Smile Politely

Everything you need to know about the Urbana Arts Grants program

It’s no secret that performing and visual artists have been hard hit this year. But for artists living in the Champaign area, there is a bright spot on the horizon. The City of Urbana is currently accepting applications (which due on January 13th) for the 2021 grant cycle where a total of $90,000 in support will be available. And some of that could be yours.  I reached out to Urbana Arts & Culture Program Coordinator Rachel Lauren Storm to learn the secret formula for a successful arts grant application and she responded with a veritable treasure map. And a fervent call: “Apply, Dear Reader. Your creative work is worthy.”

Smile Politely: When did the Urbana Arts grant program begin? How did it start? What motivated it?

Rachel Lauren Storm: The Urbana Arts Grant program was one of the first initiatives of the City’s Arts and Culture Program back when it was founded in 2008. Since that time, the program has funded over 300 local projects by individual artists, arts organizations, nonprofits, and cultural groups. The desire to create the grant program was part of a broader goal of the City of Urbana’s Arts and Culture Program generating a dedicated stream of support for local artists and creative projects for the community.

This mirrors a primary goal of the broader Urbana Arts and Culture Program: to provide resources that ensure Urbana consistently champions local artistic and cultural diversity, as well as facilitates creative connection. The Public Arts Task Force, composed of local community members devoted to arts and culture, worked to establish the Urbana Arts and Culture Program (formerly Urbana Public Arts) and advocated for the City of Urbana to put funding and support directly into the arts. We fund a wide variety of projects, all with the desire to support local creative workers in developing dynamic arts and cultural programming for the broader community.

SP: How has it changed over the years?

Storm: Over the years, we’ve had some changes in how we distinguish the grant categories–their names have changed and some of the requirements have been tweaked to improve clarity or encourage ease of process. In 2018, the Urbana Arts and Culture Program became responsible for what was formerly called Special Event Funding and through building it into our grant program, we revised the categories again to better reflect the small, mid-size, and larger grant categories (Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III) and their associated grant restrictions, particularly cash match requirements for larger grants. Our Tier III category is decided by our Urbana Arts and Culture Commission and the commission hears public pitches along with receiving written proposals, while grant Tiers I and II are decided by independent juries.

Our Urbana Arts and Culture Program went through a name and mission revision in 2018 to reflect a deeper commitment to recognizing the inextricable relationship between arts and culture, as well as the necessary commitment to always seeking to bolster diversity, inclusion, and accessibility. These are key values of our program that should be taken into consideration as proposals are developed.

SP: Can you briefly describe the types of grant support offered?

Storm: Yes! The City of Urbana supports opportunities for all residents to engage with the arts in its many forms. The arts are essential to the vitality for the development of the city and enhance the quality of life while encouraging economic development, improving academic performance, and celebrating diversity. This 2021 cycle, up to $90,000 will be awarded to artists, arts organizations, and festival presenters for creative projects that enrich the lives of Urbana residents and visitors.

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, proposed projects may include adapted and virtual engagement efforts that build community and foster creativity through partnerships with Urbana venues and organizations.”

This grant program is open to all disciplines in the arts on public display within spaces open to the public, including but not limited to creative writing, dance, film, video, music, theatre, visual arts, crafts, performing arts, spoken word, environmental arts, multimedia arts, architectural arts, landscape architecture, and emerging media. Grants will be available in five categories listed below:

Tier I Grants ranging between $500-$1,500 for individual artists and initiatives
Tier II Grants ranging between $2,000-$4,500 for mid-sized initiatives
Tier III Grants ranging between $5,000-$10,000 for large-scale special events
Arts in the Schools Grants for arts education initiatives in USD #116 schools (now built into the Tier I application)
Poet Laureate Program Honorary award for Champaign County resident poet
Youth Poet Laureate Program Honorary award for Urbana youth poet

Applicants can find guidelines, applications, a virtual grant workshop, and information about drop-in grant hours online. You can also find a list of past grant recipients from previous years that will give you insight into the diversity of projects that we fund in Urbana!

SP: What is the biggest misconception that people have about the program?

Storm: It’s not so much a misconception, but a common hurdle is simply the challenge of demystifying the process and ensuring that every artist, cultural worker, or creative group knows that they are eligible and no matter their experience writing grants, they can write a successful grant proposal. We offer lots of support along the way, but the biggest thing is not overthinking it! The proposal writing is actually rather straightforward. As a past grant recipient myself (prior to working as the Arts and Culture Coordinator, I was a 4 time grant recipient), I know how hard it is to get caught up in questioning whether a proposal has merit, is compelling, and meaningfully addresses program goals. To the applicant who is facing similar questions, I say don’t hesitate. Your work is worthy. We need it in the community. Apply, apply, apply. And reach out for help! I have the benefit of being a facilitator, not a voting juror. For that reason, I am well-positioned to offer advice, critique, encouragement, and support. Making contact with a grantor in advance of applying is always a wise move no matter what grant you’re applying for.

And of course, another major hurdle is the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a time that requires so much vision, creativity, and innovation. I have no doubt artists will continue to lead us forward during these times.

Photo of outdoor festival with tents and crowds of people and the words

SP: What makes an idea stand out?

Storm: We love projects that elevate emerging art forms or put a new spin on traditional art forms. A project that brings together a diversity of partners towards creative collaboration is always an easy sell. More still, projects that do the work of thoughtfully engaging the community, paying particular attention to bolstering the accessibility of the arts and cultural programs for areas of our community that are underserved, are of deep interest to our jurors and our program.

In thinking about community engagement, we also want to see the community move beyond mere audience to having a more engaged and immersive experience. How can the community benefit educationally, artistically, and intellectually from this work?

SP: I know that you are offering free one-on-one virtual feedback sessions for interested artists. Will there be more in January? What other options does your office offer for feedback and support as artists prepare their applications?

Storm: We offer substantial support through this process. First, a video of the Arts Grants Workshop is available for viewing here. In a normal year, I give anywhere from 6-8 grant workshops in the community. This year, the pandemic has made us go virtual, which is more convenient for many. Watch the workshop video, and get answers to the most commonly-asked questions.

In addition, I will be offering Drop-in Grant Hours in January where applicants are invited to ask individual questions and get feedback on their grant applications. I may be announcing some additional dates as well.

Drop-in Grant Hours: January 7th and 9th, 10 a.m. through 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. through 3 p.m. via Zoom. Grant applicants can sign up for a 15 minute time-slot to clarify individual grant questions.  Sign up here

SP: This program funds so many of the programs that make CU so vibrant.  Can you share the names of some that have had the biggest impact? 

Storm: Oh definitely! Some of the most recognizable past grant projects are Pygmalion, Urbana Sweetcorn Festival, CU Folk and Roots Festival, Boneyard Arts Festival, Urbana First Fridays, Read Across America, Heartland Maker Fest, and more. These tend to be the bigger festivals and established programs.

Yet, to me, some of the most impactful programs are those that have the ability to transform how we think and live together within the City of Urbana. I think about the Teen Art Council we funded from the Fab Lab and The Urbana Free Library that is giving youth a platform to assume leadership in the arts. I think about a fashion show designed in collaboration with artist Aimee Rickman that examines surveillance technology and fashion. I think about the CU Black and African Arts Festival that not only spotlights Black and African artists, but supports local immigrants, honors the diverse experiences of those in the diaspora, and carves out a new space for Black culture and arts in the community.

I think about projects that have reshaped arts education in Urbana School District #116. I think of environmental arts projects and projects that have challenged issues of social inequity and strengthened our collective wellbeing. We have funded over 300 projects in the past 10 years and each of them have helped shape our local arts scene and our greater community.

SP: What have been some of the most unique?

Storm: I can’t pick! There have been so many! Theater productions, youth arts camps, artist residencies, exhibitions, dance performances, conferences, festivals, workshops, and events that draw upon unique and brilliant collaborations. There is truly something for everyone. I advise everyone to take a look at our past grantee list and be inspired.

I think my favorites tend to be surprising collaborations. I loved when CU Jazz Festival had poets crafting works for display during (and inspired by) jazz performances.

Personally, I am thrilled by projects that bring the arts to communities and offer new ways of looking at the world or amplify lesser known stories. I love Ashanti File’s work, the Writers of Oya, which gives a healing space and dynamic platform to young girls of color to speak to their experiences with trauma, oppression, resilience, and empowerment. I love Lori Fuller’s work to bring arts instruction to elders and people with disabilities. I love the experimental arts festival, Immersion, for its innovation and commitment to arts on the edge. I love the work of KOOP Adventure Play and their mission of giving young people safe spaces for unrestricted creativity. I love the creative genius that is local artist, EKAH, and her commitment to old and new animation technologies. 

Most grantors are asked “what do you tend to fund?” And what is most thrilling about our program is that there isn’t a type of project. We intentionally set-out to fund a diverse line-up of creative projects, so being unique is what it’s all about!

SP: How does the judging process work? How long does it take?

Tier III, our largest category, is judged by our Urbana Arts and Culture Commission and applicants give public presentations and the vote is done publicly at our meetings, after initial scores and funding recommendations from our commissioners are utilized to form a recommendation presented by the Arts and Culture Coordinator.

For all other grant categories (Tier I, Tier II, Arts in the Schools, Poet Laureate, and the new Youth Poet Laureate) independent juries are assembled composed of local artists and arts administrators in the community who evaluate them for artistic quality, community integration, and project feasibility. I give advice on how grantees can aim for a top score in my grant workshop viewable here.

SP: What are some of the most common mistakes that applicants make? And how can they avoid them?

Storm: Primarily, it’s not following instructions. In particular, it’s always important to note grant restrictions and eligibility guidelines:

Projects must be exhibited or performed within the City of Urbana. Please note that the cities of Champaign and Urbana are separate entities. Further, preference may be given to projects that take place within a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF).

Projects must be open and accessible to the public. Projects that charge admission are required to ensure grant funding is spent primarily on portions of the project that are free and open to the public.

Permanent installations are not eligible at this time. Consideration will be given to murals with a detailed property owner partnership/tenant relationship, along with a plan and detailed timeline for installation, maintenance, and de-installation.

Applicants do not need to live in the City of Urbana. However, Urbana residency may be taken into consideration.

Previous recipients of Urbana Arts Grants ARE eligible to apply for the 2021 cycle of Urbana Arts Grants. Grant applications requesting funding for new projects or new additions to ongoing projects may be given priority.

Grant funds must be used to support project-based efforts. Requests for operating costs will not be considered. Grant funds may NOT be used for the following purposes:

  • For the purchase of non-consumable materials (e.g., computers, software, cameras, power tools, instruments)
  • For the completion of degree work
  • For any event conducted solely or primarily as a fundraiser
  • For inherently religious activities (religious worship, instruction, or proselytization.) As a note, faith-based organizations are eligible to apply for an Urbana Arts Grant to support the non-religious cultural and arts programming that they provide and proposals should outline the care taken to separate, in time or location, their inherently religious activities from any arts or cultural programming funded through an Urbana Arts Grant.
  • For any project serving as a political endorsement
  • For any cash prizes, gifts, or giveaway items
  • For any honoraria and/or salary or service payments to City of Urbana staff or members of the Urbana Arts and Culture Commission.
  • For any projects that serve as commercial advertising

We sometimes get folks applying for funding for activities that don’t demonstrate partnerships, aren’t situated within City of Urbana limits, or otherwise miss important grant application materials.

SP: What’s the best advice you can offer?

Storm: Don’t overthink it. The challenge is moving a project from brilliant idea to feasible plan. This just takes working out the details. Decide on the who, what, where, when, and why and share your rationale. Keep it concise and simple; avoid jargon where you can; and have others read it before you submit. Don’t be discouraged if you, for some reason or another, aren’t funded this cycle. You will still come out better, as you’ll have all of the parts together for future grant writing, can request feedback, hone your work, and resubmit to other grants (Don’t forget: Illinois Arts Council grants typically are solicited just a few short weeks later).

And trust in your brilliance. What I see most is our own apprehension standing in the way of our shine. There is a story as an artist that only you can tell. There is a project that only you can truly put together. Do that. The arts can be such a phenomenal vehicle for connection and strengthening our community. There’s no better time than now to take the leap.

SP: How has COVID impacted the presentation of last year’s grantees projects? And what do you expect in the coming year?

Storm: The COVID-19 pandemic was unprecedented, but true to form: artists know how to move within constraints. On the part of the Urbana Arts and Culture Program, we’ve issued COVID-19 guidance for our 2020 grantees and will do the same for 2021. We will offer support and encouragement and strategizing. We worked to eliminate barriers. Our 2020 grantees rose to the occasion, as artists and cultural workers do. They went virtual, adapted programs, and created innovative ways to carry the work forward. And they handed it brilliantly and many (including myself) have come to recognize that some of the virtual components can and will be part of future innovation, as they create accessibility and broaden audiences and engagement.

This cycle, applicants are advised to apply as if nothing is changing with the COVID-19 outlook. Yes, we are thrilled vaccine distribution is underway. That said, applicants are encouraged to plan within the current constraints and note a “plan B” in terms of what would change in their project were various gatherings permitted, special event permit suspensions lifted, and safety not as much of a concern. Applicants are also encouraged to build COVID-19 safety and virus mitigation costs into their proposals (ex. PPE costs, sanitization, safety planning, etc.).

SP: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Storm: Apply, Dear Reader. Your creative work is worthy. Find collaborators, dream big, and bring innovative arts and culture projects to the City of Urbana. There is a place for it here.

Please reach out to me if you’re interested in applying so I can help you along the way: Rachel Lauren Storm, Arts and Culture Coordinator, City of Urbana,

Visit our website for more information and to apply

Top image from Urbana Arts & Culture Program Facebook page

Arts Editor

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