At the Well blog


An anonymous evaluator: Some observations on the work of an evaluator

Photo: Otto-Ville Väätäinen

Although the assessment of the residency applications is done over a fairly short period of time, this intense period includes a lot of thoughts and feelings for an evaluator. How does it feel to be on the other side of the application process for the first time, to be an evaluator?

Applying for grants and residencies is my least favourite thing about being an artist. I know it’s essential when you’re a professional artist and I know that the grant system in our small country makes it possible for us to make art. I’m grateful for this system, but I can’t help the fact that I dislike writing applications, and the vague feeling that I never really know who I’m writing them to doesn’t help. Who is the person on the other side of this process? Who reads the applications?

When I was asked to review applications to the Saari Residence, I felt terrified at first and then excited. This time it would be me behind the curtain making the decisions. It had to be easier than writing applications, or so I hoped (I was wrong). At the same time, I realised I had been living in an illusion: there was no faceless mass of evaluators – instead, the people who read the applications are ordinary people like you and me. They are other artists and art experts who are living their lives and trying to decide who would be a good fit for a residence.

Evaluation begins

The time allotted for the evaluation work was about one month. There were a lot of applications, over a thousand in total. I was given just under two hundred of them. It seemed like a huge number, but I soon noticed that some applications could be quickly rejected (they were missing mandatory attachments or the applicant was not a professional artist). As the work progressed, I realised that I couldn’t immerse myself in the applications for as long as I would have liked, as there were only a few residencies available. This was the first thing I hadn’t prepared myself for: how frustrating it was to know from the start that only a small percentage of applicants could be accepted. I started to understand the phrase often used when announcing grant decisions: “Unfortunately, there were many excellent applicants who did not receive funding.” An evaluator is keenly aware that there are always more excellent applicants than there are residencies or money available. As I read people’s applications, I felt I began to get to know them and I became so interested in their projects that I couldn’t wait to see the end result.

That was another thing I wasn’t prepared for: the need to remain objective. You have to give each application the attention it deserves, but you also have to remember the goal: to eliminate applications that aren’t a good fit in order to find the most interesting proposals. What’s more, the elimination has to be made specifically in relation to the other applications and the guidelines of the residence, not simply based on your own preferences. But I was also surprised at how easy it was in the end to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s not difficult to see from the application whether the applicant has put effort into it and, above all, whether they themselves are excited about they do.

At the beginning of the work, I wrote the occasional note in my journal about the applications. Now, as I review them, I realise that I was stunned at how fascinating I found it to read about artistic projects that people from all over the world had decided to undertake. It was also interesting from a psychological viewpoint to read the project plans and CVs. Is there a better job for a curious writer than to read people’s thoughts about their own work and seeing which paths they’ve taken to end up where they are?

From excitement to tiredness and finally to decisions

Some of the applications gave rise to envy, some to sympathy, while others made me laugh out loud (don’t underestimate the power of humour in this fairly serious sector). I felt I was given an intimate glimpse into people’s personal lives. Some were very open about the difficulties they had faced and the experiences they’d had. I also reflected on the wider picture the applications painted not only to my own work, but also to the position the Kone Foundation holds. I even realised my own blatant privilege and how art systems usually favour those who already belong to a similar system. The language barrier was also clearly evident. As the applications were required to be written either in Finnish or English, this inevitably excluded applicants from countries where English is not taught or spoken. It is difficult to come up with solutions to these problems. At the same time, I was delighted to learn how many countries the applications came from.

Halfway through, I was struck by desperation and fatigue. There just seemed to be too many applications and too few residencies. At this time, I became bed-bound with a severe cold. Of course, throughout this process I also tried to do my own work. Even so, these were everyday reminders about what was important. I had to view the applicants with empathy because I knew perfectly well how much time it takes to write an application and that writing them isn’t an artist’s primary job.

I felt stressed about having such a huge responsibility. I was making decisions on people’s lives (admittedly on a rather small scale) and for once I was the one holding at least some power. Some days this felt good, awful on others. Finally, at the end of the month, I had made my decisions and I heard about the decisions other evaluators had made. Peer support made it easier. I learned that all the evaluators felt like me, and all you could do was to accept that there is no such thing as the perfect decision. I had learned a lot going through the process. My biggest lesson was this: what a joy it is to see how much different kinds of art people are doing all over the world.