Congratulations On Your Failure! (Make Sure To Show Your Work)

This Facebook post about the Failure Award Scholarship immediately caught my eye this morning.  Museum of Contemporary Art Denver is looking for creative Colorado seniors to apply to their Failure Award Scholarship program. Winners will join past failures awarded the $20,000 scholarship.

I am sure you realize there is more nuance to this than it first appears. Some may even be able to guess what the scholarship is recognizing.

While so much of student life is focused on achievement, MCA Denver believes that in order to create something original and authentic, it is necessary to risk failure. The Failure Award is given not on the basis of academic merit or athletic prowess, but rather on a student’s demonstration of a willingness to take these risks.


The Failure Award is based on documentation of a project the student created or produced while in high school that demonstrates originality and creativity. This can be a creative project, like a novel, a play, an opera; a technology-based project like a design for a new car, or a spaceship, or a robot; or something that falls outside of these criteria altogether. Some projects may present solutions to problems in the world, however, all projects will be considered, no matter how harebrained, impractical, or absurd.


All types of projects will be considered, including, but not limited to: visual arts, drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, dance, theatre, performing arts, instrument or voice composition, design, fashion, culinary arts, technology, gaming, robotics, business ventures, social innovation, or other creative practice.

There has long been a conversation about the lack of risk taking in the arts being reinforced by audiences and funders both so it is pretty clear the museum is trying to step up and reward students who make an effort to try something new.

Adult me was thinking it would have been better if they announced the scholarship toward the beginning of the year instead of around January-February because I would have likely tossed out many of the early stages of my work so I didn’t accidentally mix the versions up and had enough room. As a result, I wouldn’t have the documentation to show my process.

But knowing the high school aged me, I probably wouldn’t have even started my project until a few weeks before the deadline so the timing is probably right.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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