Organizing Grant Peer Review Panels during a pandemic

The principle of “Peer Review,” that is having a panel of artists and arts workers determine which applications are funded, has been embedded in Toronto Arts Council’s (TAC) practice since the very first grant in 1974.

In 2020 all TAC grant review panels moved from our meeting rooms to the digital space. While moving to the digital space brought some challenges, it also provided an opportunity, and increased accessibility. 

“We want to have an eclectic panel - one that doesn’t reflect our personal biases or our personal tastes in art,” says Catalina Fellay-Dunbar, TAC Dance Program Manager, on the selection of grant review panels.  Decisions in a grant review panel move from the individual to the collective making it essential to have artistic diversity in the group to understand the subtleties of all the applications. This is in addition to the requirement for cultural diversity; at least half of all panels must be persons of colour or Indigenous persons. 

In a panel review, the Program Manager ensures that all the applications are discussed, all the nuances are understood and that all panelists are heard, while also avoiding expressing their own personal opinions about an application. 

In 2020 all TAC grant review panels moved to the digital space. Discussions spanning over several hours, sometimes days, previously over shared meals and coffee, now had to happen over Zoom. “A lot can happen in a physical space. You can read so much more in the physicality of a room,” says Peter Kingstone, Visual/Media Arts Program Manager. “(Besides) I don't know if any of us is really built to spend a full day sitting in front of a camera and staring at a screen.”

But the digital space also provided an opportunity, and an increased accessibility. It allowed the participation of many panelists, who earlier due to geographical or other in-accessibilities could not. It allowed an increased flexibility for panelists with fixed schedules. Interestingly it also made the work of Grant Program Managers easier in some ways, as is pointed out by Erika Hennebury, Strategic Programs Manager. “There’s not a lot of overlapping. People tend to wait for their turns (over zoom), and there is not much interruption, the kind there is in an in-person setting.”

It is still too early to predict what a post-pandemic world will look like. We do hope to return to in-person grant peer review panels, to discuss art over shared meals and coffee, but we also want to retain the accessibility achieved in the digital space. Perhaps using a hybrid model is the way forward, allowing some participants to engage in the warmth of in-person panels, while providing others the flexibility of participating digitally.