Blogs, News

Blog: An ode to peer reviewers

Veera Lizé

“There is no better system, yet.” This is how Liisa Suvikumpu, Managing Director of the Association of Finnish Foundations, describes the role of peer reviews with regards to foundation funding.

In June, after the first open call, Frame elected a new four-member grant committee for the 2022–23 evaluation period. A great amount of work is expected from these peer reviewers, who are appointed by the Foundation’s board: their watchwords are dedication, time, expertise and responsibility. They are expected to work independently; reading applications and budgets, seeking out international exhibition venues, and getting familiar with new artists and works. On the other hand, they are also expected to have good communication skills and make decisions collectively. They receive compensation for their work, but at the same time they are faced with an impossible task.

Frame’s peer reviewers are charged with proposing how 270,000 euros should be distributed in a visionary and responsible way to Finnish contemporary international art projects. The peer-review system does not allow selected experts and artists to distribute grants to their friends; a reviewer is in a trusted position to promote the foundation’s mission, and a lot of faith is placed in them.

Foundations rely on peer reviewers to consider their propositions from many angles within certain parameters. Frame’s evaluation criteria are the quality of the artistic activity; whether the project gives the participant new international relations; whether the project partner is internationally significant; and whether the project and its budget have been realistically planned. In addition to this, the grant committee will consider other aspects such as regionalism and language too.

In a blog post from five years ago already, one anonymous peer reviewer accused Kone Foundation’s application evaluation process of not really being about quality at all, but rather being driven by different kinds of connections and ideological, political, material and cultural views and positions. When reading applications, a peer reviewer needs to understand what they do or don’t value – right here, right now.

“There is not enough funding for all the best artists, so final decisions often have to be made between equally good applicants, which means that the choice is seldom unambiguously justified. Having said that, a decision still has to be made,” concludes Liisa Suvikumpu.

Applicants often seek feedback. Frame has sought to address this by organizing grant clinics where the grant coordinator can pre-emptively expand on the questions in the application form, or explain what is required in certain attachments. Evaluation, that impossible task, is outsourced to peer reviewers.

Peer review allows impossible decisions about artistic quality to be made – not by ostensibly objective officials but rather by artists and curators working in the field, part of whose job it is to reflect on their own views and status, and what they value right now or possibly five years down the line. It would be a lie to think that views are not subjective: grant proposals are made in the context of individuals living in a particular time and place and discussions between them, but there is also a huge amount of background work involved – time is given, past experiences are drawn upon, and important discussions are held, both in Frame and elsewhere.

Thank you, art peer reviewers, anonymous or not – you are an integral part of the impossible task of funding art, and I trust you.

Veera Lizé

The author coordinates the Frame grant process and does not participate in evaluations.

Members of the Frame grant committee hold the position for a two-year term. Each evaluator makes an independent proposal with regards to travel grants, while project grant proposals are made collectively. Grants from Frame are decided by the board.

This blog is a platform for reflecting work, current issues and discussions in arts by Frame staff members and other contributors. This blog post was published in English and in Finnish.