In Support of Individual Artists

Abigail Guay

Strategies for funding individual artists can often resemble the principles and policies of trickle-down economics. Grants to arts organizations secure the physical plant and operations of those organizations, allowing them to offer artists the opportunity to present their work, to be seen and heard — at which point the obligation to the artists is fulfilled. This model does not acknowledge that artists and the things they make defy supply-and-demand economics. Thousands of artists are seen, very few are given the funding and tools necessary to leverage that exposure, to make art for a living and not in addition to making a living. Under this system, coupled with the adoption and institutionalization of post-culture-war, risk-averse funding policies that disfavor the direct support of individuals for fear of uncertain results, the total amount of capital and resources committed to individual artists is disproportionate to their contribution to the arts ecosystem.

For more than twenty years, a growing number of Grantmakers in the Arts members have been working together to promote and improve funding for individual artists. This group, shepherded by the Support for Individual Artists Group Steering Committee, advocates for both the grant and nongrant support of individual artists through research, conferences, and seminars aimed at increasing awareness of the benefits of directly empowering artists. In October 2011, the steering committee published a case statement on the GIA website.

Supporting Individual Artists — Preserving the Core of Humanity is testimony to the vital and corrective role of artists in communities, economies, and cultures. Leaning less on routinely extolled evidence of the economic impact of artists and arts presenters on a community, the case statement is most emphatic about the process by which artists capture, filter, and transform human experience. Principally, the argument is this: artmaking and the experience of art shift perspective. In an environment in which narrow, fixed perspectives can be toxic, the arts community must empower artists to create opportunities for elastic thinking.

In the decades since the first shots were fired in the culture wars, there has been a national, seedling-like emergence of organizations (and programs within organizations) designed to directly support and promote artists. In this article, I will cast a spotlight on several organizations, each employing strategies specific to its operating and funding structures to provide grant and nongrant support to individual artists. (Because space is limited, the spotlight will unfortunately skirt several excellent organizations offering comparable programs.) Whether your organization is already directly supporting individual artists or at the tipping point of deciding to do so, the groundwork laid by these groups can inform both program creation and growth.

Join Forces, Partner Up, Unite: Share or delegate administration through regranting and other partnerships.

Over the past half century, the McKnight Foundation has tactically pursued a long-term investment in Minnesota’s arts infrastructure. In recent years, the focal point of this investment has been individual artists. Although the largest dollar amount of McKnight’s arts grants goes to organizations, the grant program favors artist-centric organizations that foster new work — and artists. This strategy is reflected in changing funding practices and in the language used by the foundation to describe grantmaking guidelines and objectives.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of McKnight’s fellowship program, through which the foundation makes unrestricted grants of $25,000 (the funding level set in 2000) to artists in twelve disciplines. When the fellowship program was established, the foundation had no formal arts program or arts-dedicated staff. To facilitate the distribution of the program funds, the foundation teamed with several established artist service organizations already working with Minnesota artists, including the American Composers Forum and the Playwrights’ Center. All told, nine organizations manage the fellowships (application processes, payments, and tracking), related McKnight-funded grant programs (smaller awards, residencies), and professional development opportunities available to fellows and other Minnesota artists.

Despite the advent of full-time staff, McKnight continues to make grants to its partner service organizations. These awards cover the cost of the fellowship, the work of dedicated staff, and a percentage of each organization’s overhead. In this way, McKnight, a large organization that grants in multiple areas, allocates resources to partner groups that can leverage their own strengths and constituent bases to tailor fellowships and to build capacity in the specific cultural sectors they represent. Additionally, the smaller nonprofits are better able, from a policy and bookkeeping standpoint, to respond to the needs of individual artists by promoting activities to a targeted audience, establishing individual payment plans, and providing other services.

Creative Capital is another organization that has achieved notable success and impact through partnerships. Founded in 1999 as an experiment to see what would happen if artists were afforded the same opportunities as entrepreneurs in other sectors, Creative Capital’s mission is to reinvent cultural philanthropy and fulfill the needs of the country’s most innovative artists. Thirty-six donors, for the most part foundations, provided the start-up capital, and relations with some of these donors have continued in the form of co-administered grant programs.

One such program is the Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards. Launched in fall 2011 in partnership with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the awards will provide comprehensive, long-term support to individual artists in contemporary dance, theater, and jazz. The Duke-funded award programs will select and support two hundred artists through unrestricted grants and access to Creative Capital’s professional development services. Additional funds will be available for audience development and — this is especially innovative — to match contributions to artists’ retirement accounts.

Incorporate Individual Artist Support into Organizational Support: If your organization’s mission and values emphasize organizational support, the cardinal, constructive role of artists can be acknowledged and celebrated through grantmaking strategies.

The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation introduced the Emily Hall Tremaine Exhibition Award in 1998 to fund thematic exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture. Applications are accepted from curators or curatorial teams in partnership with an exhibiting organization, with grants of up to $150,000 awarded. New to the 2012 grant cycle is the Living Artist Stipend for Existing Work. All Exhibition Award applicants must now include a budget line item for $1,000 stipends to as many as twenty-five artists represented through existing work in the proposed exhibition. The stipends are additional to the $150,000 maximum exhibition budget, and the added funding commitment calls attention to the role of artists in making the work — the work that then makes up the exhibition. Because the curators will be responsible for distributing stipends to artists, the funds do not constitute direct grants and the foundation need not report individual payments at tax time.

Support Community-Based Programs: Artists and arts administrators have a genius for whipping tiny resources into big things. And they are also already engaging the community you serve.

Now a half century old, community supported agriculture is a model of food production by which growers (through labor and expertise) and consumers (through monetary investment) share the risks and benefits of food production. During and after the growing season, the results of this collective commitment are distributed as shares of organic vegetables, eggs, and other farm-direct items. Typically, the growers and consumers share food-related community, environmental, and economic ideals, such as a commitment to organic farming or the local ecosystem.

In recent years, visionary arts administrators have recast the community support model in order to connect artists with arts supporters and to pool resources in support of art that substantiates community values. The current models generally involve small investments on the part of their supporters, but they are designed to be scalable and reproducible (with all due input from and credit to the originators).

Sunday Soup is the Chicago-based prototype of a funding effort that is now operating in thirty-eight national and international locations. The program draws on two proven income generators: fund-raising meals/galas and the, in recent years, all-the-rage arts-related food event (interchangeable with the food-related arts event, also all the rage). How it works: (1) A meal is produced and plates are sold for an affordable price; (2) simple artist grant proposals are accepted until the meal begins; (3) proposals are presented during the meal, sometimes by means of artist presentations; and (4) upon conclusion of the meal, a vote is taken and a grant recipient (or a few) receives all the funds raised by the meal. The type and complexity of food service vary from location to location — food and labor are donated or paid for with funds raised before the meal in support of the Sunday Soup program — as do the types of projects presented to and selected by local communities.

In 2009, and St. Paul–based Springboard for the Arts launched Community Supported Art, a closer cousin to the agriculture-based community support models. Twenty related programs are now in various stages of planning and operation around the country. In St. Paul, artists apply to participate and those selected receive a $1,000 stipend to create fifty “shares” for the program. Shares can be visual art, audio recordings, tickets to a performance or participatory event, and more. Shareholders pay $300 for three boxes of three artworks each, which are available on pickup dates in the spring and summer. The pickups are events designed to encourage interaction between the shareholder and the artists and otherwise build a community around arts participation.

Use the World Wide Web: Invest in existing web assets or develop your own. As with anything online, the potential breadth and depth of impact are great.

Founded in 2009, Kickstarter is a web-based pledge system that allows enterprising inventors, entrepreneurs, and artists to post projects (web content, consumer products, an independent film) to a public website and request a total amount of start-up capital from potential investors. Investors choose the level of investment; the possible return on investment, if any, is determined by the project architects.

Kickstarter immediately appealed to artists and other creative professionals with traditionally smaller audiences and capital pools as a means of fund-raising for and promoting a project. Noting this appeal and understanding how the pledge system might be better formulated to specifically serve artists, a small number of funders have designed and implemented arts-specific microphilanthropy sites. Primarily fund-raising resources, these sites offer several auxiliary benefits, including artist promotion and legitimization, audience development, and, to the benefit of the site hosts, promotion of the grantmakers’ other programs.

In December 2010, United States Artists (USA) launched USA Projects, a microphilanthropy site for artists to market and develop projects with considerable administrative assistance from USA. To qualify, artists must be veterans of the USA grant program or a peer presenting or funding organization. Each artist (or artist group) creates a profile page with project and background information, as well as optional supporting images, videos, and links. Also included is a fund-raising goal, and in most instances a selection of available pledge levels, often with project-related donor benefits included. If the fund-raising goal is not met, the project is not funded. USA Projects also offers partner organizations (such as a foundation) the opportunity to put up matching funds or to contribute to an open matching fund, increasing the impact of giving by individual donors while incentivizing that giving. Eighty-one percent of each donation pledged through USA Projects goes directly to the artist, with the remainder supporting site maintenance — the program is paying, in part, for itself — and USA’s artist programs. Donations are tax deductible because USA acts as a fiscal sponsor.

Another variation on the Kickstarter model is the recently launched website, a program of New York Foundation for the Arts. Like USA Projects, Artspire allows vetted artists to build funding profiles and to accept tax-deductible funds from project donors. (For organizations funding in specific geographical areas, the site is searchable by state.) Artspire’s financial and service structure is closer to that of a classic fiscal sponsorship — artists and small arts organizations that qualify to participate pay low fees for the web real estate and the financial services Artspire offers. These benefits range from full-service bookkeeping to training in the areas of fund-raising, proposal writing, and financial planning.

Artspire’s parent organization, New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), presents another significant web asset, NYFA Source, an online directory of grants, services, and publications for artists with thousands of resources searchable by location, discipline, and other attributes. To maintain a database of over nine thousand opportunities, NYFA employs dedicated staff to research, post, and ensure the ongoing accuracy of listings. Without this overhead, several other organizations of all stripes offer a variety of more modest listings. These smaller, often regional directories are excellent tools for identifying one-off activities and community-specific resources.

In recent years, arts grantmakers have utilized their websites to create and promote profiles of grant recipients. With designs ranging from simple to complex, these indexed profiles work to promote the individual artists and to create a record of the grant program. The online artist profiles created for the Alpert Award in the Arts, which makes five sizable grants each year to artists working in different disciplines, are perhaps the most ambitious example of this form of web promotion. In collaboration with the artists, Alpert creates customized, multi-page sites with videos, audio tracks, text, and images that help site visitors explore each artist’s work, including influences and recurring content and themes.

Help Artists Help Themselves: Professional development, promotion, and validation offer ample, nongrant reach and impact.

Creative Capital forms effective partnerships, but the organization also works independently, distributing artist project grants through a three-year cycle. During the first two years of the cycle, grants valued at $90,000 each are made to about forty artists per year through an open call for proposals. The third year is dedicated to additional investment in sponsored projects.

The cash value of a grant is not $90,000 but $50,000 — the sum over and above this amount is the estimated value of services provided by Creative Capital. These services include an artist retreat where grant recipients learn from and network with as many as 250 consultants, arts professionals, and other artists; an artist-to-artist mentorship program that pairs emerging artists with likeminded established artists; and professional development training (sometimes by former grant recipients) in strategic planning, fund-raising, web strategies, and much more. By providing these additional services, Creative Capital ensures that the funded project is effectively imagined and managed. The return on investment is exceptional results and an ever-increasing network of (truly) professional artists.

In brief, some additional examples of nongrant support:

  • Since 1999, New York–based Artadia has made unrestricted awards to visual artists in five targeted cities. Upon receipt of the award, each artist becomes a permanent member of the organization’s national support network. Artadia emphasizes access to curators, gallerists, and collectors, and has put several tools in place, including a staff with lightning-quick reflexes, to facilitate these connections.
  • Recently, a handful of organizations, including Artist Trust in Seattle and Fractured Atlas in New York, have researched, compiled, and alerted artists to affordable health insurance opportunities.
  • The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation’s Marketplace Empowerment for Artists program supports professional development opportunities for artists. While the program is available to working artists, a unique, strategic focus has been placed on preparing professional development curricula for MFA students so that they are empowered to make informed decisions at the start of their careers.

Create Good Public Policy: Public agencies have geographically delineated constituencies and specific tools for supporting the artists in their midst.

Funded by tax dollars, public agencies serving local, state, and national communities are held to a particularly high level of accountability. These organizations safeguard against controversy by delegating funds through committee, which is usually achieved by employing panels of arts professionals, civic representatives, and public stakeholders in funding decisions. Direct, non-project-specific support is more difficult to structure. Successful programs require administrative ingenuity and a knack for knowing and engaging the community served.

In 1965, Kentucky accepted the National Endowment for the Arts’ offer of a $50,000 matching grant to create a state arts agency. The Kentucky Arts Council (initially, Commission) was created by executive order that same year. Two years later, Kentucky was ranked third among the states in its commitment to arts funding. Today the program remains robust, boasting a twenty-member staff that includes a position dedicated to individual artists.

While many of the Kentucky Arts Council’s programs benefiting individual artists are not unique, the breadth of the agency’s engagement in fiscal, professional development, and promotional support is remarkable. Additional to grants and fellowships, including a $500 professional development grant (on hold in 2012 because of budget reductions), the council offers the following programs and services, among (several) others:

  • Publicly accessible directories of Kentucky-based performing and teaching artists, and a directory specific to an unusual category: architectural artists.
  • An apprentice program that funds opportunities for master craftspeople, performers, and artists to pass skills to promising future practitioners.
  • The Featured Artist Program, through which participants in any of the council’s juried programs can apply to be featured on the council website for one month.
  • The Kentucky Peer Advisory Network, a program accepting applications from artists and organizations for council-funded three- to six-hour sessions with consultants who have expertise in arts management, grants, promotions, and other professional areas.
  • Kentucky Crafted, a juried marketing assistance program that helps craft and visual artists promote their work by providing business training and exhibition opportunities, inclusion in an online directory, and the chance to exhibit in an annual showcase.

Additional Resources

For grantmakers considering the grant and nongrant support of individual artists, the organizations surveyed in this article are effective, admired, and offered as examples to use in making the case for this work within your own organization. And in whatever way you are inspired, GIA offers extensive resources to support grantmaker research and development, including networking opportunities.

Here are a few: