When we initiated an artist award program at The Durfee Foundation a few years ago, we decided to use financial need as one of several criteria for support. Durfee is a relatively small family foundation, and the trustees feel strongly that the foundation's modest resources should be applied where they will make the most difference. This is true across the board at the foundation, not only in the arts, but in our other programs as well.
The Durfee Artist Award program provides three grants of $25,000 each annually to artists in Los Angeles. The recipients can be in any discipline and at any career level. They are selected through a nomination process that brings together a cross-disciplinary group of arts leaders — curators, critics, presenters, and artists — for a rigorous discussion about what's interesting and important in the arts in our region.
Because the candidates for the program are nominated by discerning individuals who spend most of their life looking at, listening to, or otherwise considering the arts, the caliber of work under review each year is exemplary. Artistic excellence is rarely in question — though part of what makes the review process exciting is the informative exchange and debate among the panelists about what constitutes quality in their respective disciplines.
The panelists are asked to give priority to the quality of the art in their ranking of candidates. Then they are asked to consider their rankings in light of the artists' relative financial need. For whom would a monetary gift have the greatest impact? In addition to bestowing well-deserved recognition, would it spark a period of increased productivity?
The financial information we request from nominees helps to shed some light on this side of our deliberations, even if only marginally. What we ask for is basic: What was your net income last year? Do you have any extenuating financial circumstances of which we should be aware? We don't ask for tax forms or any other documentation. It's an honor system, and so far, it's worked fine.
Going into the first round of awards, we presumed that the artists' incomes would be modest. They were, ranging from $4,431 to $60,729. Most had incomes in the neighborhood of $15,000 to $25,000. Those who were fully employed as artists had the smallest incomes. Those who had taken day jobs had the largest.
We were unprepared, however, for the explanations of extenuating circumstances. Without drama, the artists reported experiences and conditions that took our breath away. Loss of homes, medical emergencies, lack of health insurance, debt, dependents with urgent needs. We joked, half seriously, that we should abandon the awards program and create a Durfee Dental Insurance Plan instead, because the number of nominees who had foregone badly needed dental work was alarming.
Here's a sampling of what we've read during the past three years:
• From an artist with a net income of $7,741: “To finance myself as an artist, I have averaged approximately $2,000 per year in debt. Here is a breakdown of my current financial situation: credit card debt — $14,017.09; back rent — $3,740; current dental bills — $2,263. I also have a 1988 Toyota Tercel that I average 17,000 miles per year on for my travels to teach throughout the state.”
• Income of $18,000: “Last June I lost the home I had rented for ten years when the landlord died and the house was sold within thirty days. Affordable rent disappeared literally overnight. Since then I have been living with family and friends.”
• Income of $14,838: “I'm fortunate to have an affordable apartment, a car that runs, a Medicare HMO. As long as my body and car keep running, I can cover my personal expenses at this time. Any serious problems with either one would be a financial catastrophe.”
• Income of $25,500: “My wife and I have raised and sent five beautiful children to college, two of whom are still in college. I am nearly fifty years old and have no savings account or retirement fund. I need dental work and my personal debt is high. In losing our home last year, we lost a lot of equity, which was our only security. We are still working hard to stabilize from that trauma but the debt is oppressive.”
• Income of $29,318: “While this [income] is not an insignificant amount, it is not an amount that makes artmaking an easy proposal. As my career has grown, so have my artmaking expenses. Though I am a thrifty shopper, the cost of production for a small sculpture varies between $250 and $1,000, while a larger piece can cost between $1,000 and $6,000 to make. In addition the rent for my studio is quite high at $1,100 per month. While I occasionally sell work, the financial output for artmaking puts a great strain on my family, both financially and emotionally. Making work for a show means running up a credit card, while my studio rent has meant taking personal loans from close friends and family. The debt we carry has been a great impediment on my art making and home life, so much so that I am considering giving up my studio when the lease is up. Currently I am teaching at three colleges. Teaching is a job I like and have an aptitude for. But it is also very necessary as a means of support for my family. When my wife and I decided to have a child, we agreed that she would stay home during our son's early years and that I would need to have a job that included medical benefits. Our son has some minor neurological problems that have meant numerous evaluations by specialists and hundreds of hours of occupational therapy. Not all of these costs have been covered by insurance. This year I estimate that our out of pocket expenses for my son's condition will be $1,000 to $2,000. To finance my undergraduate and graduate education I took out student loans. The cost to repay these loans is over $300 per month.”
Needless to say, remarks of this kind have had a sobering effect on our decision-making. More importantly, I think they've had an enduring effect on our panelists and the work we all do. By and large, our panelists are professionals who hold full-time jobs. Even though we work with artists every day, we pull a paycheck with benefits, vacation pay, and other perks. Given this stability, it's easy to forget how tenuous life may be for those who freelance or otherwise patch their income together from multiple, often unpredictable sources. The financial information captured in the Durfee Artist Award applications has been a reality check for us, an important tool for educating or reminding leaders in the field about the challenges of a life in the arts. We know, in general terms, that artists face financial hardship. The specifics are pretty scary.
As funders and administrators in the arts, we are good at scrutinizing budgets for fat, keeping things lean, streamlined, cost-effective. We encourage our grantees to do the same. We applaud deft negotiations of leases, favor in-kind contributions of materials and other hard costs, frown on unnecessary spending. In the process, there's a danger of writing artists right out of our budgets. We construct our finances from the ground up, from the essentials of rent and utilities to the softer, optional costs of labor and commissioning fees. We struggle to accommodate competitive performer fees in our budgets because there'll be no show without them, but what about the choreographer, the playwright? The creators of the art often become invisible in the financial trajectory of their work.
If we don't promote the paying of artist fees, who will? As funders, presenters, producers, curators — all of us who pitch in to present artists' work to the public — it's up to us to set the standard. If we want artists to be able to make a lifetime of a career in the arts, we need to pay closer attention to their financial as well as their artistic development. The basic needs of a twenty-year old are different from those of a fifty-year old. We must be able to accommodate the needs of artists as they grow older — health insurance, retirement funds, income sufficient to support a family. If we don't, we're turning graduates out of art schools for no purpose. Five, ten years in the field and they'll have to leave it for something more secure. The loss is ours, the eclipsing of vision, wisdom, and craft that might have come from decades of practice.
We may have ruffled a few feathers when we inserted the financial question into the Durfee Artist Award application. At least one artist expressed embarrassment at being asked to reveal what she considered deeply personal information, and for others it has confused the issue of artistic excellence as a criterion for our review. For the most part, though, artists have been willing to share this information, and we have learned volumes from their candid answers.
What we have learned, in fact, has spilled over into other programs, and has encouraged us to expand our giving in the arts. Last year, we launched the ARC program (Artists' Resource for Completion). Resembling similar programs at the New York Foundation for the Arts (where it was created as the S.O.S., or Special Opportunity Stipend program) and the Leeway Foundation (the Window of Opportunity program), the ARC program provides grants of up to $2,500 to artists in any discipline who have received an invitation to present their work and need some funds to close the gap. Currently, the Durfee Foundation is supporting approximately twenty-five artists annually through this program, and we are considering expanding that number.
We don't ask the same financial information of the ARC applicants. This runs contrary to what I've said thus far, but it simply doesn't seem necessary to us where such modest funding is concerned. The threshold for risk tolerance or financial sensitivity is different for every foundation. Ours seems to hit at around the $20,000-$25,000 level. For the smaller ARC grants, we are willing to assume the funding will benefit the artist's career by enabling them to finish a specific, concrete work.
However, we wouldn't have launched the ARC program without the increased understanding of artists' needs we'd gained through the Artist Award applications, and that understanding has come directly through their response to the financial questions. It's never comfortable to ask people for information about personal finances. But for the growth of Durfee's support to the arts, I think it's been worth it.
Claire Peeps is executive director, the Durfee Foundation.