Understanding Support for Individual Artists

Making a Case for National Standards

John Carnwath

For several years, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) members have noted the lack of sector-wide information about support for individual artists. Many funders feel that direct support for artists is a crucial part of the arts funding ecology and one that is underresourced. In the past, however, it has been difficult to assess the extent to which artists are being supported by institutional funders — in fact, it has even been difficult to have a field-wide conversation about the different ways in which artists receive support. In part, this is due to the fact that there are so many different forms of support. But more importantly, the terms that are used to describe them are not uniformly defined, and it is not always clear what distinguishes one type of support from another. Are commissions a form of project grant, or are the two fundamentally different? Is a fellowship simply an unrestricted grant, or does the term imply something more than that? There is not even clear agreement about what should count as “support.”

To foster more fruitful conversations, GIA recently released A Proposed National Standard Taxonomy for Reporting Data on Support for Individual Artists. With ongoing participation of the GIA Individual Artists Support Committee, this taxonomy was constructed through an iterative process that unfolded over two years and involved scores of interviews with funders and arts service organizations as well as focused discussions at the 2012 and 2013 GIA conferences. The term taxonomy (derived from the Greek taxis, meaning “arrangement”) refers to a system of classification, and in this particular case we are concerned with defining the ways in which foundations and other organizations support individual artists and mapping how these forms of support relate to one another.

Why does it matter whether the funds awarded through support programs are referred to as grants, stipends, fellowships, or awards? There are in fact many reasons why definitional clarity matters and why failure to agree on a common vocabulary impedes the advancement of the field. In this article I will examine a few of them.

A Proposed National Standard Taxonomy for Reporting Data on Support for Individual Artists

The taxonomy was developed to bring a common language to the work of institutional funders who support individual artists, and to increase our understanding of how the field operates as a whole, what it accomplishes well, and where there is room for improvement. It was recognized that arts funders lag behind other areas of the philanthropic sector (e.g., health and education) in regard to active use of national standards. Further, while the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), and the Foundation Center have established some basic reporting standards within the arts sector, support for individual artists remains a particularly nebulous area of arts philanthropy.

Tracking support for individual artists is especially difficult due to the fact that the grants that individual artists receive are often relatively small (under $10,000) and a significant amount of support is provided in non-monetary form (e.g., subsidized work space, professional development opportunities). Due to the specialized skills that are required to manage these types of support programs, institutional funders often rely on arts service organizations and nonprofits to run the programs as intermediaries, which adds an additional layer of complexity.1

To bring some structure to all of this information, the taxonomy is divided into three sections, or “modules”:

  • Funder Module: The funder module characterizes the organization that provides the support and defines some top-level classifications of support programs (e.g., distinguishing between monetary and non-monetary support, and between support that flows directly from funder to artist and that which is distributed by an intermediary).
  • Program Module: The program module describes the organization’s programs for individual artists and distinguishes between various types of monetary and nonmonetary support. It also provides means of classifying programs according to their eligibility requirements, application procedures, and size (in terms of program spending and number of artists served).
  • Recipient Module: The recipient module outlines common standards for the collection of demographic information about the artists who receive support and the scope of their creative activities.

As the full title of the taxonomy suggests, standardized reporting was one of the primary reasons for developing the taxonomy. In the future, common definitional standards will allow funders and artists support organizations to enter their activities into a central database and benchmark themselves against their peers. While this is certainly one reason for developing the taxonomy, the initiative has also sought to serve the broader purposes of providing a better understanding of funding practices, promoting field-wide learning, and elevating the discourse among arts funders.

But rather than talking about this in the abstract, let’s examine how individual funders and the field as a whole will benefit from the standard taxonomy of artists support in practice.

1. Internal Use by Organizations

In the interviews that were conducted during the planning phase of this initiative, several funders mentioned that their organizations are either in the process of modifying their systems of collecting and tracking data about their grantmaking or are considering introducing formal data collection processes for the first time. These funders noted that it would be extremely helpful to be able to draw upon a standard, tried-and-tested set of categories in developing their own internal databases. We are indeed at a crossroads at which either individual organizations, lacking outside guidance, will continue to develop their own typologies and reporting frameworks (which will contribute to the proliferation of competing definitions and standards), or a concerted effort to adopt common standards will lead to greater consistency.2

Individual funders have different reasons for wanting to track their grantmaking in a more formal way. Some want to use the information in their internal decision-making processes. Others see the data primarily as a means of increasing transparency and accountability. Much has been written about the growing use of data in internal monitoring, decision making, and assessment,3 and while this is not the place to discuss the how, when, and why of such practices, it is clear that as increasing numbers of funders adopt data tracking systems, the provision of easily adaptable templates can conserve considerable amounts of resources.

Since the information that is significant and useful will vary depending on the organizations’ objectives, it is impossible to provide a one-size-fitsall solution to data collection. In arguing for global standards across all areas of philanthropy, Larry McGill, vice president for research at the Foundation Center, concedes that “standards must not be incompatible with flexibility.”4 For example, a foundation that specifically supports Asian American artists might want to capture more detailed information about the nationalities or ethnicities of Asian grantees than is included in the standard taxonomy. The standard definitions can nonetheless provide a useful starting point, and if the additional nuance is added in a way that can be summed into the taxonomy’s categories, the data will still be comparable to that of other organizations.

At the most basic level, the standard taxonomy will thus save individual organizations that are rethinking their internal data collection processes from having to start with a blank page. Such organizations will instead be able to draw on a carefully researched and tested framework.

2. Transparency

For organizations that draw on the standard taxonomy in developing their internal management, monitoring, and accountability systems, it will come as an added benefit that many other funders across the field are adopting the same standards. Indeed, for some organizations the ability to compare their data with others and benchmark their performance against their peers will be the main source of value and the primary reason for adopting the common classification system. The standard definitions will introduce a shared vocabulary that will bring much-needed clarity to field-wide comparisons and discussions.

At present, the annual reports issued by arts funders are filled with references to “fellowships,” “residencies,” “project grants,” and “professional development” as if there were a common understanding of what these terms mean. The fact is, however, that there are considerable differences between the types of support that grantmakers provide under these headings. For outsiders seeking to learn about a funder’s activities — and even for applicants who are trying to decide which programs to apply for — the idiosyncrasies of the funding terminology can be impenetrable. Clarity of intent can also enhance the relationships between funders and intermediary organizations that provide services to artists on their behalf. The adoption of a shared vocabulary will therefore increase transparency and may even allow funders to define their programs more clearly.

3. Comparability

Why would arts funders want to compare their artists support programs to their peers’? To answer that question, let’s take a step back and consider how GIA serves its membership. One of its primary functions is to promote exchange between its member organizations at its annual conference, in the pages of the GIA Reader, and online. The implicit assumption is that arts funders can learn from the experiences of other arts funders — that information about what worked or did not work in one instance can usefully inform the decisions of others. However, with any new strategy or program there are likely to be a large number of factors that contribute to its success (or failure), and the extent to which the experience can be considered predictive of what is likely to happen somewhere else will depend on the circumstances. To learn from “best practices,” there must not only be clarity about the specifics of the initiative itself but also an understanding of the comparability of the contexts. The standard taxonomy of support for individual artists sheds light on both of these aspects.

Without a standardized set of definitions it is impossible to draw comparisons between cases. Ten years ago such considerations led the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA) to conclude studies of international arts participation and government arts spending with the somber verdict that it was simply impossible to draw comparisons due to disparities in the data that were reported by the individual countries under examination.5

At present, one would likely have to draw the same conclusion about the information that philanthropies in the United States provide about their support for individual artists.

4. Assessment of Collective Impact

In addition to providing added transparency and the ability to learn from comparisons with other organizations, the use of a common vocabulary of artists support will facilitate communications between organizations that are partnering with each other. One particular form of partnership that has gained significant attention in the nonprofit sector concerns the assessment of “collective impact.” The concept was introduced by John Kania and Mark Kramer to describe the ways in which organizations may increase the impact they have in a given area by partnering with other organizations with similar goals.6 The idea is that the concerted efforts of multiple organizations working toward common objectives may exceed the sum of the impacts that the organizations can achieve individually. The first two conditions for collective success, according to Kania and Kramer, are the adoption of a common agenda and the development of shared measurement systems. Identifying potential partners and agreeing on appropriate outcome measures will be significantly easier for organizations that already use standardized program and/or data definitions.

5. Field-Wide Learning and Advocacy

Stepping back from the perspective of the individual providers of support for individual artists, one can recognize the great benefit that standardized definitions have for the field as a whole. The challenges of peer-to-peer learning, cross-site comparisons, and assessing collective impact are all magnified when considering the arts philanthropy field as a whole. The increased ability to identify best practices and challenges and draw appropriate conclusions from both could accelerate the pace of learning in the field considerably.

A further advantage of adopting more uniform language lies in the ability to collect consistent data from a wide range of arts funders about different forms of support they provide for individual artists. This provides a bird’s-eye view of the field, which will allow GIA to identify sector-wide trends that may not be apparent otherwise. It will also make it possible to examine the work of various subsets of funders (by type of organization, size, geography, etc.), identify gaps in the distribution of support for artists, and shed light on the roles that different funders play in the overall funding ecology.

Finally, as the ability to demonstrate impact with objective measures becomes increasingly important in the philanthropic sector, the arts are coming under growing pressure to justify their portion of the funding pie. This is particularly apparent in the public sector and in foundations that support multiple causes, where the arts have to compete with other areas of investment for resources; however, even dedicated arts philanthropies increasingly have to demonstrate the efficacy of their interventions to internal and external stakeholders. In addition to providing a clearer picture of how artists are currently supported in our country, field-wide information about artists support will allow funders to pinpoint the significance of their particular contribution within the larger field.

Arts Funding Taxonomies in Practice

As mentioned above, the NEA, NASAA, and the Foundation Center have already introduced standard taxonomies in some areas of arts funding, which provide good examples of how such initiatives work in practice.7 The Foundation Center’s “Snapshot of the Foundation Grants to Arts and Culture,” which is published annually in the GIA Reader, NASAA’s fact sheets on support for individual artists, and the “Strategy Sampler” on state arts agency fellowships amply demonstrate the value of data standardization and aggregation.8 The proposed taxonomy of individual artists support was developed in consultation with the Foundation Center and NASAA, so that its categories map onto the existing data to the extent possible. Neither the “National Standard of Arts Information Exchange,” which was jointly developed by the NEA and NASAA, nor the Foundation Center’s taxonomy for private philanthropies is able to capture the level of nuance about individual artists support that GIA’s newly developed taxonomy provides; thus, the new initiative fills an important gap in the overall picture.

Now that the taxonomy of support for individual artists is publicly available, funders who are interested in learning how their programs contribute to the larger arts funding ecology or who seek guidance on their internal data collection have a resource they can turn to. Funders and intermediaries of all sorts are welcome to use the taxonomy (or portions thereof) as they see fit. A concise overview of the taxonomy, including some practical tips for organizations that wish to start using the definitions in their internal data collection, has been distributed to GIA members and is available for download on the GIA website.9

The next phase in the initiative will move toward the collection of standardized information on support for individual artists, with initial pilot tests scheduled to begin by the end of 2014. GIA has already developed the infrastructure for a database that is capable of capturing and storing the necessary data from participating funders.

As stated at the outset, one of the primary objectives of this initiative is to stimulate and advance conversations about funding practices within the field of arts philanthropy. Clearly, the adoption of standardized definitions and concerted data collection efforts will not supply all of the answers that are desired in the field; the initiative will, however, bring much-needed clarity to the conversation and will make it possible to identify areas in which more targeted research is necessary.


  1. See Claudia Bach, “The Funder and the Intermediary, in Support of the Artist,” GIA Reader 25, no. 1 (Winter 2014).
  2. Bradford Smith, “Philanthropy’s Data Dilemma,” Latest from Alliance, http://philanthropynews.alliancemagazine.org/2012/07/26/philanthropys-data-dilemma/.
  3. Nicole Wallace, “Nonprofits Take a Wide-Eyed Look at What Data Can Do,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, 27 February 2014; Neville Vakharia, “The Knowledge-Centric Arts Organization: A Critical Role for Grantmakers,” GIA Reader 24, no. 3 (Fall 2013).
  4. Larry McGill, “Data for Good,” Alliance Magazine, 1 September 2012, http://www.alliancemagazine.org/en/content/data-good.
  5. Christopher Madden, “International Comparisons of Arts Participation Data,” D’Art Topics in Arts Policy, no. 2, November 2002, International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, http://sic.conaculta.gob.mx/centrodoc_documentos/151.pdf; Christopher Madden, “Government Arts Expenditure: Inter-Country Comparisons,” D’Art Topics in Arts Policy, no. 13, June 2003, International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies, http://www.ifacca.org/topic/inter-country-comparisons-of-government-arts-expen; Christopher Madden, “Making Cross-Country Comparisons of Cultural Statistics: Problems and Solutions,” Arts Council Australia, October 2004, http://www.australiacouncil.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/32627/Making_Crosscountry_Comparisons_of_Cultural_Statistics__Problems_and_Solutions.pdf.
  6. John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective Impact,” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011, http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/collective_impact.
  7. Y. Kelly Liu, “A Quick and Easy Guide to National Standard Data Fields,” March 2010, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, National Endowment for the Arts, http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Research/Planning-and-Accountability/National-Standard-Reference-Center/NS_QE_Guide.pdf; Foundation Center, “Electronic Reporting Standards,” http://foundationcenter.org/grantmakers/er_specs.html.
  8. National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, “Support for Individual Artists,” http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Research/Grant-Making/Fact-Sheets/IndividualArtistsFactSheetFY12.pdf; National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, “Strategy Sampler: State Arts Agency Artist Fellowships,” http://www.nasaa-arts.org/Research/Best-Practices/ArtistFellowshipsStrategySampler.pdf.
  9. http://www.giarts.org/article/support-for-individual-artists-research-initiative.