Supporting Individual Artists: Ten Years, Ten Lessons

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 21, No 1 (Spring 2010)

Claire Peeps

The Durfee Foundation’s ARC program — Artists’ Resource for Completion — is, you might say, a program designed to let a thousand flowers bloom. It was founded in 2000 to serve Los Angeles artists, in any discipline and at any career level. The grants are made quarterly, for small sums of up to $3,500 per artist. About sixty to seventy artists are funded each year (fifteen to eighteen each quarter).

We haven’t reached a thousand yet. As 2009 came to a close and the program wrapped its first decade, ARC had provided 475 grants to 405 artists (some received more than one). But the ten-year mark seemed like a good moment to pause and reflect on the journey thus far. With the aid of an outside evaluator, we undertook a retrospective look at ARC, with e-surveys of both declined applicants and awardees, focus groups, and a written report, which is posted on Durfee’s website.

The data from the surveys has suggested the need for modifications to the program. The narrative responses cut to the chase. Thoughtful, informed, funny, heartfelt, and occasionally snarky, they describe clearly what artists find to be helpful in grant opportunities, and what they don’t.

If Durfee were big enough to be powerful, I’d say the narrative responses, offered mostly anonymously, spoke truth to power. I’ve gleaned ten lessons from those narratives.

A few words of background. Durfee’s ARC program was designed as a successor to an earlier Durfee Artist Awards program that, overall, got low marks from the arts community in L.A. That Awards program made three grants of $25,000 annually to L.A. artists between 1997 and 1999. A panel of curators and presenters selected the artists through a nominations process. Nine astonishing and deserving artists received the awards, to wide and generous acclaim, and the nominations process was highly productive in exposing arts professionals to work outside their purview.

But the community at large was disheartened. There were very few grant opportunities for artists in L.A. in the nineties. Many artists contacted us to say, “It’s great for the artists who got the award, but what about the rest of us? How do I get in your line of vision?” In that arid landscape, the Durfee Artist Awards seemed more like a mirage than a wellspring.

So we scrapped the nominations-based award program and determined to put the resources into a different grant program that would serve more artists, and might seem more like a refreshing rain shower on L.A.’s dry ground.

We explicitly wanted to design a program that might foster a climate of optimism in L.A.’s art community.

We were concerned about our administrative capacity to manage a larger applicant pool, however. We were delighted, then, to find the New York Foundation for the Arts’s SOS (Strategic Opportunity Stipend) program, which is elegantly streamlined, and were grateful to NYFA staff for their guidance in helping Durfee replicate it as the ARC program. The conceptual brilliance of the SOS program is that it doesn’t require work samples. Artist applicants must have been invited to present their work through a curated process, and the host venue’s invitation (gallery, museum, film festival, dance series, etc.) stands in as validation of the work. In short, if it’s good enough for the venue, it’s good enough to be considered for a grant.

As an aside, I’d say that it has been liberating to make these grants blind. Durfee continues to operate other, larger fellowship programs that involve a great deal of due diligence — site visits, work samples, demonstrations, interviews. The difference? Fundamentally, it’s about risk tolerance. We don’t tolerate much risk at the $30,000 Fellowship level, but we have a high risk tolerance at the $3,500 ARC level. The truth is, we probably wouldn’t have made many of the ARC grants if we’d considered work samples. But that’s not the point. It’s not about whether or not a panel of experts likes the work. It’s about meeting artists where they are, and assisting them in getting to the next level. “Trying to move us all up the ladder one notch at a time,” in the words of one artist.

Back to the lessons. Here are some of the things we’ve learned from ten years of ARC grantmaking.

1. Artists would rather receive a grant by application than by nomination. This was the most surprising finding of the survey. Artists overwhelmingly expressed preference for programs to which they can apply. 82% of ARC recipients, and 73% of the overall applicant pool, including those declined, said they’d rather apply than be nominated for a grant. Given Durfee’s own prior experience with a nominations-based program, we shouldn’t have been surprised. But the volume of the response was unexpected. Still, artists are their own agents, in most senses of the word, so an artist’s desire to make the case on his or her own behalf is logical.

“I didn’t go to grad school here,” said one artist. “I moved here from somewhere else. While I have forged connections, nominations make me feel really hopeless.”

“I want to underscore the importance of being able to apply for a grant,” said another. “An open application system is a gesture toward merit, a welcome reprieve from the insider trading of other art world dealings.”

2. Artists don’t want to be categorized by discipline or career level. So why do we do it anyway? This was a significant topic of conversation in the focus groups.

“In general, there are too many boxes on everything,” said one artist. “For my artistic practice, I carve, I design, I paint, I perform, I play music, but I have to fit in a box. I know that bureaucracy thrives on boxes, but I do horribly with boxes!”

“Sometimes it’s challenging that you have to apply as emerging or established,” said another, “because I graduated and worked for a while, then went back to grad school. Is it better to apply in one category or the other? Will I have better odds here or there? I was thinking midcareer, but still consider myself emerging. It’s unfair to make these statements on a person’s progression. We are artists, and we are all in this together…. We reach our talents at different points in our career.”

Others went on to talk about being midcareer in one discipline, like choreography, but simultaneously emerging in another, like film or poetry, and feeling confounded by the restrictions of grant guidelines.

Taken with artists’ preference for open application processes, it seems like we funders have some work to do, from a customer service perspective. There are valid, practical reasons why we funders use nominations processes, or restrict grants by discipline or career level — the administrative load of processing applications might otherwise swamp us in paperwork, with a risk that more dollars might be spent on managing the selection process than on the actual awards. But from a bird’s eye view, I think it’s important that the funding landscape for artists include some open-ended, open-access programs. Otherwise, it’s seems that doors are closed more often than open, and that has a dampening effect on the community.

3. Small grants are like stepping stones. Artists need small grants to get from one place to another, at all levels of their careers. Small grants allow artists to navigate across all kinds of terrain and to move from one project to the next, from small opportunities to larger ones. They help prevent artists from becoming isolated or immobilized. And they provide the platform from which artists make the leap to larger grants. The larger grants, in turn, buy them expanses of time — an artist’s most prized commodity — and material supports. But they generally need to cross the stepping stones of small grants to get there.
“Even though it’s not a huge amount of money,” said one artist, “sometimes it comes at just the right time. That has happened to me at crucial plateaus in my career. I get a grant, and I think, OK, I can go on a little bit longer.”

4. Ease of application and quick turnaround are highly valued. The Durfee ARC application is short and relatively simple: no work samples, a 500-word narrative, a cover sheet, and a condensed resume attachment — all of which can be filed electronically. Even so, it surprised us to learn that it takes artists, on average, three to five hours to complete it — longer than we wanted. Many grant programs (including some of our own) require much longer narratives, letters of support, and other materials that have to be painstakingly organized, often replicated in multiples, and shipped at the artist’s expense. This can be a disincentive for artists to apply.

“For the amount of work and risk, you might as well buy a lottery ticket,” one artist said in describing the world of grants for artists. Many said they simply pass on applying to larger, more prestigious programs because the ratio of effort to reward is too lopsided.

The artists surveyed expressed appreciation for applications that are easy to complete, and that have a reasonable turnaround time (several weeks, not several months) to notification.

5. Funding is needed at all levels of artistic development. Over the years, we’ve contemplated whether the ARC program should serve only emerging artists, leaving other larger fellowship programs to support more established artists. Based on the results of the study, we’ve rejected the idea. ARC applicants and recipients are very evenly distributed by age, with about 30% in every decade on the age band across the board (30–39, 40–49, 50–59), with slightly smaller representation of the under-30 crowd (about 8%) and over 60 (about 11%). And while ARC doesn’t ask applicants about financial need, we’ve learned from our other programs that do ask about financial circumstance, that even highly accomplished, internationally recognized artists who seem like household names may be living financially precarious lives. So don’t be fooled. Just because someone has shown at the Whitney or has received a MacArthur doesn’t mean they don’t need a grant, even a small one. I highly encourage funders to consider asking a financial need question on applications. It’s eye-opening.

6. Artists support artists. Nearly half of the artists surveyed used a substantial portion of their grant (46%) to hire other artists as collaborators. This multiplier effect of grants to artists stretches far into the community, not only economically, but in good will, too. Even little grants, it turns out, go a surprisingly long way. In fact, if we did the math on all the artists who have been financially supported through ARC grants, through the generosity and collegial partnership of the grant recipients themselves, we might actually have seen 1,000 flowers bloom already.

7. Grants encourage artistic risk-taking. This was the single biggest documented impact of the grant. 63% of ARC recipients said that the small grant enabled them to take risks that they wouldn’t have otherwise. Amazingly, even applicants who were declined said that the mere act of applying encouraged them to take more artistic risks in their projects, and that the resulting projects were better for it. In other words, even the idea of a grant can spark creativity and relax an anxious, stifling grip on the work.

In the words of one artist, “To have an important (and relatively accessible) ‘enabler’ in the back of my mind is a huge emotional boost.”

“The great thing about the program,” said another, “is that it encourages you to reach farther than you otherwise might.”

8. Local giving builds community and keeps it current. OK, so this is two lessons squeezed into one. But they relate. While only artists living in Los Angeles can apply for a Durfee grant, their presenting opportunities can be anywhere in the world. The grant has provided – both to the review panels and to anyone reading the recipient list on the Foundation’s website -- an amazing, real-time scan of where L.A. artists are showing their work, from the Novosibirsk College of Music in Russia to BAM in Brooklyn to the Velaslavasay Panorama in Los Angeles. As a funder and resident in Los Angeles, I’ve been grateful to learn about new things bubbling up that likely won’t make it to the front page of the paper for a while. Like The Smell, for instance, an aptly named but really hot venue for garage bands in downtown L.A., or the Mountain School of the Arts, a free, curriculum-based study program with accomplished artist/faculty, located in the back room of a bar in Chinatown.

On a related front, 83% of artists surveyed reported that a sense of community is an important factor in keeping them in Los Angeles. Sense of community ranked higher than affordable workspace (82%), access to grants (77%), affordable health care (73%), or opportunities for employment in the creative industries (69%) as an influence on retention, and fell close behind opportunities to present one’s work (89%) and access to affordable housing (84%). Artists cited the availability of a small grants program, and the relatively large number of recipients who were among their friends and colleagues, as a factor in building a sense of community.

9. Artists make great panelists. Every round of new ARC recipients is selected by a panel that includes two or three former ARC awardees, who receive a stipend for their service, in addition to one or two Durfee staff. The representation of artistic disciplines rotates from panel to panel, as does the level of experience of the artist. We generally try to include one seasoned artist and another with relatively few years in the field. In this way, the panelists mentor one another to some extent. For many, in both early and later career stages, it’s a first experience of panel service, and can offer an unexpected education about what makes a good proposal.

“I have not served on many panels,” said one accomplished artist, “and reading the applications was extremely illuminating on several fronts: it gave me a better sense of some of the work going on in L.A.; it highlighted what is effective and less effective in a proposal; it further sensitized me to the difficulties of making and showing work; it helped me to more clearly articulate my perspectives and opinions. The panel discussion was, likewise, a very rich experience — I learned so much hearing what people had to say about the various proposals. I also found it useful and fascinating to learn about the process of thinking and selection specific to a foundation. The experience was very satisfying.”

Since the program’s inception, some eighty L.A.-based artists have served as panelists. Without exception, they have been diligent, earnest, and fair-minded in their review. An unintended consequence of the panel process is that the program now has many ambassadors in the field, who find the grant selection process less opaque than they did previously.

“My experience so enlightened (and delighted) me,” said another artist, “that I have shifted my idea of a funding agency from that of impersonal foundation to a network for supporting artists. Knowing that this network, and net, exists is very important to me as an artist.”

10. Optimism Matters. It’s been hard to claim any measurable outcome on the foundation’s goal for the ARC program to foster a climate of optimism in the arts. About a year ago, I sparked a conversation on Barry’s Blog on the website of the Center for Cultural Innovation by asking if it’s appropriate for a funder to be concerned about the optimism of a community. And if so, could it matter anyway? If artists feel optimistic, do they make more art, or better art? Armed now with a 72-page program evaluation, and countless pages of narrative musings by artists, I’d say yes: Optimism matters. Artists make more art and better art if they feel optimistic, because they’re more likely to take risks. And yes, it’s appropriate for a funder to consider what the psychological impact of their grant programs might be. In fact, I think it’s our responsibility.

We asked on the survey what the impact would be to the artist, if any, if the ARC program were discontinued.

“I think I would be more cautious,” said one.

“There is an impact of the simple fact that someone cares enough to make this grant happen,” said another, “the funder, the administrators, whoever you are. If the ARC went away, it would hurt my morale, as corny as that sounds.”

And a third, “I would dream smaller.”

So there you have it. Hope, it turns out, is the prospect of help. And it gives artists the will to go farther.

We need more grants for artists. Particularly during this difficult economic time, when organizations are struggling, artists will continue to produce work. They are unencumbered by infrastructure, for the most part, and accustomed to lean times. In the words of one artist friend, they live “in desert seed mode.” So a few drops of water can really make a difference. I would say that grants to artists should be as streamlined and as efficient as you can make them. We need all kinds of programs — large, prestigious, nominations-based, and small, accessible, application-based. So keep ‘em coming, folks.

The complete Program Evaluation of the ARC Program [2000–2009] can be found on the website of the Durfee Foundation, www.durfee.org. The report was prepared by Andrew Brown, MA in Arts Administration and MBA candidate at the Drucker School of Management at Claremont Graduate University.