Selecting artists for opportunities

Published April 2022

Siobhan Carroll, Kim McAleese and Nima Séne respond to five set questions on the subject of selecting artists for opportunities’. They share their approaches to making new work with you in writing below.


Siobhan Carroll is Head of Programme at Collective. She previously worked as a Programmer at Nottingham Contemporary, Programme Co-ordinator for Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art (GI) 2010, and One Mile Programme at Collective. She has co-curated (with Kitty Anderson) The Glasgow Schools by Ruth Ewan in association with The Common Guild for GI 2012 and Overlap by Claire Barclay for Glasgow Print Studios for GI 2010. Siobhan Chairs the selection panel for Collective’s Satellites Programme and has been on selection panels for a number of different opportunities including graduate fellowships, residency programmes and was a regular selector for the Edinburgh Visual Art and Craft Maker Awards run by City of Edinburgh Council and Creative Scotland.

Kim McAleese is a curator originally from Belfast, now based in Birmingham. She is currently working as Programme Director of Grand Union, a gallery space and artists’ studios bringing the public closer to art and artists by hosting, sharing, listening, supporting, caring, conversing and exchanging. She is an alumnus of Curatorlab in Konstfack (Stockholm), and of the Independent Curators International Curatorial Intensive programme. She is co-founder of Household, a collective of curators who organise public art projects in Northern Ireland and a previous co-director of Catalyst Arts. She is an Associate Lecturer at University of Birmingham, is Vice-Chair of Outburst Queer Arts Festival and New Art West Midlands. In 2021 she was on the jury to nominate and choose the winner of the Turner Prize.

Nima Séne (Berlin/​Glasgow) is a transdisciplinary artist, having trained in dance-theatre and contemporary performance, moving into being a director, performer, actor, singer, poet, maker, producer and consultant. Their work is rooted in exploring and expressing a queer Black European African diasporic experience and often in a fundamental way both collaborative and devised – working predominantly with moving image and live and captured performance. Séne’s work explores belonging, alienation and humour. Their practice is currently moving into focusing on exploring joy, mental health, spirituality and dark matter. Recently, Séne co-produced (with Sophiensaele) their performance directing debut and they are currently working with Fierce Festival for a new performance work in 2024. Séne has worked with, amongst others, The Work Room, Tramway, Contact, Arts Admin, Frascati, LUX, National Theatre of Scotland, Sanctuary Arts, RCS and Berliner Festspiele.

What are the key responsibilities of someone selecting artists for an opportunity?

Siobhan Carroll: When I have been part of a selection panel or organised one, I am keenly aware of the privileged position I am in. Applying for any opportunity requires time, creativity and hope, and for me, fundamentally, the key responsibilities are to appreciate and respect the commitment that each artist has made by applying to an opportunity and try to review each submission fairly.

Learning from past experience, currently I take the time to fully understand the opportunity and organisation; think about any barriers that might exist to access the opportunity; schedule enough time, with no other distractions to review applications; allocate an equal amount of time to consider each application; familiarise myself with the criteria and create an agreed scoring system with the other selectors; understand the context and unique elements of an opportunity – what will the organisations/​selectors/​funders role be? Is it aimed at a particular group of artists or artform? What other opportunities exist?

This is an ongoing process. I haven’t always followed such a robust strategy and I still actively try to find ways to continue to develop and improve it.

Kim McAleese: I think it really varies depending on the context in which you are working, for example, if you’re on a panel for a specific institution with a history and commitment to serving artists from a specific location or at a specific point in their career then you follow their guidelines and values.

For me, art organisations are not neutral and separate from the world and their socio-political context, so have a duty to be responsive to world shifts and changes in many ways, especially if they are funded with public money. Therefore, all of these things feed into a decision-making process when doing anything with artists; whether that be selecting for an opportunity; programming them into shows; studio provision; mentoring; public programming or long-term planning for future commissions and relationships.

Nima Séne: I have a key responsibility to fellow artists who are applying. For example, this means that I advocate for those who I see and/​or know of making incredible work and are not a popular choice. Often a popular choice is also a great candidate, however a popular choice will have many opportunities to be nominated again and also receive other grants, awards, bursaries, gigs etc. The key here is to create opportunity for artists.

I also have a responsibility to the organisation who are also paying me as an outside voice. Specifically, my responsibility is to be true to the opportunity stated by the organisation and to ensure this is fully considered within the selection process. Most of all, I have a responsibility to the artists applying for the opportunity, my responsibility is to identify trends and transform them. Often an organisation will select and push for an artist that will make them look good, because the artist is popular and/​or quite advanced in their practice, which clouds the opportunity. So, I have often been like a guide through this kind of fog for organisations.

From your experience of participating in selection panels, how would you describe the most equitable way of organising an open-call for artists and the fairest way to approach a selection process?

Siobhan Carroll: Selecting from submissions (whether invited or through an open call) is an imperfect system and one which I have questioned a lot throughout my career. At Collective we organise an annual open submission opportunity, and as a team we review and evaluate how we do that each year. Although there are issues with it, I always come back to the fact that it is the only kind of opportunity that is self-determined and doesn’t rely on previous experience or access to networks.

At Collective we believe that it is important to go through the process of evaluation each year to make sure that our open submission responds to developments, needs and is as open as possible. Our open submission opportunity is an ongoing process which changes with the help of technology and training. Currently, Collective have comprehensive information and guidelines with clearly stated criteria and eligibility information; evaluated the data of past selection processes to understand who is and isn’t applying and undertake a widespread communication strategy to reach new audiences; created a process for artists to be able to ask questions by email and organise opportunities for potential applicants to be able to learn more about the opportunity and organisation; created a framework to give each submission equal consideration; have an access budget available and make sure that it is straightforward to claim; use an online portal for submissions opening accessibility for selectors and different media and format of content.

Who selects is important and Collective changes the selectors each year and looks to ensure that the panel has diverse interests and experience. This year we have asked all the selectors to undertake anti-bias and positive action training to inform how they will process and review the submissions, also to encourage a space of support for the selectors.

I really feel the pressure and massive responsibility of being part of a selection panel. I believe that with the right support, living conditions and opportunity, any artist could make massive developments in their work. I only agree to be on selection panels for opportunities that fit with my own professional and ethical framework. That can cover a lot of things from who funds it, support available and for me personally, I prefer selecting for more than one or a group of artists rather than just one individual.

Kim McAleese: I think this question has two distinct parts: as the organisation in charge of an open call one important part is making sure that all of the information is clear and concise for people. This should display fees, and shouldn’t be too taxing on someone’s time so should be something they can send fairly easily that shouldn’t take up days to compose and articulate. Also, having the option to send in multiple formats is more accessible, so rather than writing it could be a video or audio application for people. I also believe that the organisation should make time for people to be able to ask questions and have a member of staff as a contact point if the artist applying wants to chat on the phone or zoom for more information or clarification.

When there’s a more involved process, for example for a public art commission that may take years to complete, making sure that there’s a fee for the process of working up designs and ideas for presentation in the shortlisting process. This tends to be time consuming so valuing the work of the artist in that process at that stage is important.

For part two: the fairest way to approach a selection process? To make sure you have a good range of people on the panel to help to guide the process, with distinct backgrounds and experiences. Also, that you ask the panel to take time and space to review all the work, especially if it is video, and that they do their homework and research to arrive at a decision.

Nima Séne: I think the most equitable way of organising an open-call is to be as clear as possible about the exact opportunity of this open-call, who the organisation is and most of all to be as specific as possible about who you are looking for. This might sound obvious, and it is, however often things get jumbled in one big pot as if they are all the same. For example, I was part of a selection process that stated opportunity for BAME artists’ (and I don’t know any Black, brown or non-white person who identifies with this term). The strongest applications happened to be from Black artists and in this round, there were three of them. However, the most applications were from South Asian artists who identified as such and all stated they did not feel represented or seen in their home landscape of Scotland. I was shaken even more and advocated for this national organisation (whose employees were all white and often female identifying) to make a separate category’ for South Asian artists, so we are not pitted against each other. I do not know if they have continued this, but I tried. I believe that a fair process involves accessing the structures themselves.

When reviewing an artist’s work, what information do you find most and least useful to learn about their practice and suitability for the opportunity at that stage in their career?

Siobhan Carroll: In a selection process I always look at images or clips and then read/​listen to the statement or proposal. I like to see how they both support my understanding of the artist’s work. Unless experience that would be found on a CV or website is part of the criteria, I would only check a CV if it was to confirm that the artist met the opportunity eligibility, and would only check a website to confirm information that was in the application if needed.

Kim McAleese: For me, an artist’s statement is quite important, I feel like it gives a good sense of the approach to how they work and the thought process behind what they are doing. For me, I tend to also look for commissioned essays, reviews, and longer-form ways that the artist’s work has been articulated. I like feeling how others have experienced and seen the work. With moving image work having excerpts is extremely useful, and passwords to full film work so that they can be viewed in their entirety.

I tend to do a bit more research online – artist websites are usually a mixed bag and not regularly updated, so they are only useful if the person has lots of relevant information on it. I try to look through other programmes they have been involved with and places they might have shown, to give a sense of the stage they are at in their career. This usually leads to a gallery or institution’s website if they’ve been part of a festival or screening programme, and I can see more of the approach to how their work has been located and shown, and within what sort of context.

Nima Séne: I find a clear letter of motivation that addresses the organisation and what the artist knows about it/​how they connect with it most useful. The letter should explain why this opportunity from this organisation is of interest, detail why them/​who they are, and most of all express why now’ for this particular artist. When these things are clear it is much more possible to understand that the artist is transparent and open about what they know and don’t know. Then it becomes clear for someone like me to understand and be able to advocate during the selection process. Again, this might sound obvious, but many applications that I have read in the past have felt like they could have been written to any unidentifiable organisation and at just about any point in time.

Next, I find an artist statement, then short precise examples/​excerpts of work or a website, and maybe a CV useful. However, as there is often very little time the more precisely this is collated the better.

When making decisions as part of a selection panel, how do you balance your own personal, subjective response to an artist’s practice with the institutional priorities of the organisation you are representing?

Siobhan Carroll: As I have mentioned, I try to create a framework to view application equitably, relating to criteria and eligibility, but inevitably there are different ways to interpret criteria and there are normally some quite open-ended statements like quality of proposal’ or pivotal point’. This is why it is important to have a Chair who can support discussion and make sure all views are heard. It is also important to have a panel with diverse specialisms, lived experience and interests who can review and interpret proposals.

As a member of a panel, you have a big responsibility to challenge each other’s bias, and each selector needs to be prepared to compromise, listen to others’ opinions and think about the bigger picture: who is right for the opportunity at that time rather than who they think may be the best.

Kim McAleese: On any selection panel I’ve ever been on, a key starting point is doing research about the organisation and their approach. We tend to begin any meeting by going through the organisation’s mission and vision, and what their institutional policies are so they are constantly foregrounded. We have a frank and open discussion about this, and at all stages of the decision-making process bring it back to how everything aligns.

I think there will always be a subjective response to an artist’s practice, but, as long as the panel takes time, and communicates within the discussion meetings giving space for all people to be heard and listened to, then there will be a more balanced decision made. The role of the chair as guiding person in the process, constantly bringing back the purpose of the open call and mission of the organisation, is also key.

Also, as someone who is being brought in with expertise and doesn’t work within the organisation, there’s an opportunity to question what they do, and make the institution think about what their approaches and policies are and if they should or could change. It’s a healthy way to work with people to reflect on our role as caretakers of art and artists.

Nima Séne: I balance this by fundamentally and first of all being very clear and open about my subjectivity. I am pro Black, pro queer, pro trans, pro low income one could say. However, this does mean that I have advocated for artists who are not these things. In selection processes, I do believe that it is possible to have and state personal subjectivity and not act on it merely because of it. I think that it is good practice to state one’s subjectivity. Often organisations do not do this because it makes them uncomfortable. Organisations take this kind of responsibility away from themselves and are – more often than not – white and are uncomfortable with even stating that or stating any of their subjectivities. I try to balance this by identifying both my own personal comfort zone and to challenge that of the organisation.

Overall, I think about less of my subjectivity and more of how my subjectivity corresponds with the greater good (to really create opportunity and to debate most of all about timing for the artists in question) that I believe in. I am transparent about all of this. This relates to my earlier point that for artists to be clear about why them, and why now’ is so important and helpful.

How does participating in a selection panel for a specific opportunity then inform your wider research?

Siobhan Carroll: Being on a panel to select for an opportunity or funding is always an invaluable way to see artists’ work that you might have never experienced before and get an overview of common areas of interest or needs that come up in proposals. Having access to this snapshot of artists can absolutely influence my wider programming, research, how I shape future opportunities and my current work with artists.

I know that writing proposals and applications is incredibly time consuming, and that being rejected from an opportunity is really de-motivating but sometimes there can be positive things to come out of the process of sharing your work to a panel who might not know your practice. It can give members of the panel more affinity with artists and they would be more likely to engage with their work in the future even to the point of selecting artists for their programmes that they found out about in an open submission and who weren’t successful in the original opportunity.

Kim McAleese: I have always valued this, and find out so much more about artists in contexts and locations through this. When something is particularly striking about an artist’s process and the work they make, I like to keep a dialogue open with them and check in every so often.

This has happened on numerous panels I’ve been on, not least the Margaret Tait Award or the Turner Prize, where I’m still speaking to lots of the artists and collectives who I encountered and spent time with /​spent time with their proposals.

My process of practicing as a curator is not often programming pre-existing artwork in large group shows. I usually have a long-term commitment and dialogue with the artists, and we co-develop something with one another. As this approach means forging a relationship over time and a longer commissioning process with a suitable development budget, these invitations to selection panels really help for me to be exposed to artists I would not have been introduced to previously, and we can start a relationship from there.

Nima Séne: Many times, this has confirmed what I thought to be true: (as a freelance artist applying for many opportunities) that so often selection processes are not fair when the selection panel is not challenged or invites in outside voices that do not have loyalties to organisations. So now I look much more closely with any opportunity who the selection panels are, if an organisation discloses this – I am much more selective with what and where I apply to now, even when it feels like I cannot afford to do this.

This informs my wider research to listen, look and respond by challenging myself to be rigorous with my own blind spots and those of the organisations that have hired me to be on selection panels. I am not sure that being on selection panels has informed my wider research as I am much more interested in other things than organisations. If anything, it has strengthened my practice of listening to fellow artists and seeing as much work as I can and encouraging an organisation to evolve their selection processes.