When I was invited to evaluate residency applications for the Saari Residence, I felt it was a great honour to be able to read about my colleagues’ thoughts and ideas. At the same time, I must admit that I felt a bit apprehensive about the work, especially because there are very few residency places to go round and, as a result, I could only propose a few artists as grantees. Before the evaluation process began, I worried I might not be able to assess the applications fairly. What if, subconsciously, I ended up favouring ways of working that are familiar to me? However, when I received the instructions for the residency evaluation, the process became clearer to me.
Being aware of your own preconceptions
The instructions contained a lot of material to support the work, and the priorities and evaluation criteria were clear. At the same time, I was encouraged to familiarise myself with and apply, as far as applicable, the national recommendations known as Good Practice in Research Evaluation. Obviously, the criteria used for academic or scientific research doesn’t necessarily apply when assessing art, but the recommendations were very useful nevertheless. At the same time, I realised that this is a great opportunity for me to stop and consider my own values and attitudes and the effect they might have on my work as an evaluator. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t trust my own professional skills or that I didn’t feel up to the evaluation task. Self-critical observation is vital for evaluation. Recognising your own preconceptions is especially important in a situation where the work is not based on peer review by several evaluators. It adds weight to your subjective view.
When evaluating the applications, I pondered things like what kind of a world are we living in right now, what kinds of values prevail, what is invisible or covert, and how different artistic processes and content-based framing of questions can highlight a new kind of critical thinking and operating models, perhaps even movements. At the same time, I considered the applicant’s capacity for self-reflection and understanding of their position important. Equally, I felt it was essential that the applicant’s aspirations and objectives should be highlighted in the content and the working methods of the work. Of course, it was also necessary to examine whether the application contained the required elements or whether there were shortcomings.
A good application reveals what the applicant wants to do, how and why
In my opinion, the easiest part of the evaluation process was sorting the different applications into broader categories: excellent, commendable, moderate and tolerable.
In relation to the overall number of applications, the percentage of tolerable ones was small. These were applications that, for the most part, provided inadequate information or weren’t aligned with Kone Foundation’s values, for example. There were cases where the objectives of the work were very much at odds with its content and execution, and cases where the application didn’t involve creative work but work such as commercial activities.
Among the moderate applications, there were some very interesting, important and inspiring projects, which unfortunately had some essential aspects missing from the project’s content or, for example, the artist’s own starting points. At times I was annoyed because I felt there were several applicants who had not read the application instructions properly or had not understood them. A tip for future applicants: when an evaluator reviews multiple applications, you can’t assume that they will read between the lines and understand unspoken meanings relating to the project. An applicant doesn’t need to be able to write perfectly, but they should be able to explain what they want to do, how and why. It’s not enough to include fascinating glimpses into the work in the application when, in the end, all the artists’ projects will be compared with each other. Another way to lose my interest was to use various academic terms in the wrong context. A good rule of thumb is to write about things you know and feel passionate about, even though the research approach is increasingly emphasised also in the field of art today.
In the home stretch, even the small things make a difference
During the evaluation process, I spent the most time re-examining excellent and commendable applications. It involved rereading the applications a couple of times and reviewing the additional material more closely. I was very pleased that a large number of the applicants had also included a lot of material from their previous projects in their applications: these proved invaluable when it came to borderline cases. By this I mean, for example, a situation where I thought the application was magnificent, but it involved some risks that made me hesitate to place it among the best ones. Or, for example, situations where the applicant highlighted certain values and practices in their artistic processes, and I wanted to make sure that this connection was already present in their previous works.
For me, the hardest part in the end was ranking the applications in order of preference. It was very difficult to compare the best applications, and even the smallest things made a difference in the final stages of the evaluation process. The final ranking was influenced, among other things, by any additional material on the future work of art that was attached to the application, the social significance of the work in our time and the applicant’s previous projects.
In many respects, the projects I chose as the best ones – for example, in terms of their topic, approach, technique and starting points – were quite different from one another. A common thread running through these projects, I found, was the fact that they were analytical and spoke directly to the viewer, while being unapologetic at the same time.
The topics of the projects were current, original and had a fresh point of view. The applications also demonstrated the importance of social influence through art and conveyed the artists’ burning passion.
Now that the evaluation process is finally over, I can sigh in relief and honestly say that I’m satisfied with my choices. It wasn’t easy and it took a long time.
 Working group for the responsible evaluation of a researcher (2020)