By Afros In Tha City
Perpetual Atife (also known as Perpie) is a musician, composer, performer, and arts administrator. In 2019, she moved from Lagos to Calgary and more recently has joined Calgary Arts Development as a grant programs specialist. Despite having over a decade of experience in the arts, which includes a music degree, Atife basically started from square one when arriving in Calgary.
“I moved to Canada in 2019 and started all over again,” she says. “I didn’t know anybody. There was no music or art in front of me for a year or two.” Atife credits residencies and programs for helping her get her (re)start. “It took a Banff residency to help me start to see what was happening and what was available in my community,” she says. She also took several programs offered by the Rozsa Foundation.
“I remember the Rozsa Foundation was my go-to. I quickly took the RAFT (Rozsa Admin Fundamentals Training) program, then moved on to the RAMP (Rozsa Arts Management Program), then from the RAMP I moved to the REAL (Rozsa Executive Arts Leadership) program,” she recounts. “I took the entire cycle and that was mind-blowing for me. I think the highlight was getting to know more people in the art space, other arts administrators, other organizations, and what's happening in the city.”
Atife welcomed the opportunity to learn about Calgary’s artistic landscape, stating that “changing spaces means relearning.”
Understanding the cultural landscape
Programs and residencies not only offer artist professional development and networking opportunities, but they can also provide a space for newcomers to observe the more nuanced systems at work in the new arts industry they’ve found themselves in.
The contrast between the Nigerian arts scene and the Canadian arts scene is significant. Atife quickly noticed a difference in workplace culture, communication, and support systems. This discrepancy highlighted the need for her to understand the cultural context she would be working in as an artist and arts administrator.
“Just knowing the setting…and being aware of where you’re going to be living and working and making art is super, super important,” she says. “Because otherwise you will struggle…and you’ll make some cultural blunders along the way.”
Being compelled > being compelling
While Atife speaks to how newcomers can find their footing in the industry, she is also familiar with the plight experienced by almost all artists regardless of how familiar they are with the city in which they live –– grants. When asked how artists can craft compelling proposals, Atife emphasizes that it is far more important for artists to be compelled by their own idea than it is for them to deliver a compelling message.
“I want to go back to the reason, the why,” says Atife. “The reason an artist is needing a grant is because they have an idea they want to pass across. So they have a project in mind, something burning deep inside, that they want to bring to life. And so that is where the compelling piece for me matters. How compelling is this dream to you? Like how compelling is this work to you?”
Atife does not discount the importance of a well-written proposal, but wants to remind artists of what grant assessors are actually looking for.
“I totally understand that our proposals have to be good,” she says. “But grant assessors are not trained to look for the most professional or exceptionally written proposals. When we at CADA reach out to potential grant assessors, we're looking for people with empathy who can be patient and find their answers in different places in your proposal. So I suggest stepping back to talk about the ‘why’ of the artist's dream or project in mind because if you, as an artist, have clarity around what you're trying to do and the reason behind what you're trying to do, then it becomes easier to find the right words.”
Creatively managing your career
The granting game is no joke. It’s highly competitive and at times opaque, which can be discouraging for anyone looking to fund their art. Atife encourages artists to keep an open mind and bring their creativity into how they manage their career, saying “Grants or no grants, we can succeed as artists.”
Atife encourages artists to pursue residencies, consider taking commissions on platforms like Fiverr, sell merch, and explore multiple ways to fund their art.
“There are ways to diversify and make money as artists,” she says. “It just takes a lot of creative thinking, timing, connections, and networking with the right people who can bring those visions to life.”
This is not to say artists should not continue to pursue more conventional grants. In fact, not only does Atife want to see more artists applying for grants, but she encourages artists to reach out for support before submitting their applications.
Reaching out for help
“I would say to artists, reach out to whoever is involved in that company or granting organization,” says Atife. “Write an email and say ‘I'm trying to submit this, can you tell me if this is strong enough? Should I be adding more details to my budget? Is my goal clear enough? Am I communicating my ideas strongly enough?’ And they will answer you…Artists should know there is support available. Don’t just write it and send it in, especially if it’s your first time or if you’ve been declined in the past.”
As an artist herself, Atife brings her experience into her work as a grant programs specialist and seeks to support artists in their journey to fund their work.
“As an artist, I know what it feels like,” she says. “When you take the time to come up with an idea and communicate it, only to get an email that says ‘I’m sorry, we have gone a different way.’ That in itself is wrecking.”
Atife reflects on the often discouraging cycle that is the process of applying for grants.
“I understand that,” she says. “And I bring that understanding to my role as a grants specialist. I try to understand where they’re coming from. I always ask ‘Have you applied for grants before? Have you been denied before?’ so I can get a sense of where they’re coming from...that way I can figure out how to help them through it.”
Whether you’re a newcomer or you were born and raised in the city where you're practicing your art, the granting system can be a major challenge, but folks like Perpetual Atife are helping make that process a little less daunting.
“Focus on what you’re trying to do rather than what you’re trying to say,” says Atife. “The reason we do art is not because we want to get grants. We do art because we want to express something and grants can help us do that.”