How to write a standout proposal for festival open calls

How to write a standout proposal for festival open calls

Behind all the festival buzz are countless proposal submissions. What does it take to stand out among all the others in a festival open call?

By Eeyan Chuah

This month we celebrate our renown arts festival – George Town Festival, preluded by the ever so colourful George Town Heritage Celebrations. All festivals are a result of multiple rounds of proposals and rehearsals. Penang Art District sits down with people familiar with this process to discuss how to write a foolproof proposal – the type that festival curators love to receive. 

We’ve packed all the tips given by them into 7 handy guidelines to go by. Those who spoke to us include Artistic Principal of Studio Pentas and Artistic Director of Euphoria, Aida Redza; Artistic Director of Jet Leang Dance Theatre, Jet Leang; independent curator Lee Cheah Ni; Kenny Ng, former Programmer at George Town Festival; and Alvin Neoh, who exhibited during George Town Festival 2016.

1. Walk the ground

It is important to try to identify festivals that are going to be interested in the type of art you do. This may mean understanding not only the recurring theme but also the core values and main objectives of the festivals before deciding to apply to one. Does a festival support community projects, or religious art? It’s not only a matter of finding a good festival but also the right festival.

It is also a good idea to start with regional festivals. For one, it is always easier to get hold of the organisers. Especially in Malaysia, where the art scene is still considerably young and raw, festival directors are more welcoming to meet artists as they too are on the lookout for talent to showcase.

Joe Sidek, the former director of George Town Festival and director of Rainforest Fringe Festival, can always be seen in local exhibition openings. He would take note of the people whose work catches his eyes and would even invite some to submit a proposal. Therefore, it is important to grow your practice and present your work so that your network can expand.

2. Prep the talk

Once you have identified the festival of your choice, take a good look at their website and understand their rules thoroughly. Make sure that your formatting is in line with whatever the guidelines require. If the panel provides a template for submissions, proposals that don’t follow it may be thrown out.

As for the content, efficiency and persuasiveness are key. Festival organisers must go through a ton of proposals each year to make their selection. It is a good idea to assume that they will be busy, skimming your words in a rush, and not inclined to grant any special consideration.

Therefore, get straight to the point by starting with a firm introduction. Make the issue as relevant to the festival as you can, tying it to their interests or goals. Make it specific to THEM and avoid relying on a generic appeal to emotions or values.

The right language helps, too. Make your proposal as purposeful as possible by refining your tone to meet your audience’s expectations and write in plain, direct language, avoiding unnecessary jargon and complex language. Your ideas are more likely to be approved if you can communicate them in a concise and engaging manner.

3. Walk the talk

When it is time to get down to writing the proposal, be absolutely clear of what you want to achieve and how you are going to achieve it. Your proposal is an investment. To convince the festival that you’re a good investment, be meticulous and provide as much detailed, concrete information about your timeline and budget as possible.

The set of Moved by Padi, led by Aida Redza for George Town Festival 2016 involved the complex task of setting up a rice field in the middle of the city.

When do you envision the project starting? At what pace will it progress? How does each step build on the other? Can certain things be done simultaneously? Who is involved?

If it is a team production, have meetings and in-depth discussions with your team to understand what every department needs and break them down in your budgeting. Make sure your proposal makes sense financially. If the festival can’t afford your proposal, then all your efforts would have gone to waste. If it does fit their budget, be sure to include why it’s worth their time and money.

Convince them that you really know what you are doing and that you can deliver.

4. Back the talk

You don’t have to spend money on fancy paper but do put in the effort (and maybe money) in making sure your visuals communicate your work well. If it is a completed work, take good, clear pictures of it. If it is a performance piece, include videos of your rehearsals.

Do not assume that everyone is as familiar as you are with the themes or topics in your work. What might you need to define or give extra background information about? When Alvin was asked to attend an interview about his proposal, he brought along an actual model of his installation. Although the festival director already liked Alvin’s proposal idea, seeing the model convinced him so much that he tripled the budget and commissioned two additional installations.

Alvin Neoh and one of his installations commissioned by George Town Festival 2016.
5. Don’t forget to introduce yourself

Always include your CV especially if you are just starting out. Usually, there would be a pile of proposals the organisers call the “middle ground”. In that pile are proposals that organisers feel have potential but are still not too sure about. This is when they will reach for your CV to see what you’ve done, or who you’ve worked with. If they see growth and a good track record, this may increase your chances of being selected.

6. Give it a trial

Ask your friend or a mentor for an honest critique before you hand it in. But not just any drinking buddy. Find someone whose opinion you respect or whose work you respect. Have another set of eyes (or two) read over your proposal. They’ll be able to highlight issues your mind has grown blind to or point out issues that you haven’t completely addressed or questions you’ve left open-ended.

7. Get a review

If you get rejected, don’t beat yourself up. It might be worth asking the organisers what you could do to have a better shot with them next time. Sometimes, they might give you recommendations on which other festivals, organisations or grants that might be interested in your project. Wait till after the festival when they are not so busy to set this appointment but respect their decision if they decline to give feedback.  

Some festivals have artist review sessions. It is always good to book one and have someone critique and advice you professionally. You could also get in touch with your local art council for further advice. Penang Art District offers help and guidance for those who need it in terms of preparing a proposal or even just to get contacts.            

Just remember, every action starts with an intention. Before all else, you have to love what you do and believe in your vision because ultimately, that is going to translate into your proposal.

Eeyan Chuah is a freelance art writer and project manager based in Penang. She co-founded Hin Bus Depot’s art gallery in 2014 and worked as a co-curator for Urban Xchange Festival in 2014 and 2015.