Proposal Writing for Creatives

By Erin Elder | August 31, 2017

Like many people in the arts, my career has been all over the place. I’ve worked in commercial galleries, museums, non-profit art spaces, workshops, schools and public art. I’ve followed opportunities from one coast to the other and a bunch of places in-between. Over the past 16 years, as I’ve moved between these different art worlds, the main constant has been artists. And after working with hundreds (and meeting perhaps thousands more), I’ve learned a thing or two about artists:

1) it’s hard to be an artist
2) there is no “normal” career path for artists
3) artists have great ideas but oftentimes need outside support to make things happen

With these observations in mind, I started Gibbous Creative, an enterprise that provides individually-crafted, confidential support to committed artists at pivotal moments in their careers. I’m honored to partner with WESST to share some important tips for finding opportunities and securing an authentic career path as an artist and will be hosting a “Proposal Writing for Creatives” workshop.


Most artists I know make sacrifices for their work that are difficult to justify in a capitalist mainstream economy. As an artist, you might pay extra rent on a studio and fork out precious dollars on supplies. You’re likely to come home from work to make more work. You might obsessively collect things or research bizarre topics or spend a lot of time alone. Your choices are not necessarily normal and it’s sometimes a battle to feel validated for your work. It’s hard for non-artists to understand what compels you to work so hard at something that might appear to have so little return. Others might see art as “getting in the way” of the rest of your life but what they don’t understand is that art is your life.

Most people I know don’t choose to be an artist, it just happens to them. Artists have something to say, a vision to enact. Art is a way of processing one’s life, of connecting with others. Artists might struggle with other professions; in fact, I’ve found that a surprisingly high number of artists manage dyslexia, ADHD or some form of autism. One client describes art as his “affliction,” others talk about it as their lifeline. Whether art-making is necessary medicine or sublime devotion, most artists can’t give it up. So, how to make ends meet? How to do what you love without burning out?

Even if you’ve got mentors and heroes and a peer group of other artists, it’s hard to know how to build a career. There is no A-B-C instruction manual, there is no guarantee, and no two artists have built their career in the same way. Add to this uncertainty a high dose of competition, and well… it can feel stifling. Generally speaking, most career paths have some kind of traditional pathway. For instance, doctors go to med school, spend a few years in residency; they might work in a hospital and eventually settle into private practice. An academic might get a PhD, publish a book, and teach through a tenured decade or three. Business may be a less scripted realm but there are still traditional pathways with field-based metrics — mostly financial — for measuring success. Does wealth constitute success for an artist? Does an MFA? A benefactor or a bevy of collectors? I can’t tell you how many artists come to me with the same problematic request: “I need to find a New York gallery.”

Here is the truth: not all artists are destined for sell-out shows in a blue chip Chelsea showroom. Though extremely rare, this is a mainstream story of success. So here’s another truth that might be a bit of good news: there are multiple, coexisting art worlds. And here’s more: some artists are so fluid they can move between or operate outside the art worlds altogether!

I’ve talked with hundreds of artists and learned that despite all the challenges and compromises, the ups and the downs, most artists simply want to sustain their practice. While high dollar sales and glamourous parties might be nice, most artists simply want some traction in the world. They want an audience who values what they do. They want trust and resources and some validation. For many artists, looking at these kinds of bottom lines can brush away the mainstream messaging about artists’ success and reveal authentic pathways towards accomplishing the stuff that matters.

What do you most want to do?

Maybe you want to curate an evening of films at a local cinema.
Maybe you want to show a new series of sculptures.
Maybe you want to involve your neighborhood in planting a community garden.
Maybe you want to paint a mural.
Maybe you want to attend graduate school.
Maybe you want to install your work in a vacant lot.
Maybe you want a million dollars.

Most artists I know can answer this question 1000 times over. Coming up with ideas is not the challenge; ideas are your forte! But almost all ideas are dependent on a funder, a collaborator, or some kind of access. No matter what your idea, its manifestation is almost always dependent on another person’s buy-in. That’s why you need good, persuasive, thoroughly-considered and well-targeted proposals to help you get what you need to survive as an artist.

Proposal-writing can feel rather daunting. One thing that has helped me feel more comfortable about proposals is to notice that we are making them all the time. A proposal is a suggestion for something that must be done in relationship; it requests a course of action that cannot be executed alone. Whether we are asking someone to meet us for lunch or to buy our wares or to pass the salt, we are making propositions several times a day.

Another demystifying tactic is to see proposal-writing as a fun, creative, act of dreaming. Because a good proposal asks you to think through your big ideas in great detail, it can feel exciting to command your imagination to go deep. To write a good proposal, you must articulate not only what you want to do but how, where, why, and for whom. It takes time and practice to put this into writing but once you’ve done it, you have a beautiful proposal that can be adapted for various people and contexts. You can use it until you find someone who is persuaded by your vision and agrees to help you make it happen. And when you start finding the resources you need to make your projects happen, you probably won’t be fretting over how to get into an NYC gallery.

In this workshop, I’ll give you the tools you need to put almost any idea into proposal form. We’ll work on writing but also budgets, timelines and strategy. I’ll suggest ways to find and approach the people you need to persuade with your proposal. We’ll talk about rejection, competition and writer’s block. You’ll even get an hour of personalized feedback on your own ideas and proposals to help you realize them, for real!

It’s hard to be an artist and it’s hard to find your way. But I’ve found that artists are creative, visionary, risk-takers who know how to make something out of nothing. The world is hungry for your ideas and there are resources to make them manifest! There are so many ways to be happy in your life, to connect with people, and to make things happen. I hope you’ll join me in turning your ideas into proposals into a unique career path that’s right for you.

About the Author


Erin Elder

Erin Elder is an independent curator and consultant with more than 15 years of experience supporting artists. Having worked in commercial, academic, non-profit, and experimental settings, and with a studio practice of her own, Erin understands many of the challenges facing contemporary artists in the United States. She launched Gibbous in 2015 to support committed artists through a set of professional servies that include: one-on-one coaching, workshops on professional practices, website development for artists and other forms of creative consultation.

About Gibbous:
Gibbous is a set of professional services made available to committed artists at pivotal moments in their careers to support a sustainable creative lifestyle. With a unique focus on supporting artists and organizations with hybridized or multi-disciplinary practices, Gibbous steers clients towards a more authentic engagement with the new creative economy. To learn more about Erin and Gibbous, please visit: http://gibbouscreative.net

Posted in