Riding the Panel Process

By Kegan Marling


The panel-based selection process frequently used by arts funders, residency programs and award committees has always felt on par with how dodge ball teams were picked in PE class—elitist, superficial and incorrigibly human. I get a little ruffled thinking about the career-affecting decisions made by small groups of people who may or may not be familiar with my work. Who wants a few panel experts (translation: opinionated people) determining the worth of an artistic venture?

In developing my own artistic practice, I’ve had to question how I can make work that compels me, while finding resources—whether grants or residencies—without completely conforming to guidelines and structures laid out by funders and supporters.

In the past few years, I’ve witnessed the panel process from many angles. As an artist, I’ve struggled to create language that translates my creative process and interests into “grant speak.” I listened to panelists at the San Francisco Arts Commission tear into my application, and I’ve sat on that same panel and struggled to properly understand the dozens of proposals in front of me. I’ve viewed dance work for residency panels and award committees; and helped build the panel process for Dancers’ Group’s Lighting Artists in Dance Award.

Within these experiences, there’s plenty to critique about panels on modern dance work (I say modern dance work because I’m sure that outside of my own experiences there are different issues and challenges that affect panels on other forms of dance or art). It seems like every time I mention a panel to someone, there is the obligatory eye roll followed by “I hate it, but you have to play the game.” That sentiment is one of the quirks of the system; we feel we have to play a game (and be in competition with other artists) in order to earn recognition and resources, but we don’t have a belief that the system used to judge us is fair or accurate. What friction!

What follows is my personal investigation into the panel decision process as I try to better understand its limitations and benefits, and how it can support my artistic work.

First are the five flaws that seem most challenging:

Assumed expertise. I deeply believe most panelists aim to be as unbiased in their decision-making as humanly possible. However, what often seems overlooked is how a panelist’s body of expertise impacts the questions they ask and the choices they make. Of course a contact improvisation artist is going to have different opinions than someone from a ballet or flamenco background. And of course sometimes those can have profound impact on the choices they make. I for one would rather not have a classical musician evaluating the strengths of my proposal; I want someone who understands the development process of a dance/theatre production and who can watch a 3-minute clip of work without asking when we’re going to start really dancing.

Since we have no control over who is on the panel, the best one can do is to research the composition of the panel and then tailor the application to fit that audience. But panel organizers should also take responsibility to encourage panelists to think about how their history and interests impact the choices they make—not because they should make different choices, but to acknowledge their depth of experience and reveal potential gaps that could be supported by questioning those with a deeper understanding of the particular nuances of that field.

Videos. They just never do justice to live performance. Period. And unless you’re making work specifically for the camera, one of the last things you are thinking about when putting together a production is how to best document it for grant and residency applications. Some panelists forget this fact when watching all those work samples, so it falls on the artist to start prioritizing video documentation if we want to be competitive.

Conflict of interest. Favoritism is the scary beast that many fear, but when it comes to panelists, less involvement in the dance community translates to less understanding of the community. Certainly it’s unfortunate to have the person with probably the most valuable insight silenced. But the deeper problem with conflicts of interest happens when panels use a scoring process where the person with the conflict skips out on scoring. This might seem fair enough at first glance—if someone is potentially biased, they don’t get to vote—except what often happens is the scoring then becomes skewed. It lends greater weight to the opinions of a smaller group, which emphasizes unspoken or unacknowledged biases.

Compromise. In order to have consensus, compromise is a necessity. The ugly downside with compromise is that it tends to be risk-averse. Unknowns and questionable aspects of an application make consensus difficult, sinking an otherwise potentially brilliant proposal. It’s too bad that a great deal of inspired ideas never see fulfillment because not enough people are willing to go out on a limb.

Applications. Bound up in guidelines and restrictions, the application is an attempt to take a snapshot of an artist and convey the most essential points to the panel. Applications attempt to create a sense of trust for the panelist that an artist knows what they are doing. Of course, that’s assuming an artist can draw a clear picture of the work they’re thinking of presenting in 12 months. This process is a bit strange when you think about what artistic works would never have happened if every artist had to plan out in advance what they were doing.

And while writing a proposal can help clarify and solidify a project, it can also indirectly shape the work in ways that might not best support the creative process. What happens when you receive a grant but are no longer interested in the topic? Or something more relevant and timely has come up? What if you need more time to develop the project than the grant period? Funders can often be a little lenient about grant restrictions, but I wonder how often an artist even questions these things?

And what happens if you want to rework an old piece? Many funders either explicitly don’t allow that or focus their funding on “innovative” or “cutting-edge” work, which translates to no old stuff please. But how are we supposed to develop our craft and our language if we are never examining our past work? Receiving a grant or residency can certainly be a boost to the ego and help provide validation, but we have to decide if the particular grant/residency is actually going to support the work we want to me making.

Despite all the flaws, frustrations and bullshit, I’ve grown to appreciate panels as a useful way to review art. The thing is, panels or other, there is no perfect method. Every system for evaluating art is going to be terribly flawed. Ideally, decision makers would come to my show, grab tea with me and have a nice long conversation about my work. But with dozens of performances happening each weekend and probably well over 500 dance companies in the Bay Area, that’s just frankly impossible. So considering funders generally have limited information, finite resources and a wealth of applicants, I think an informed panel can help make insightful decisions when comparing artists.

While recently sitting on an artist residency panel, I was reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s compelling novel on decision making, blink. It opens with a great story of the Getty Museum’s purchase of a 6th century BCE marble statue. Fourteen months were spent analyzing the statue before purchase, including mineral tests by geologists and authentication of the historical documents. But when viewed by art historians and Greek sculpture experts, nearly every person had an immediate intuitive repulsion. These experts were able to understand more about the statue in a few moments than the Getty had figured out in 14 months. Turns out the experts were right, it was a fraud.

Gladwell goes on to discuss that we are often able to fully utilize our knowledge of a subject in making immediate decisions based on very limited information. In essence, our gut reactions are often quite right if we have a great deal of knowledge in the particular area. Not so much when we don’t. And the challenge is in understanding when we can rely on our instincts, and when to search out more information.

In this surprisingly successful panel, two things helped us reach a satisfying consensus: 1) Each panelist was a working artist familiar with most of the dance forms represented by the applicants. 2) We didn’t read any applications, we just watched videos. In many ways, this process began to address some of my concerns about the panel process.

Since this particular residency did not require produced work as the final result, there was no need to read about what the artist proposed to do. This meant we didn’t make judgments based on the writing style of the artist, or their ability to translate ideas onto paper, or how well they balance a budget. Instead we relied on the information that was most relevant to making the best decision for this panel – the dancing.

While it was struggling to see so many poor quality video samples, I could pull from my experience to try to see the video in the best light. And from hearing the other panelists comments and questions, it was clear this was the case for them. Since all of the panelists have years of seeing various forms of modern dance, extensive training in quite a few forms, and a sense of the history of the modern dance community, we didn’t need much more than a minute of video. When I felt the style of work was too far outside my realm I could chat with others to flesh out my understanding of the artist. And the results at the end of the day made sense and the artists selected felt like the strongest fit with that particular residency.

I’m not suggesting this method would work for other panels, but what struck me was that the residency program director knew what types of artists the program wanted to bring in and tailored their application process to eliminate information that was irrelevant to the decision process. It’s similar to when orchestras started having musicians sit behind screens during auditions so that conductors focused on the sound of the music being played and not the race, gender, and physical traits of the musician.

So yes, panels can work, particularly when the process is tailored to emphasize relevant information and panelists are able to utilize their knowledge, have awareness of their biases, and feel supported in taking risks. Artists will still roll their eyes (myself included) at all the limitations that sometimes feel unfair. But by better understanding the panel process, we strengthen our ability to seek out appropriate sources of support and craft compelling applications. And by examining how grants and residencies impact our artistic choices, we might discover there are other resources available that can help us make the art we want to make.

My advice: every artist should take time to serve on an arts panel. Experience the inherit complications of trying to select the most appropriate artist(s) to receive those limited resources. Contact funders, residencies and awards panels to find out if you can participate in the process. Putting yourself on both sides will give you a good look at your own ideas of the successes and flaws of the panel process.

This article appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of In Dance.

Kegan Marling is a visual & movement artist and arts consultant from the San Francisco Bay Area. Influenced by artists Della Davidson, Lea Anderson, Brian Thorstenson and Joe Goode, their work focuses on alternative queer communities, dance and theatre artists, body positivity and documenting queer pursuits of play – including gaymers, pups, drag artists, wrestlers and faeries. Their work has appeared in venues & publications including the de Young Museum, Frameline Film Festival, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, National Queer Arts Festival and SF General Hospital. (keganmarling.org)