potential of the identified activity to develop the artist’s practice. We imagined that all activity could be postponed or reshaped for the new context, and did not privilege applications for work which could be undertaken digitally or from isolation. This approach felt strange, but also like the fairest one that we could take.

During this assessment process we worked with nineteen of our Artist Advisers, who were matched with longlisted applications according to their specialist knowledge and expertise. At a time when their own lives were facing disruption, they brought nuance and rigour to the process and contributed vital reflections on our heightened responsibility to artists in these times. When our assessment meetings moved online, we built in more time to change our procedures and make space for care and disagreement in our video calls. The high quality of applications made the final selection as challenging as ever, and we are grateful to every applicant for the time and energy they put into their applications.

Making the grant offer

We have made two significant changes to ensure that the selected artists, curators and producers will have the flexibility they need to make the most of this funding in the changing context of Covid-19. Each one has been offered the grant at the total maximum amount (£1250, or up to £1500 if access/caring costs were required). While many applicants had made a smaller request, we knew this was shaped around carefully budgeted activity that was likely to have to change. We hoped that providing everyone the full amount available would give them the freedom to re-plan their activity.

We have also extended the timeline for using the grant from December 2020 until December 2021. We know not everyone will be in a position to work or even to make speculative plans right now. The flexibility of the offer means that some will start using their bursary from ‘lockdown’, maintaining momentum for their practice during this period and building in time for reflection, research and skills development. Some can wait until the future is clearer, and they have a better understanding of ways to position their work. Unlike previous rounds of this fund, we’ve invited the beneficiaries to take time to reflect on what makes most sense for them and their practice right now, and to feel free to shape their plans as they go along.

What comes next?

We believe we have approached this selection process according to our principles, and have committed to providing individual feedback to each of the 267 unsuccessful applicants who requested it. Still, our approach has been imperfect. These circumstances have intensified conversations about the fairness and effectiveness of a funding model that invites the energy and imagination of so many and can ultimately support so few. While this small grant could provide a lifeline during this time, and a gentle reassurance, it cannot reverse the precarious reality of this current situation.

We are in a privileged position in all of this, and we feel lucky to still be here and available to our artist networks. We pride ourselves on listening to and trusting all the artists we work with. For the Jerwood Bursaries 2020 we are pushing this further, handing over as much agency to the 30 outstanding beneficiaries as we can while still maintaining a responsible approach to our funding. Independent artists, producers and curators have been managing a balancing act of work, resources, creativity, self-care, and support for their communities for a very long time. During a time when this balancing act is at greater risk of collapse, we will be listening to artists more attentively than ever, foregrounding kindness, flexibility and space where it’s needed.