Time to Float Ideas for Art Tank 2017

Proposals are due to the three-year-old program that administers one of Colorado's largest pools of arts funding on Nov. 2.
Artists, put on your smartypants.

For the third year, Art Tank is open -- as is a pool of $65,000 in funding for local projects. Proposals are due Wednesday, Nov. 2. Finalists will be invited to present their concepts to a panel of judges and a live, voting audience in Feb. 2017. Complete guidelines are available on The Denver Foundation's website.

Colorado Art Tank was inspired by a similar model in Arizona, which was itself inspired by Shark Tank, the reality show that gives aspiring entrepreneurs a shot at pitching a panel of highly successful business folks who grill all contestants and reward only the most innovative and promising. A program of The Denver Foundation's Arts Affinity Group, with partners Colorado Creative Industries and Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Colorado Art Tank takes on the difficult question of how to fund the arts -- a realm that, in some respects, defies objective evaluation.

Colorado Art Tank is among the largest pools of dedicated funding for the arts in the state. Since 2015, it has directed more than $130,000 to individual artists and groups from metro Denver, including Pop Culture Classroom, Ian Cooke, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, Youth on Record, Chicano Picasso and VSA Colorado/Access Gallery. It's highly competitive. Last year, of the more than 60 applicants, six finalists were selected and four received substantive awards.

Full disclosure: I was part of a group -- a collaboration between Buntport Theater Company, Playground Ensemble and The Narrators -- that made it to the finals in January but bombed the presentation. We walked away with $1,000 and a list of lessons learned.
Slam poet Jovan Mays performs at Art Tank 2016.
So, I know from experience: Art Tank is difficult. Prospective Tankers must write a compelling letter of inquiry that explains how their concept is innovative, responsive to community needs, educational, a creative stretch, sustainable, visible, viable and reflective of the mission of the Arts Affinity Group, which advocates for learning through the arts. It's a lot to cover. This year, mercifully, the letter can be two pages; in the past, it was limited to just one.

It can be awkward. In Denver, collaboration and camaraderie are hallmarks of the creative scene: If you had drawn a Venn diagram that illustrated how Art Tank 2016 finalists were connected, it would look like a crop circle. Every one was connected by one or two creative degrees. In our city, where an abundance-based mentality suggests there's enough money, audience and talent to go around, a very public competition for resources and accolades is a little counter-intuitive.

Arts with purpose

Colorado Art Tank is all about impact: How creative people harness and direct their ideas to make metro Denver a better place. Not just more beautiful or entertaining, but more fair, more educated, more engaged.
Lighthouse Writers Workshop won $36,000 in grants in 2016.
As has been true for a long time, the days of of patronage for purely aesthetic adventures -- a study of how light changes the mood and poetry of a haystack, for example -- are all but over, especially in the foundation world. For some artists, this is a tough shift. There are still plenty of folks who argue, convincingly, that the aesthetic has an impact that is, at first, difficult to project, plot or judge.

Yet to the victors, Colorado Art Tank is worth every minute of writing, practice, preparation, philosophical grappling and stress. Just ask Lighthouse Writers Workshop, which was awarded nearly $36,000 in January, including the Bonfils-Stanton Award. Lighthouse has used those funds to support and grow new programs including Write Denver and the Poetree, a literary sculpture.

Here are some tips for those considering making the plunge, straight from winners, losers, judges and organizers:

When writing your letter of inquiry:
  • Be concise, clear. Don't waste any words being flowery. You can't afford them.
  • Remember, modifying an existing program to target a new audience isn't innovation.
  • Consider partnering with other groups/organizations to split the work and to create a bigger idea. But don't make things too complicated. Find natural partners.
  • The Art Tank is a creative endeavor. Therefore, don't be afraid to take risks with your proposal. If you're pitching a poetry project, write a long poem (but make sure it ticks all of the boxes).
  • Link your proposal to the mission and efforts of the Art Affinity Group. They want to know that you understand their vision and aren't just asking for cash.
  • Numbers, data and facts are your friends.
  • Remember Freshman Comp: Use active verbs. Avoid "ing."
  • Tell stories. Write with a voice. You can't just say you are creative. You have to be creative.
When presenting:
  • Focus the audience's attention on the presenter. Also, don't have too many people on stage at once.
  • Simplify. Avoid unnecessary distractions. You don't need props or fog machines. Focus on the ideas and how they work.
  • Talk, mostly, to the audience, not the panel. Present from the center or front of the stage.
  • Balance the "show" with the "tell." Make sure you leave time to explain how your project will have an impact. Tell how it's innovative. Don't assume the art speaks for itself. The audience and judges are looking for specific things. Give them what they want.
  • If your project is new, forecast its impact in specific terms. Show how it will be evaluated, measured and tracked. Treat pilots as if they were existing programs.
  • Be prepared for the five-minute Q&A session‎ that follows the presentation. Practice responses to questions and know who on your team will answer each type of question. Anticipate questions. Take this part very, very seriously.
  • The time goes by fast, so practice, critique, adjust, practice‎ . . . and then practice some more.
  • Breathe. Plan for nerves, then manage them.
  • If you do a slideshow, integrate it, don't rely on it. Also, think really carefully about doing a slideshow. Can you do a great one -- or will it look rote? If you can deliver something awesome, go for it.
  • Practice your pitch in front of multiple types of audiences. Lighthouse, for example, invited community, staff and board members to two separate practice sessions. The feedback made the pitch much stronger.
  • If you're presenting as part of a group, practice together and individually. Record your portion into into a phone and play it back. Adjust and harness tone. Project excitement.
  • Write many drafts of pitch. Get clearer with the message, simpler with delivery.
Good luck! It's time to get visionary.

This story was underwritten by The Denver Foundation.

Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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