Nomination and Grantmaking Reconsidered

Published in: GIA Newsletter, Vol 8, No 2 (Fall 1997)

Nello McDaniel and George Thorn

The following article is based on excerpts from a program examination by Arts Action Research.

Bimbo Rivas: Artist Profile
While Bimbo Rivas took great pride in his skill and discipline as an artist, he had a special talent for using his art to reflect and ignite the hopes and passions of his lower East Side community. So popular was his poem "Loisada" that in 1988 Avenue C on the Lower East Side was renamed Loisada Avenue. A lifelong resident of the Lower East Side, Bimbo Rivas developed a reputation as a dynamic artist and community activist as well as a devoted father of five. Rivas made little distinction between his role as a teacher, artist, and father—all had to do with instilling a strong sense of personal and community pride.

Rivas' artistic output covered a wide range of expressions from actor to director, playwright to poet. While teaching public elementary school full time, he performed regularly with the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, at Joseph Papp's Public Theatre, and on Broadway in the play “Short Eyes.” Rivas also made time to get involved in the community, fighting unfair housing practices and bettering human services.

Despite over thirty years of work for which Rivas was recognized and respected in his community, he had never received any form of financial help to do his work. It is not that Rivas was unaware of grant programs available to writers. He knew of numerous playwrights and authors who had received grants and fellowships. But it never occurred to him that the kind of writing he wanted to do—about living on the Lower East Side, about a community's struggle, about being visible in a world that would prefer you remain invisible—would ever be supported by a grant.

In 1990, the Artists' Projects: New York State Regional Initiative (New York Initiative) was established to help “hidden artists” who might not ordinarily apply for grants. Cheno Garcia, a theater producer working out of El Bohio Community Center on the Lower East Side, was asked to be one of the first-cycle nominators to suggest artists for funding. Having worked with Bimbo Rivas in the theater for twenty-five years, Garcia knew that Rivas was anything but hidden in his community. But Garcia also felt it likely that no artist was more hidden from the funding mainstream or deserving of resources for his work than Bimbo Rivas.

Bimbo Rivas was among the first artists to receive a New York Initiative award. The $2,500 grant was a staggering surprise to Rivas, and an emotional validation of his life's work. With great pride and eagerness, Rivas undertook a book compiling several plays, a short story, and poems about his life on the Lower East Side. He called his project “Loisada” after his best known and best loved poem.*

The New York Initiative
The New York Initiative was a regranting program that was part of a regionally administered, national program to support artists—Artists' Projects Regional Initiative (APRI). This national program, begun in 1984 and ended in 1995, had two principal goals: 1) to encourage the participation of artists of diverse cultural and aesthetic backgrounds; and 2) to assist in the creation and production of independent artists' projects that were innovative in form or content.

From the outset and for purely pragmatic reasons, the New York Initiative departed from the “open call” application format used in other regions. In order to serve the considerable number and range of artists and communities in New York—and in spite of some reservations on the part of both the funding and the arts communities—the New York Initiative was designed as a nomination/panel process.

A multi-tiered decision-making and monitoring process guided the program. A “working group” of nine individuals was responsible for overall policy, program design, and operational oversight. Every year, each of thirty nominators (representing the many disciplines, nationalities, and regions of the state) submitted three artists' projects for consideration. Nominators, including both artists and other arts professionals, were asked to identify the “hidden” artists in their communities who might not otherwise apply to such a program. A five-person review panel, appointed by the working group, reviewed the submissions and selected grantees. The program was administered by Pyramid Arts Center in Rochester, New York, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC).

ARTS Action Research (AAR) was commissioned by LMCC to study the New York Initiative. The program's funding partners made an additional allocation to cover the study. Our examination found that the New York Initiative was successful in achieving overall program goals. More specifically, its selection process was an effective means to reach a diverse range of artists, met the program goal of providing both access and project support to artists, and opened up the grantmaking process by empowering artists and arts professionals in heretofore unrealized ways. Overall, the impact of the actual grant dollars was at least matched by the recognition, mentoring, and other resources that artists received. In the program's three years, ninety-two nominators generated 224 artists' applications. A total of $140,999 in project grants, ranging from $1,000 to $4,000, were awarded to fifty-eight artists in New York State, representing twenty-five percent of the application pool.

The recipient artists represent virtually every culture and community in the state, and the projects are as diverse as the pool of artists themselves. This modest program had a positive, and in some cases profound, impact on many of the recipient artists. It not only provided grant support, but also information and access to other resources, a support network of peers and mentors, and most importantly, validation and encouragement for their work.

AAR's examination asked first whether and then why this program was so successful in achieving program goals. Some say it only appears to be successful because it didn't fail as may have been expected. Others see it as a breakthrough in both concept and delivery of resources. Is the program methodology as exceptional as it appears, or is it merely an exception to the rule?

Among other things, AAR's examination provided an opportunity to observe how effectively the New York Initiative's non-traditional decision-making approach responded to artists' needs. Is its nomination/panel process more or less inclusive than traditional open call application/panel processes?

Nomination Reconsidered
Nomination as a means to make grantmaking decisions is not new, but the approach is not widely used nor generally accepted within the funding community. Most nomination processes are employed by funding sources for limited highly specific grantmaking purposes, such as the MacArthur Fellows program or other distinguished artists fellowship programs. These programs are exclusive by design, and aim to selectively recognize certain artists and individuals. The basis for the grants is clear, and no one would mistake them as being competitive or as denying access because they lack an open application call. In this context, the nominating process is safe, controllable, and noncontroversial.

However, the use of a nomination process for the express purpose of being inclusive as an ongoing granting apparatus, philosophically and operationally flies in the face of conventional wisdom governing arts grantmaking—especially if using public monies. The mere mention of a nominating process raises a multitude of questions from both grantmakers and arts community. Almost by definition, anything less than the traditional “open call” seems to invite exclusion, selectivity, conflicts of interest, nepotism, arbitrariness, even dishonesty.

A Tool for Greater Inclusion
One of the questions addressed by AAR's examination was, “Has the New York Initiative successfully served artists and projects of diversity?” We found that, indeed, it provided an effective and proactive means to identify, recognize, and support a broad range of diverse artists' projects and communities. The nomination process is a significant tool for achieving greater inclusion by:

  • bridging both historical and contemporary communication gaps;
  • identifying and reaching into a wide range of isolated or disenfranchised communities;
  • providing greater cultural and artistic context for project decision-making; and
  • creating greater communication and “cohesion” within the arts community.

From the beginning, the New York Initiative faced a daunting set of “knowns and unknowns” that have frustrated funding programs and approaches for years. While it was known that large communities of artists of great cultural, racial, ethnic, and aesthetic diversity were unserved, it was not clear how to reach them.

An assumption of the New York Initiative was that a nomination process could cut across cultural, language, and aesthetic barriers more effectively than traditional open call methods, and that nominators could identify and reach artists who might never receive or respond to information regarding grants or funding opportunities. This assumption was born out in ways and on a scale that few expected. The network of artists and communities dramatically expanded. Most nominators agreed that identifying qualified artists was the easiest part of their job.

The theory behind open call application processes is that they give all artists an equal opportunity to seek and be considered for grant support. The theory is based on an assumption that all artists and all communities are equally informed and aware of opportunities. Clearly, this is not the case. A large number of artists never find themselves on mailing lists to receive program announcements or guidelines. Entire communities never get plugged into the information grapevine. In interviews, artists attributed this lack of connection to information and resources to one of four factors: lack of access to the information, language barriers, cultural differences, and self-exclusion.

Assumptions Questioned
AAR's review of the New York Initiative leads us to conclude that traditional arts funding processes have been based on some unquestioned assumptions that are not now, and probably have never been, accurate.

Assumption: An open call application process is the fairest way to assure open access to funding resources.

While an open call application process can give the appearance of openness and fairness, it also can be full of obstacles and closed doors to many artists and communities. It may be appropriate in some situations, but ineffective in others. Despite great intentions of grantmakers, an open call process does not provide a means to proactively alter conditions in the field. Ultimately, it is a passive approach to addressing problems no matter how strong and assertive the guideline language may be.

Assumption: Artists cannot set aside personal interest sufficiently to carry out the goals of a program aimed at supporting specific individuals or work.

Simply put, artists need resources, and, if given an opportunity, most will compete for resources to do their work. But the New York Initiative demonstrated that when responsibility is given to artists to direct resources to other artists, the overwhelming majority will commit themselves responsibly to the task.

Assumption: Application review by a peer panel is the best way to assure fairness, maintain standards of quality, and allocate resources.

Over the years, peer panels have been invested with mythical, almost mystical, powers to know, understand, and act in the best interest of the field. This is partly because the arts community has had to defend its use of peer panels so much that some of the inadequacies of panels are covered over. Simply put, no single panel of individuals can know everything it needs to know or is supposed to know. We should stop hiding the problems of panels behind arguments of “quality” as though there were a single, universally agreed upon standard of quality. “Quality” is only meaningful to those deciding the standards at any given time. No panel can or should be expected to define standards of quality in an all-inclusive way, because no panel can be large enough or inclusive enough to do so.

If grantmaking panels were the chief means of distributing resources , and if (as often seems to be the case) a sub-culture of interlocking panelists were to decide standards of quality from panel to panel, then the system would be exclusive and destructive of the open-call aim of inclusivity.

In Conclusion
Some interviewees told us that, although the New York Initiative may have been effective, they couldn't trust the process to be fair. Even those who expressed strong support for the program also voiced ambivalence. From beginning to end, we heard concerns about the potential for misuse and abuse. How can such a program be protected from conflicts of interest and nepotism? Some suggested intricate administrative processes of cross-checking lists to prevent a nominator from knowingly or unknowingly violating the program's constantly evolving conflict of interest policies.

In fact, no amount of program regulation, oversight, or punitive actions will completely eliminate the possibility of conflicts of interest. In spite of its own inadequacies, the traditional open call application approach still seems to offer a kind of institutional protection from the unknown. There is something appealing about a system larger than ourselves that offers protection in case someone less honest assumes control.

However, all grantmaking processes are put together by human beings, each with her or his own living and working biases. The possibility—if not inevitability—of misuse, abuse, or simple neglect is present in all. Ultimately, no grantmaking process can guarantee absolute openness, fairness, and lack of bias, every time to all people.

Finally, this examination underscored the fact that developing new and more appropriate solutions for arts support is not simply a matter of developing new methodologies, but must be accompanied by new attitudes and relationships. Funding programs and guidelines, however lofty the intentions, must ultimately be a reflection of shared understanding, commitment, and trust. A gulf will always exist between the hopes and desires of grantmakers and the real needs and abilities of the arts community. The relationship between those with resources and those needing resources will remain asymmetrical. But the gulf can shrink and the relationships can be healthy and functional. The New York Initiative has demonstrated some dramatic ways this can happen.

ARTS Action Research is an arts research and consulting group directed by Nello McDaniel and George Thorn. Financial support for the New York Initiative came from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and the Jerome Foundation. The program ended in 1995. More information about the program and the program examination is available in a booklet distributed by the LMCC, 1 World Trade Center #1717, New York, NY 10048-0202, 212-432-0900.

* Artist Bimbo Rivas had only just begun the project funded by the New York Initiative when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack.