Monday musings on Australian literature: Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund

We all know that a writer’s life is not a well-paid one. One way that writers keep going, that is, that enables them to continue writing, is through winning awards and grants. I report often on awards, and they also regularly appear in the media, but how much do we know about grants? And what exactly is a grant?

I’m not sure what the official definition of an artist’s grant is, but I’d define it broadly to encompass any monies or, other in-kind products or services (like residencies), intended to support creators doing their work. Grants tend to be offered by government bodies, foundations, trusts and non-profit organisations, with the best-known ones in Australia being, probably, those offered by the Australia Council for the Arts and the Copyright Agency. However, there are many other grants – big and small, general and specific – that writers can apply for. Darned if I know how they find out about them all, but their state writers centres, most of which I’ve now covered in this blog, are probably a good start.

I don’t want to get into the politics of funding artists. There’s the politics involved in grant-making (as anyone who has followed the Australia Council over the years knows only too well) but there’s also the bigger issue of how (or if, some would say) we should, as a society, support artists in the first place. Instead, today, I just want to share one specific grant, as an example of the sort of support artists (in this case writers) need and can get.

Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund

The Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund was established in 2017 by Writers Victoria, with funding from the Myer Foundation, in the name of poet, novelist and short story writer Neilma Gantner (1922-2015). Gantner was the daughter of businessman and philanthropist Sidney Myer. The Fund recognises, says the Writers Victoria webpage, “the unique value of travel in the development of new writing and literary careers”.

The grants, which range between $2000 and $10,000, are “intended to support emerging, midcareer and established Australian writers and literary sector workers. This includes writers, editors, agents, publishers, librarians, booksellers, employees and associates of literary organisations and journals, and other literary professionals currently living in Australia”.

Last week, Books + Publishing advised that Writers Victoria had announced the fifth round of recipients for the Fund. This round was the second offered in 2019. The judges change for each round, with those for Round 5 being writer Eugen Bacon, podcaster Astrid Edwards, and Black Inc. publisher Kirstie Innes-Will.

Here are the recipients (in grant amount order), showing the sorts of activities the fund supports:

  • Evelyn Araluen and Jonathan Dunk ($9656): to research Aboriginal and settler–colonial literary and cultural relations in England and the Czech Republic. Araluen is an Indigenous Australian poet, educator and researcher, while Dunk is a poet, critic, fiction-writer and academic.
  • Cate Kennedy ($7000): to attend writers’ festivals in Ireland and Jamaica, and residencies and reading events in the US. I’ve read some of Kennedy’s short stories, and have reviewed the excellent anthology Australian love stories which she edited.
  • Ruhi Lee ($6850): to research her memoir in India. Lee is a Melbourne-based writer, and was, in fact,  part of this year’s HARDCOPY program, run by the ACT Writers Centre (about which I wrote in 2015).
  • Mirandi Riwoe ($6062): for a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland. I’ve reviewed her powerful novella, The fish girl.
  • Book cover for Madelaine Dickie's TroppoMadelaine Dickie ($4374): to research a proposed biography of Wayne Bergmann in Broome. I’ve reviewed Dickie’s debut novel, Troppo, and will be attending the launch of her second book, the intriguingly titled Red can origami, this month. Dickie won the T.A.G Hungerford Award for Troppo, and it was also shortlisted for the Dobbie Literary Award and the Barbara Jefferis Award.
  • Fiona Hardy ($3920): to research and begin her middle-grade fiction book on Christmas Island. Hardy is a children’s book writer, reviewer and bookseller.
  • Robert Lukins ($3473): to research a novel in Carter Lake, Iowa–Nebraska, US. Lukins’ debut novel, The everlasting Sunday, was short or longlisted for some major literary awards this year.
  • Maria Takolander ($3177): to attend the Arteles artist-in-residency in Finland. I have Takolander’s short story collection, The double, on my TBR, but keep not getting to it! My bad.
  • Sara Saleh ($3100): to take part in the inaugural Arab–Palestinian literature festival in New York. Saleh is an Arab-Australian poet, creative artist and activist.
  • Tamara Lazaroff ($2723): to research her memoir on De Witt Island, Tasmania. Lazaroff is a Queensland-based writer of fiction and nonfiction, who took part in last year’s HARDCOPY program.

Books + Publishing referred to “eleven successful writers, booksellers and publishers” but in fact all these grants have been given to writers and/or for writing projects. This is not surprising really, given their generally insecure funding base, but it would be interesting to know how often other literary professionals have been given grants.

It’s darned hard work applying for grants, I know. The above 11 (for ten projects) were selected from 99 applicants, which is probably not a bad ratio. Still, writers must have to juggle the time spent on writing grant applications against writing their books. I congratulate the above 11 on their success, and hope they find spending their money both fruitful and enjoyable!

21 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Neilma Sidney Literary Travel Fund

    • Oh yes, Bill, these grants wouldn’t support you… I hope I didn’t imply that. I meant they HELP writers keep going, as my sense is that many writers cobble together a living and don’t have a lot of slush around.

  1. My strongest reaction to this list is wondering how the amounts actually benefit the winners. I mean, $3,177 to attend the Arteles artist-in-residency in Finland ? – that winner is going to have to b given an awful lot of other awards to actually get there.
    They’re all like that.
    Wouldn’t it’ve been more sensible to give, say, two grants, that might have made a real dent in applicants’ needs ?

    • True M-R. That’s the conundrum I guess, speed thin or deep. These writers of course know what’s on offer and must surely apply for what they can justify or manage. I don’t know what work or consultation went on before the nature of this prize was determined.

    • One thing I notice is that some of them are for people who’ve already won something, like a residency, and this grant is to enable them to get there.
      I’m intrigued by the one to research Aboriginal and settler–colonial literary and cultural relations in England and the Czech Republic. England, obviously. The Czech republic? I’ll be keeping an eye out for the book that results from this research!

      • Yes, good point Lisa.

        And, thanks … I meant to say at the end of the post that I look forward to seeing the results of their work. Interesting. I think there are quite more stories about indigenous people travelling to Europe over the two centuries that we have never heard.

      • I am an old cynic: I believe that a large proportion of grants (in all fields) are awarded to those who have previously received … grants. Wish I’d said that better. :\

        • Ah yes, M-R, but if you think logically, those who have previously received must have received them for the first time some time in order to have previously received? N’est-ce pas? Therefore … can you really be cynical? Sorry, but, you know, I’m rational rather than cynical (though I do have my moments!!)

  2. Thanks for this profile of the travel grant. As it’s fairly new I think it’s not as well known to writers/publishing people as the regular state and federal grants. I feel very lucky to have snagged one of these this time around.

    From this writer’s point of view, this is a very useful grant in that it’s specifically for travel (something that you can obviously apply for in other grants, but aren’t awarded in this quantity) and it certainly has a much higher success rate than the rest (I suppose because it’s less well-known and only for travel). As an example, in the latest state arts grant round here in Victoria they awarded maybe a dozen specific literary projects and I know they had about 400 applications in that area. It’s incredibly competitive and getting more so by the day it seems.

    In terms of the burden of applying, the Neilma Sidney grant is fantastic. You submit a very simple budget and your whole application is limited to one page (!). The state/federal grants are pretty mammoth in comparison.

    I would literally not have been able to afford this trip to research my new novel, and it wouldn’t have happened, without this grant so I’m very grateful for it.

    As with the vast majority of grants though, you’re obliged to spend every cent of it (and you pay tax on it as it’s considered income) and it’s pretty rare to get a grant to just support your living expenses while you work (for instance), so I always view them in terms of professional development (to use an over-used phrase) rather than anything financially sustaining.

    None of the writers I know consider grants or awards as having much to do with being financially sustainable as a writer – even if you’re incredibly lucky enough to snag some good awards or grants they’re hardly enough to keep you going for long. Writing’s necessarily a (very challenging) hobby for most!

    Thanks again for the profile on this particular grant – here’s hoping the word spreads.

    • And thanks so much Robert for your perspective, on this and on money and the writing life in general. I know of another one-page grant-giver. I suppose sometimes one page can be just as hard to write, but at least it can’t be full of questions you have to go through hoops to answer!

      You are right about awards, even the big ones, not sustaining writers for long but I have heard writers say it gives them a year, or some such, to devote to writing. It’s very insecure and uncertain though, I appreciate. What to do?

      Anyhow, thanks again, and good luck with your next novel.

  3. Thanks Sue. Interesting to know who were successful and for which projects. Neilma Gantner has been a very generous philanthropist and the Far South Coast of NSW has certainly been privileged with the land and funds she donated to make the now annual Four Winds Festival an outstanding event in the music calendar.

    • Lovely to hear from you Marie. Yes, I had read somewhere a few months ago that she was involved with Four Winds. I have very warm feelings for that family, as her brother, Ken Myer, was a wonderful support to Films at the NLA when many there didn’t seem to see the value. He was on the NLA Board for awhile. I think he died in a plane crash, but I still remember his tall, lanky figure visiting us in Films!

  4. The Nielma Sydney grant has been going for a few years now. As you say, it would be useful to see an overview of everyone who has been funded and what happened next with their work but unfortunately Writers Vic certainly doesn’t have the resources to do that sort of analysis. As Robert usefully points out, all literary grants and prizes are taxable (with the exception of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards) – so, depending on your income, you don’t ever get the full amount anyway. This is a huge issue and one that would be so easy for the government to fix. Given the PM Awards exemption, they already know it’s a problem.
    I have a background in writing commercial tender documents and, in comparison, haven’t found arts grant applications onerous at all (even the longer ones). And the more you do, the easier they become, because you can reuse the same information.
    As for making money from writing? I think some writers get a bit snobby about this issue. Any day job that actually offers good money for writing – advertising, bid writing, many public service jobs, consulting – is often considered ‘not real writing’. As if writing freelance articles for obscure magazines or teaching Creative Writing IS somehow ‘real writing’. I’ve even heard journalists describe their work as ‘not real writing’. This exasperates me, to say the least. But each to their own, of course. I’ve decided that what works best for me and my stress levels is a day job that pays the bills, and writing whatever I like, whenever I like, in my spare time.

    • Oh thanks so much Michelle. That tax issue is something I hadn’t been aware of until Robert Lukins mentioned it. Interesting how the PM’s awards are quarantined from it? As you say, it suggests they are aware of the problem and could address it.

      Thanks for your comment about “real” writing, because I must say I tend not to think I do “real” writing. I see myself as an untrained hobbyist … but perhaps that means I’m putting down all the bloggers out there working hard to create a presence. Hmmm… I think I’ll go join Mr Gums in the garden.

  5. This is a very informative post. I never thought about how award and grant money plays a part in the support of authors. I am glad that you listed actual examples of grants as this provides a sense of what these are about.

    • Thanks Brian … I’m glad you found it interesting. I was hoping readers would like the list, for the reason you give. even if they don’t know the names of the people, because I knew I would!

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