Evaluators see the hard work put into the applications

Illlustration: Marika Maijala

Kone Foundation’s grant applications are assessed by a peer evaluator: an expert in research or the arts who is often a researcher or artist themselves. Each application is assessed by one evaluator. Evaluators work anonymously to allow them the freedom to make choices based on their own views. Any criticism will be received by Kone Foundation, and the Foundation’s Board of Trustees is the body that ultimately makes the grant decisions. Two experts who evaluated applications in the autumn of 2021 talk about their work, revealing the high level of the applications received and also their frustration at having to drop good projects and at the unfairness of funding systems. 

Concise research plans stand out from the crowd 

“Last summer, I was surprised to receive an email from Kone Foundation. Would you like to come and evaluate research applications this autumn? I was thrilled to be asked, especially as, in the summer heat, my calendar still looked empty enough to make the job easily manageable. You see, an evaluator of applications has a great vantage point from which to view the research in their own field, as well as new trends, inspiring themes and emerging approaches. Reading applications is time-consuming but also an enjoyable, rewarding and meaningful job that you can learn a lot from yourself and that will result in the best-rated research projects receiving funding. The downside, of course, is the painful awareness of how many important and high-quality research projects have to be turned down. 

Based on my stint as an evaluator, which I recently completed, I can reveal to you that Kone Foundation receives extremely high-quality and skilfully crafted applications. A great common denominator of the applications is the researchers’ evident desire to engage in current research debate and to address social issues, whether they concern today or the past. Selecting the best ones from among a large group of excellent projects can be a little painful, but there are commonalities in the applications that make it to the evaluator’s final list. The applications on this list clearly show the diligence that has gone into them and how serious the researchers are about their project. They also reveal a genuine desire to communicate this to the reader. 

The highest-quality applications even manage to make the evaluator cheer with enthusiasm. They reveal an ability to translate their own area of interest into a skilfully problematised and conceptually high-quality research topic and plan. There’s no need for magic dust or a love potion. Sometimes you hear people talking about grant applications as a set of hoops you have to jump through or complaining about how they have to try and lure an evaluator and make them fall in love with your project by making empty promises. My guess is that most evaluators try to avoid the bewitching charmers of the research world and instead look for an understanding of the subject and credible goals.  

A good application is one where everything is well thought out and in order. The evaluator may not be an expert in your exact subject, but they are well versed in their own field of research and related fields. With this in mind, the best way to convince them of the importance and quality of your own research is to credibly justify your project, explain your concepts in an understandable way and set realistic but optimistic goals.  For an evaluator, the number one priority is clarity: when there are a large number of applications, the concise, logically organised research plans stand out – the ones with an idea that is easy to approach, despite the challenging conceptual and methodological mechanics.  

An evaluator particularly appreciates thoroughness, accuracy and grammatical correctness, which is why I recommend you make time for checking and proofreading your application. This is the first time the evaluator hears about your project and reads your summary, so prepare it carefully and put all your skills and knowledge into it. Also, take the instructions and objectives of your potential funder seriously. In its strategy, Kone Foundation has described its own focuses in an exceptionally interesting and reflective way. These values are not just empty words but actually guide the Foundation’s funding choices. At the same time, the freedom and intrinsic value, multiple voices, courage, perseverance, transnationality and responsibility of research are goals that we researchers feel are also our own. If and when your own research project has a connection of some kind to these focuses, don’t leave it to your readers to figure it out but lay your cards on the table – and don’t add a nod to the funder as simply a separate observation following your actual plan. Instead, weave it into your project description throughout the application.  

I want to thank you, grant applicant, for giving me the opportunity to read about your research! I am not your enemy. I’m the person who wants to put your application on the list of people to be funded, as long as you give me the chance.” 

Illustration: Marika Maijala

Evaluation is about understanding colleagues’ work 

“I never really thought about the people who evaluate my applications. Nor did it occur to me that the evaluator might be a colleague, another visual artist. Yet, a visual artist’s work is changeable and you never know what you might have to do: serve food at a restaurant, look after children on the weekend, be an assistant at a fashion shoot, help someone move house, act as a judge in a competition, clean the staff rooms of a factory or, this time, choose who in your line of work should be given a grant. Is there any other field with such a diverse job description and such a wide range of professionals? 

Before I started the evaluation process, I thought about how I would assess other people with very different situations in life to myself. The applications show that every artist has a very unique life, with different political interests, artistic goals, personal situation, background, education, identity, gender, ethnicity. So could the word evaluation be perceived as understanding? How do I go about understanding other artists and their art through their applications? For example, how an applicant’s educational background corresponds with their ability to write about their art clearly or who has the opportunity to document their portfolio in a professional way – does the gallery representing an artist write the application for them, while another applicant writes theirs during the lunch break at their bread-and-butter job? 

Kone Foundation’s focuses emerge in different ways in all the grant applications, and the significant issues in individual applications were by no means automatically clear. Each application had to be considered individually. What if the applicant was in a hurry and left typos in the application? What if they haven’t made a list of “tasks” for each month of the project? Each application had different priorities, whether big or small.  

The way I see it is that, as an artist, I live in my own little box, in a small bubble. At the same time, I feel I am authentically myself in that small bubble. While processing the applications, I realised that my bubble and my views on the field of visual arts and society influenced my assessment. I feel that I have a strong view of what I think the field of visual arts should be like and what kinds of applications I would like to fund – yet, it wasn’t always possible. My views didn’t match the Foundation’s focuses in every case. I remember one application where the Foundation felt that the applicant had applied for funding for too short a time. In the end, this application was dropped, even though it was on my final list of proposals. In awarding grants, the Foundation emphasises perseverance, which is why applications for longer periods are in a stronger position than those seeking a work grant for a few months.  

I did my best, as applicants do when writing their applications, just as I did my best when serving food at a restaurant. Was I always able to provide the best possible server performance and be polite to everyone? I’m sure I couldn’t, nor was I able to fully focus on every single application as an evaluator. When there are hundreds of applications, you start by browsing through them very superficially in the hopes that the things the applicant considers important will quickly become evident. I often wondered which were the things that the applicants might have thought were the strongest parts of their applications and tried to focus specifically on those. Eventually, the evaluation circle closed when I re-examined the applications I had selected for my list of proposals and my own justification for choosing them. I was again surprised by the way the applicants saw their own work and presented it in this format, as a unit with images and text that were designed to meet the aims of the application.  

I see Kone Foundation as somehow wilder, trendier, more current than other funding systems. The Foundation experiments with different types of funding solutions much more than many other foundations. Complete subjectivity as an individual, solitary evaluator is a shock at first. While assessing the projects, I thought about how fragmented, disorderly, unfair and difficult the current art funding system is. For artists, succeeding within it means work they won’t be paid for. How many artists are suffering from burnout – not due to the pandemic or their own artistic work, but because of this system that fuels uncertainty? Uncertainty about life, income, the opportunity to do the work you may have been trained for. My own artist friends have all suffered from anxiety; at the same time, I’ve observed how incredibly strong they are as people. They are able to constantly transform, stay afloat and survive in extreme conditions. Sports comparison: of all the extreme sports, visual arts must be the most extreme by far. 

I would like the funding system for the visual arts to be harmonised, for example, in such a way that applicants would not have to write several versions of the same application for different funding institutions. I would like to see more clarity and better methods particularly in the funding of visual arts, because it is the individual artist who most suffers from the complexity; the one who rarely has access to an organisation or other community to assist them in writing applications.”