Regranting as an Art Form

Empowering Artists as Community Change Agents

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 27, No 3 (Fall 2016)

Jack Becker

I was lucky as a young artist, with the ink still drying on my BFA, to learn about working in the public art field through a Minneapolis-based CETA program in 1977. CETA (Comprehensive Employment Training Act) was a federal jobs program that included several arts initiatives around the country. As gallery director of City Art Productions — the name of the one-year program initiated by Melisande Charles at the Minneapolis Arts Commission — I got to organize exhibits of CETA artists at libraries, plazas, government centers, and parks throughout the city. Working from city hall, I discovered, was very empowering. Connecting artists with high-traffic spaces and the audiences that come with them was a good job for an artist like me. Bureaucracy, I learned, is like found-object sculpture; connecting people, places, and things in the city like they were raw materials in my studio felt familiar to me.

This year-long program led to the formation, with the help of some of my CETA colleagues, of the nonprofit Forecast Public Art in 1978. During our first decade we operated project by project, keeping our overhead as low as possible. We received support from the regional arts council, local foundations, such as the Jerome and McKnight Foundations, and some of the philanthropic corporations in the region. By 1989 we had two ongoing programs in place: Public Art Review magazine, and Public Art Affairs, a regranting program supporting artists working in communities throughout Minnesota. In the mid-1990s, in response to growing interest in public art and our growing expertise, Forecast began offering consulting services.

Today, after thirty-eight years with the organization, I have transitioned out of my role as executive director, and I am leading Forecast’s Community Services program. A new executive director, Theresa Sweetland, is in place, thanks to a concerted effort by our board of directors over the past two years. As I look back on almost four decades of working in the nonprofit arts world, it is clear to me that our long-term partnerships with receptive foundations in Minnesota played a significant role in our organization’s longevity and impact.

In the mid-1980s, partly in response to cutbacks in the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship programs, arts funders, like the Jerome Foundation, started making grants to nonprofit arts groups that were discipline specific so they in turn could provide grants to individual artists. In Minnesota, Jerome funds the Playwrights’ Center to support playwrights, the Northern Clay Center to support ceramic artists, The Loft Literary Center to support writers, and so on. Having worked closely with Cindy Gehrig, Jerome’s president, during our first decade of programming, I approached her to inquire if Forecast could be considered for regranting Jerome funds. Instead of submitting requests for new projects every year, we could run an annualized program that allowed artists to propose projects of their choosing, ideas they could realize anywhere in the state. Like Jerome, we cared deeply for the plight of emerging artists and sought to give them a leg up. A low-maintenance, annual program aligned perfectly with my notions about what was needed in the field — an incubator-type grant program offering funding and technical assistance to artists working in the field — and what our small nonprofit could handle. When I asked Gehrig how we should structure the program, she replied with a response I will never forget: “You tell me. How do you think it should be structured, Jack?”

These words still resonate with me for the simple logic behind them but also the matter-of-fact trust that came with them. They gave me a fresh perspective: nonprofits can partner with foundations and work collaboratively to serve the common ground in our missions. As an artist trying to make it in the big, complex world of 501(c)(3)s, I had been stuck in the outmoded paradigm of being the charity that needs a handout from the powers above. I realized that foundations needed us on-the-ground nonprofits as much as we needed them. In preparing this article, I reached out to Gehrig to get her thoughts about regranting and partnering with funders. She wrote:

The synchronicity of a grantmaking organization and an arts organization seeking to support and serve individual artists and artist collaborators finds its best manifestation in regranting programs. This relationship is much more than the grantmaker providing financial support and the arts organization managing an application and selection process and monitoring the program. The grantmaker can secure so much more for artists by connecting them to an arts organization with experience, expertise, technical assistance capacity, ongoing professional development opportunities, a community of peers, and a mission that serves artists. The artists receive benefits far beyond the regrant program itself. The key to effectiveness is a close relationship between the grantmaking organization and the arts organization.

Our Jerome-funded regranting program — started in 1989 and still going strong — enabled the development of Forecast’s Artist Services program, supporting individual artists and collaborative teams working in the public sphere. For example, Randy Walker transformed a farmer’s corn crib into a walk-through tower of brightly lit woven cords. Seitu Jones crafted a modest memorial to Dred Scott, who spent four years at Fort Snelling as a slave to the fort’s doctor. The dance troupe HIJACK traveled the state with a flatbed truck to perform at county fairs and festivals. Marcus Young designed a series of fortune cookies and “installed” them at local Chinese restaurants for unsuspecting diners to contemplate his existential musings. Instead of commissioning artists or directing them to produce a certain kind of work, our grant program asks artists what they want to pursue, what audiences they want to reach, and what difference they want to make. With this approach, the public gains a perception of the role artists can play in their community, and artists get to write their own job descriptions.

Since Gehrig’s retirement in 2015, our program officer at Jerome has been Eleanor Savage, who is articulate about the foundation’s reasons for regranting:

Jerome’s mission, to contribute to a dynamic and evolving culture by supporting the creation, development, and production of new works by emerging artists, is directly served through regranting programs with specific arts organizations. Nonprofit arts organizations have direct and in-depth relationships with artists and their work — relationships born of the making of the work that foundations don’t have with artists. They provide invaluable resources to artists, such as development/rehearsal space, performance/exhibition/screening space, technical support, program structures with peer-to-peer feedback during the development process, connection with audiences, marketing, documentation, and the opportunity to network with other artists. Over the years, I have witnessed and heard from artists that finding a “home” for their work is vital — and by “home” they are talking about a place where they feel supported, that provides context for their work and fosters social and professional relationships. When the mission of the foundation, the arts organization, and the artists align, the results are expansive, contributing to the arts ecosystem and the cultural fabric of the community.

As Forecast’s program evolved, we watched emerging artists “graduate” and evolve more sophisticated and complex practices. Fortunately, with interest from program staff at The McKnight Foundation, we were able to craft a companion regranting program for midcareer artists. I asked our program officer, Sarah Lovan, to share her thoughts about regranting:

People doing the work know the work that needs to be done. Utilizing the expertise and knowledge of those people and organizations, like Forecast, to connect to foundation dollars is efficient and smart grantmaking. Regranting through intermediaries can also be utilized as a tactic for foundations to help strengthen and empower the field. No matter the sector, if the mission of the nonprofit organization and foundation align in an authentic way, the support of a foundation — of course, making sure you pay for the whole program — can increase the nonprofit’s ability to achieve their mission and empower people in their community to be in decision-making and organizing roles.

Lovan also talked about regranting as a step toward equity. “A grant to a nonprofit that utilizes panels and community dialogue to administer funds is an equitable tool in the grantmaking toolkit.” Likewise, our organization values being able to convene a small group of thought leaders and experts in the field and engage them as independent decision makers to review applications and determine which artists to fund. This process offers us a chance to cultivate new relationships and hear from a diverse range of talented professionals. Our panelists include artists, curators, program managers, critics, and others familiar with the broad range of art being produced outside of traditional venues.

As I consider the longevity of our grant program, which has allowed artists to propose ideas of their choosing for twenty-seven consecutive years, I can imagine the value of having a research fellow cull through the data — the hundreds of applications submitted, as well as those that were funded — and look for patterns in the types of projects of artists who sought our support. Perhaps we could begin to forecast where the field is headed, at least in terms of the mind-set and values of artists in Minnesota.

The power of partnering with receptive funders on regranting is potent. It is really a collaborative art practice, like the bureaucratic art I learned during the CETA program. All we need to do is creatively use the raw materials available in the community to make something new and meaningful happen.

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