Serving the Field, Gaining Insight: Reflections from a Peer Review Panelist

By Jenny Wei
School & Teacher Programs Director, Palo Alto Art Center

As if spring isn’t a busy enough season for those of us who work with schools, this year I added serving on a California Arts Council grant panel for the Artists in Schools program to my to-do list. Eighty-one applications and three days in a Sacramento meeting room later, I am certain it was a good decision.

I wanted to be part of the peer-review process because it was clear that it would directly connect to my work at the Palo Alto Art Center and it would give me insights and experience to help my career.

For so many museums, grants provide vital revenue that, combined with individual gifts, enables us to serve our audiences. I have been involved in the receiving-end: finding funders, writing requests, and delivering final reports. But by being part of a peer-review panel, I felt I could take my grant-development skills to the next level. Our panel reviewed many applications, so I saw first-hand what was helpful to reviewers (like organizing information in bullets or adding notes to clarify your budget spreadsheet) and what stumbling blocks kept programs from fully telling their stories.

It seemed that in every proposal there was a tiny tweak that would add value to the Artists in Schools program I oversee at the Palo Alto Art Center. Ask partner schools to post a link to your program’s website—of course!  Send parents e-mail invitations to events in addition to paper invitations—why didn’t we think of that? I felt as though reading the grant proposals was like crowd-sourcing smart ideas from across the state.

As a wake-up call, I was disappointed to realize that my organization’s artist compensation was at a lower rate for our area. This was important for me to see, and I felt empowered to take my new perspective to our leadership to address this issue.

Aside from these specific tweaks and adjustments, I came away with two takeaways that were front-and-center for me:

  • There is no one way to be an outstanding applicant. We found great examples of programs working with completely different age groups—high school groups creating full-fledged productions and kindergartners showing the first glimmer of creative accomplishment. Also, as I didn’t grow up in California, I was intrigued by the diversity of California’s communities and the programs finely-tuned to serve them.
  • California’s teaching artists are doing awesome things for schools. It was energizing to think of each grant award both serving students and helping the livelihood of a teaching artist. We are so fortunate to have such wonderful educators in our communities!

Of course, I am also eager to rewrite a few sentences in our own grant applications to make our proposals just a little bit clearer for future panelists.

From the small program tweaks to the career experience, I took so much away from volunteering for my California Arts Council panel. Think about signing up next winter when the Arts Council issues their call for panelists. I’m sure you will also find it a rewarding experience.


JennyWeiJenny Wei is the School & Teacher Programs Director for the Palo Alto Art Center where she oversees the Cultural Kaleidoscope school outreach program. She came to the Art Center with a background as a museum educator, with several years and several positions at the Smithsonian Institution (most recently, the National Museum of American History) and one year teaching elementary students as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Yilan, Taiwan. She received her BA in Art History and Masters in the Art of Teaching in museum education from George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Featured Photo: Student artwork on display at the Palo Alto Art Center

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