Kentucky: Art and Social Change, What Does It Mean?

Judi Jennings with assistance from Marcia Festen

How can the arts promote positive social change? That's what the staff and board of the Kentucky Foundation for Women wanted to find out. We thought we knew. Or at least we thought we had a pretty good idea. After all, our mission is to promote positive social change through varied feminist expression in the arts, and we have been around for fifteen years.

In 1999, the Kentucky Foundation for Women began working with Chicago-based consultant Marcia Festen to review Foundation-wide grant making policies and practices. The link to Marcia was a direct result of the 1998 GIA annual meeting in Chicago. Marcia, then with the John D. and Catharine T. MacArthur Foundation, was the local liaison for a site visit to Red Moon Theater, a grantee of the Girls Best Friend Foundation. That visit not only led to our work with Marcia but also to a trip to Kentucky by the teenage members of Girls Best Friend (but that's another story).

Marcia reviewed the Foundation's mission, printed materials, and grant making records. She then interviewed successful and unsuccessful grant seekers across the state. That's when we first began to realize the Foundation's views on the links between art and social change were not always the same as those of grant seekers, the ones who would actually be doing the work.

Marcia recommended that the Foundation develop a special grant initiative to explore the new and evolving ways in which Kentucky artists are definingand practicing art related to social change for women. The specific goals of the initiative were to:

  1. learn more about the continuum of expression and art making related to social change feminist art in Kentucky;
  2. frame questions in new ways regarding feminist art and social change, and test how useful these questions would be in gathering information to improve foundation decision-making;
  3. broaden the range and number of feminist artists directly linked to the Foundation, particularly from underserved areas; and
  4. encourage and seed new thinking about art and social change.

The special initiative was an opportunity to test a focused communication strategy, particularly designed to reach the more rural areas of the state. The initiative also gave us a chance to adapt our selection process by inviting community activists to serve on our proposal review teams along with professional artists and arts activists.

Our strategies paid off. Within a shorter time period than usual, the Foundation received 117 applications from all areas of the state. Sixty-one percent of the grants awarded went to first time KFW grant recipients, and 38 percent were from small towns or rural areas — our target outreach group. Although statistics other than geographical diversity were not kept for past years, the number of first-time grantees and of grantees from rural areas reached new highs.

The characteristics of the most successful proposals in this initiative included: an understanding of their community context; indications of community-identified interest and community involvement at multiple levels; being artist-driven and reflecting high artistic merit; a thoughtful consideration of how the work was connected to social change; and clear, well thought out plans with realistic budgets and time lines. One way that many of these proposals differed from previous proposals was their documentation of the ways the artists worked with their communities. Applicants wrote about their communities in addition to their art, and many emphasized their artwork's active role in community life. Their knowledge of and communication with the community was part of their proposals.

Two review team members summed up the effectiveness of successful proposals:

It was people first thinking creatively about the social change they wanted and then about how to do it, versus first having an idea of what they wanted to do and then trying to make it fit into social change.

I was interested in folks that demonstrated an understanding of their own community, of what the Foundation was working for, and how their medium of art could push social change forward.

Examples of successful proposals are:

  • a filmmaker from the Appalachian region of the state is working with rural women to tell their own stories about the impact of welfare reform on their lives;
  • a twenty-three-year old Vietnamese student is publishing a “zine” on Vietnamese culture and the changing role of women in the immigrant community;
  • two women artists in a small rural town are involving a diverse group of community residents in all stages of the creation of a large outdoor mural, including public painting events. The mural celebrates the anti-racism beliefs of the community's founders at the time of the Civil War and the role of women in continuing to uphold those values.

The special initiative has added new voices to the Foundation and it has seeded new work in the state. The review process helped us begin to clarify our own definitions of social change and our criteria for assessing proposals. Both the support and the resistance we heard along with the varying definitions of social change included in proposals helped us realize how important it will be for the Foundation to play an ongoing role in generating conversations on these topics.

We know a lot more about women, art, and social change than we did when we started. But we still don't have all the answers. At this point, we also don't know how unique our experience is to Kentucky. If any readers have programs, experiences, or just plain anecdotes about funding art for social change, I'd love to hear from you. Send me email at One thing I now know for sure: when it comes to art and social change, it is important to learn from each other.

Judi Jennings is director, Kentucky Foundation for Women. Marcia Festen is principal, Festen Associates, Chicago.