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What if grants worked like insurance policies?
Monday, May 6, 2024 | Michael Martini

What if grants worked like insurance policies? Artists would buy into them and on the off-chance an opportunity actually struck them the granting body would be obligated to pay out and make the opportunity happen. Insurance, of course, is based on low odds. A payout is a form of surrender: “Fine, you win. Here’s your money.”

The Canada Council for the Arts funded approximately 15% of Creation projects last fall. A heads-up about their skeletal wallet would certainly have been helpful to the other 85% of applicants. There’s some commiseration to be done here. The applicants certainly spent hours upon hours over lukewarm coffees amping up their ideas, their CVs, and converting them into PDFs to boot. There is a type of nudity that goes into grant-writing, not just administrative nudity (“here’s how poor I am, colour-coded for your convenience”) but also emotional (“here what I care about, deeply; here’s who I am, deeply; may I please have a cookie now?”). Click here to confirm we can share this with the government however we like. This time around 85% of applicants sent their nudes and got blocked.

Certain artists and organisations here in Montreal are brainstorming solutions with an anarchist tenor: let’s start refusing grants, let’s sit in at the council offices, let’s begin to write without the support of in our programs where the logos go. Some established venues are cancelling shows with explicit mention of the lack of support. Here, the “impact” section familiar to many a grant-writer turns itself inside out. The impact of not receiving money is as profound as receiving it, and stating as much might even get you that vied-after press coverage


In the past year, I’ve fallen asleep to nearly forty seasons and counting of Survivor. This isn’t a secret to anyone who knows me. Many remember the emaciated human chess players clawing their way through the jungle toward a single million dollar cheque. Less remember the jury of eliminated players who must decide the final winner.

Last year, I planned an event at Montreal’s Studio 303 where seven dancers improvised to ambient music. In increments, the dancers eliminated each other from the ongoing performance by vote, with the final remaining dancer collecting the only artist fee available – an artist fee of two-hundred and fifty dollars (Canadian). Eliminated dancers formed a jury and prepared a set of questions to decide the winner out of the top two. I titled the performance Bien reçu after the ominous words that bounce back from so many applications, an epigraph in advance. 

Much like in Survivor, the obvious threats were taken out first. In the case of Bien reçu, those threats were the only two dancers over 30, eliminated efficiently from the game.


The game can be tough. You can have a confirmed public showing of your work, a stack of recommendation letters, an invitation abroad, and a malheureusement is mailed all the same. Now the no’s are multiplied. To you, and to your venue too. I used to think the hard part was the handshake with the venue confirming your booking. Turns out the obstacle course just extends itself. Find your partner – it’s time for a three-legged race toward the cash prize. There remains no irrefutable situation in which the grant body must face the music and pay out, no possible power reversal, no insurance. We plead, prove, pander. We write out our finances and fantasies in order to wait, blindfolded and eager to please, in a state of total submission.

If you want a piece of the pie, you better learn to bake. Sorry, I should revise my metaphor. If you want a piece of the pie, you better learn to volunteer. In a survey circulated among the dance and theatre communities in Montreal, 88.5% of unfunded production grants continued nonetheless, through personal investment, reduced wages, or volunteer labour, with nearly all the rest of the respondents saying “not sure yet,” or something similar. Welcome to a pool with thousands of hopefuls, where urgency is abstracted as a conceptual value and skirted around as a reality.

I have always been struck by the push from art institutions toward risk-taking, and by extension, the push for world-changing. It seems to me that risk-taking, when mandated by an institution, usually centres around the interests of the institution rather than the artist. The risks I see institutions favouring are often content-based – timely edginess that is bankable, talking points that are fashionable. These risks are favoured over form-based risks that truly run the possibility of failure, or content that is genuinely destabilising. It seems to me that the consequence of siloed, juried cash is that financial risk is apparently the most mandated of all. You’re funded all or nothing. It doesn’t work like a buffet where every guest who has paid their way eats until they’re full and there are still scraps to be reheated. If you have a reservation to eat, you better explain why it’s an important reservation, otherwise try again another time.

I remember a Survivor challenge where contestants had to dig a hole in the sand to find a key. Unfortunately, production did too good a job of hiding the key. Digging urgently for hours in the blazing sun, two castaways convulse with heatstroke and require medical attention; another is helicoptered away, nearly dying from heat exhaustion. The prize for the challenge? Salt and pepper to bring back to camp.


Bien reçu (No Hard Feelings), Michael Martini, Studio 303, Photo: Kinga Michalska



Some people have been lucky enough to get through to the arts council for personal feedback on their “no.” If you get a response (it’s harder than getting a doctor’s appointment), you might hear: the wallet was buffed up for COVID and now it’s run out too fast; that each jurist got to pick one application from a pile to advance to the group; that there were 2000 more entries than in 2019. I guess all those “how to write your first grant” workshops could’ve been gatekept better. Or maybe there were too many typos. Language is of the utmost concern to the granting system, especially seeing as inclusivity and accessibility are mandated to a pulp; it’s just too bad about those typos. The amount of housebroken artists has increased; the amount of yesses available from partners hasn’t. Same odds for everyone. No hard feelings.

Perhaps too many of our applications’ promised impacts were overstated. It’s easy to hyperbolize when asked how your idea will change the world, when asked why now. Maybe it’s best to keep it real, and promise to change one’s own world. If awarded, I will begin by being able to afford price-jacked eggs at the grocery store when the direct deposit hits. Maybe even free-range. Surely I’m owed at least the no-name carton on the bottom shelf. Just look at my letters of interest.

Maybe I’m caught up on insurance because of its sexy edge as a motif in film noir, with the genre’s signature atmosphere of cutthroat melancholy. My experience of insurance has been much more banal, be it hesitating whether to insure a thirty-minute Uhaul ride, or googling my alumni association because my teeth are feeling fuzzy. It can be difficult to assess risk, especially when you don’t know what’s at stake, how much is available, and if it’s worth it to call the ante. With grants, I wouldn’t mind a preliminary exchange of interest between artist and funder, like a job interview, to be sure it’s worth it to pursue the application process, that there’s even interest in you to begin with. Or maybe some unemployment insurance between projects. Please excuse the bureaucratic daydreaming.

Some healthy competition isn’t all that bad. When conceiving Bien reçu, I was inspired by the community-building I saw through competition, say at vogue balls or queer dodgeball tournaments. I invited the dancers to play dress-up with our own climate of precarity, to allow hard and soft values to oscillate. Gentle, ambient partner-work is bracketed by the reality that the winner takes it all. I’ve never done a performance with more cheering, booing, and gasping from the audience. The spectacle of precarity, and even injustice (“my favourite was robbed”), is somehow unifying.


In one Survivor episode, from the pirate-themed season seven, one castaway is extremely aware she will be voted off as the competition narrows down to the final few. Clearly out of the majority, she has nowhere to turn to. It is a given she will go. She invents a strategy not seen on Survivor up to that point. She plays dead. She mopes about, sleeps in, talks about how excited she is to see her family once she’s ousted. The other castaways- feverish, skeletal, and scatterbrained- lose interest in her. Why? Because she’s given up anyway. They turn their attention elsewhere. Of course, this clever contestant ends up winning the game. The lesson from the winner of my contemporary dance showdown? Better manage the jury well in advance, and treat each round like a nonverbal 5 à 7.

It could be time for me to play dead, doggy-style. Try flying under the radar. Focus on the long-game, on outlasting. Would the big guys lose just enough interest in me that I sneak ahead, or would I lose interest in playing dead myself, disappear, work for Via Rail or the SAQ or something. Of course, there are no big guys. There are juries of colleagues, mentors, culture workers slicing a pie in slices thinner than the knife itself. I know complaining isn’t productive. And I guess productions aren’t productive either, or people would be scoring higher in their impact section. Better to wait patiently for the treat, fighting back drool, than to bite the hand that feeds you.

The above text was written by Michael Martini. He is a queer playwright living in Montreal who has had texts performed in the FTA, OFFTA, Summerworks, and Rhubarb.

Editorial support by Emily Doucet. 

Cover Image: Judge Judy sourced via YouTube.