Musings from the Queen of Fun

An Interview with Ruby Lerner

Melanie Beene

Sixteen years ago when venture capital frenzy was sweeping the country, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and its partners decided that our nation’s boldest, most inventive creative artists would also benefit from many aspects of the venture capital (VC) approach, such as providing comprehensive, flexible, and ever-evolving structures of support. They launched Creative Capital and hired Ruby Lerner as its founding executive director to lead what was touted at the time as a major new experiment in supporting individual artists.

Ruby Lerner has spent a lifetime in the arts since her graduate student days acting and producing theater in North Carolina. She went on to work at Manhattan Theatre Club, Alternate ROOTS, Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, and for the past sixteen years at Creative Capital. The GIA Reader asked Ruby to look back on lessons learned during the evolution of Creative Capital and to share her thoughts with independent consultant and fellow Southerner Melanie Beene on funding individual artists and on her life in the arts.

Melanie Beene Can you describe the Creative Capital approach and reflect a bit on the evolution of Creative Capital?

Ruby Lerner Creative Capital has a very competitive selection process (we received 3,716 letters of inquiry in the last round) that identifies a class of projects — forty-six were announced in January 2015. The artists selected receive in-depth consultation and technical assistance designed for the specific needs of each project, as well as up to $50,000 in direct grant support, equaling close to $100,000 investment in each artist across a number of years. Since 1999, the awards program has committed $35 million in tailored financial and advisory support to 579 groundbreaking artists.

I think our legacy is the amazing projects that we have supported in our sixteen years. I think it’s our willingness to take risks, our holistic support model, which I don’t think exists anywhere else, and our desire not just to help make a project happen but to see the artist strengthened and better able to have a happy and successful life as a creative individual.

Because the skills training and tools we were making available to our awardees were so useful, we also developed a professional development program. That was one of the things that happened early in our development because I had this history, as you have also had, of doing a lot of technical assistance work, mostly with smaller arts organizations. When I got this job, I realized that individual artists didn’t have easy access to the same kinds of information that funders were making available to organizations. Obviously the needs are different if you’re an individual than an organization, but there is a parallel set of tools and information. So we began very early on helping people get an understanding of things like PR, marketing, fundraising, and especially strategic planning.

We started observing that our grantees were sharing the information they were learning informally with their friends. One day I had lunch with an artist who told me about an exchange she did with another artist. Her friend helped her redesign her kitchen space so she could use it better as a work space, and in turn our grantee walked that friend through our strategic planning workbook. I came back to the office and said, “You know, why should this be only for this small group of people that we can give grants to? Couldn’t we make this information more widely available?” I actually said it to Alyson Pou, who was there to take the reins and is still on our staff. If she had not been there, it is questionable that the program would ever have happened. And then the Tremaine Foundation gave us some money to start developing it, and now we’ve reached nearly ten thousand artists in more than four hundred communities.

MB What are some of Creative Capital’s outstanding successes over the years? What sorts of artists have benefited the most from the approach?

RL Creative Capital isn’t a good grant for everyone, and it is best at certain catalytic moments in an artist’s career. If someone just needs dollars to fill out a budget, we are the wrong place to come, because even though the award is up to $50,000, it is parsed out over time and for pretty distinct purposes. How the money works is one of the signature aspects of the program and something borrowed directly from the VC approach.

We are the most successful when the artist is left with residual skills and relationships. That is one of our goals, for people to leave us stronger than when they came in. On the application, we ask a question about how the artist hopes the project they are applying with will be catalytic for them. And when we do actually “catch” someone at one of those moments — and it can be early, mid, or later career — the growth can be dramatic.

There are so many great stories of artists’ successes. But GIA conference attendees might remember Byron Au Yong from the 2013 conference and Paul Rucker, Hasan Elahi, and Jae Rhim Lee from 2014’s Houston conference. I think they are good examples. One of the recent stories I am proud of is Jeffery Renard Allen’s book Song of the Shank, which we funded initially in 2006, and have continued working with him over the past eight years. It was published this summer, was the cover review of the Sunday New York Times book review, and got an amazing response — some critics said that this book catapults him into the ranks of the great American novelists. He used us so well over those years too. We helped pay for babysitters, made it possible for him to create his own residencies in Africa, helped buy out a semester of teaching so he could work on the book, helped with promotion around the launch, and once he used up his grant money, gave him a loan to help him with the book tour! He even met his editor and publisher through Creative Capital. It’s a great story!

MB Can you talk about your business model? Is it 100 percent funded from contributed income?

RL Yes, it is, except for a small amount earned from the workshops. We are a 501(c)(3) organization and are not, at least at the moment, an endowed foundation. We have to raise every penny of the budget every year. From the beginning we have had a base of support from the Warhol Foundation, and that has risen over the years. Now we’re at $1.5 million, and we have to raise a matching $1.5 million in order to get it.

MB If I recall correctly, it seemed like part of the Creative Capital experiment when it was rolled out in the beginning, the hook for other funders, was there was going to be some kind of return on investment paralleling the VC model. Could you talk about that and how it did or didn’t work?

RL Well, I think that was a fundraising hook but a worthwhile part of the experiment. We’ve had a handful, and I do mean like a handful, six or seven projects, that have paid back very, very small amounts. I think the conceptual frame is actually more important than the reality, because initially there was that sense that projects would get successful and pay back, but we weren’t thinking about the fact that an artist might work on a project for seven or eight years. By the time you’ve amortized their salary out over that time, by the time you’ve amortized their actual costs of travel or materials, paying other people over that period of time, even when something is wildly successful in the public’s eye, it does not mean that the artist actually made any money, and I think this is one of the myths in the art world. This is something that we’ve learned along the way.

We have in the contract what I call “mandated generosity,” which says if your project is financially successful, then you are obligated to pay back. At one point our board said, “You could get rid of that. It’s never going to happen. What you’ve developed is something so far beyond that now, and you could take it out.” And I said, “Well I don’t want to take it out because you just never know and because it engenders two things, one is the expected, which is a sense of responsibility in people that if they do well, they need to find ways to give back, and that’s a really important and just concept anyway, and then the second thing is it says to us: Wow, we should be prepared to work our asses off on behalf of these projects because we might benefit on behalf of future generations of artists. You aren’t going to get those kinds of returns if you don’t do anything.”

But we do cultivate a generous community of artists in other ways, through events like auctions where artists donate work. Also, we always go to our artists with all of our fundraising campaigns, and more than half of our artists have contributed to us financially, small or large.

MB One of the things I am impressed with is your long-term commitment to the artist. Going back to your business model, I know Warhol Foundation has been there throughout the sixteen years, but have your other donors given you long-term support as well?

RL In our early years we were funded, I would say, almost 90 percent by foundations, mostly the big ones including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and then some individuals and smaller family foundations. They stuck with us for our first decade, and then there was kind of a precipitous drop, a lot of it tied to the economic situation where people were hunkering down. The priorities change, the personnel changes. That’s the thing about the foundation universe, as you know, there are these philosophic shifts. Because we could see the handwriting on the wall, we had been working on cultivating more small family foundations and individual donors, and it was about at that moment that Warhol Foundation and then Duke upped their commitments. So we get $2 million of our $3.7 million from those two major funders; that has been our sustaining support. And then the rest is literally cobbled together.

I can’t stress enough the very long-term commitment made by Warhol — very long. This is the anchor that has given us the confidence to experiment and self-invest. They placed a big bet, and I think they would say it has paid off. Joel Wachs [president of the Andy Warhol Foundation], who is really amazing, did one other very smart thing. He gave us $1 million for a cash reserve fund to use in any year we don’t make the Warhol match. They truly want us to succeed. I think this is a powerful funding model that hasn’t gotten nearly enough play.

MB What would you advise others who may want to try and replicate the Creative Capital model or parts of it?

RL I think you have to have a devoted group of supporters who also understand the benefit of our hands-on approach, because this is whole hog and for a long, long period of time. For me, what I’ve learned is that it is the money, combined with the services, plus the commitment over time. It’s all three of those things that have to be present. They’re almost roughly equal in the equation.

The Field of Funding Individual Artists

MB Since we started out in the 1970s, how has life for the individual artist changed?

RL My favorite story about this is a conversation I had with Sandra Schulberg a number of years back. She was involved with the creation of the Independent Feature Project in the 1970s. She said when they created the IFP, you could fit every independent feature filmmaker in the country in her downtown Manhattan loft! Since then, the number of people who would like to make their living as artists has exploded. The field cannot absorb this volume. We are seeing, and will continue to see, more part-time professionals — people who are trained in the arts and will keep making their art, either in small companies that they start with their friends from school or in their studios, but they will have other ways to support themselves. I say to young people: find something else you care about as much as you love making art, because it is unlikely that your artistic career will fully support you. You could be deemed very “successful,” and that could still be true.

MB There seems to be some notion of “support to individual artists” as being a field, but for it to be a field, what would need to happen? Would you like to see GIA do more?

RL Well, it’s a de facto field because you have a number of people who are doing it. It’s great that there’s an affinity group within GIA for individual artists support, and there have been preconference opportunities and a committee that talks throughout the year. All this is really good, and I think there’s a lot of interest, for instance, in career development work and cataloging what’s available. So, yes, I think it is a field, and I do think that GIA has increasingly been concerned about how you collect data from a field that’s so fluid. I’m very appreciative of this. It’s been a long time coming.

Lessons Learned from a Life in the Arts

MB For the benefit of newcomers to the field of arts philanthropy, can you sketch out the personal trajectory of your long career in the arts? Where did you start, and what steps did you take to get where you are today?

RL My interest really started in grad school, running the student-run part of the theater department at UNC Chapel Hill. Then I managed a summer theater in Charlotte, worked at a community college in western North Carolina, and then moved to New York in my late twenties. I studied acting and did a bit of directing, but running the department was actually more rewarding than performance work. Basically, I’m bossy! So for me to be an actress waiting to take direction from somebody is… well, you can imagine how well that sat with my personality. And I was pretty good at running things. I think arts organizations are art projects too. That is certainly how we think about Creative Capital.

It was the late 1970s when I moved to New York and worked at the Manhattan Theatre Club as their first audience development director. I learned so much — about discipline on the management side and about a fierce devotion to artists and to new work. I was mentored by the great folks at TDF [Theatre Development Fund] and at TCG [Theatre Communications Group]. I was a protégé of Danny Newman. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I was really being groomed. A lot of people were making investments in me. Are there the same opportunities for leadership development now?

After four years in New York City, I was starting to feel homesick and headed back to the South to run Alternate ROOTS. ROOTS taught me everything! I remember first getting there. I think we had about a $30,000 annual budget, and I called Hugh Southern at the TDF and said, “Hugh, can you tell me what a deficit is because I think I might have one!” I learned so much about the value of community, and that is the biggest lesson I imported into Creative Capital. When I was hired, I said to Arch [Gillies, then president of the Andy Warhol Foundation], I will have to have the money to bring people together, and he said but this is a program to support individual artists, why would you need to do that? I said, trust me, if we don’t do anything else, this will be the most important thing we do. That is the genesis of our fabled artists retreat.

After ROOTS, I consulted for a few years. At that point in my career I found consulting frustrating — you aren’t in a position to implement the things you demonstrate need to be done — so I took a job running the local media center in Atlanta and really got a grad school education in indie film just at the moment when indie film was exploding. I did that for four years and then moved back to New York to take over the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), which was in a lot of trouble financially. At my first meeting with the staff they said we hope it’s OK, but we authorized the subtenant to replace the window that was shot out by a sniper over the weekend. Oh, and what should we do with the eviction notice that was on the door this morning? I learned a big lesson there — ask more questions before taking a job!

I was at AIVF for seven years, and in retrospect it was pretty rough. But then Arch Gillies called one day and took me to lunch and hired me on the spot to come develop this brand-new thing that became Creative Capital.

I think the biggest lesson for me in all these positions was to go into each situation anxious to learn something and then to move on when I felt I had learned what I needed to. Creative Capital has been ever changing and endlessly fascinating, and there is always something to learn!

MB You’ve had quite a ride. If you were starting out today, nearly forty years later, what piques your interest?

RL Oh, if I had the aptitude, I would be working in the science or technology field, and I say that “if I had the aptitude” because I believe I have no aptitude in that arena. I was just seeing something on TV that said in the world we’re in now, there’s going to be a convergence of artistic creative skills with technology and science and math, and all that is going to come together. I think that is going to be the future, and I think that’s the arena I would want to make my way in, had I the aptitude.

MB So to sum up, I wonder, off the top of your head, what three adjectives you would use to describe yourself?

RL Hmm, “curious,” “alert,” you come up with the third!

MB Well, I thought about this before I asked the question. My first three were “fun,” “fun,” “fun.” But then I added “alive” and “engaged.”

RL Oh, I love that. Thank you. Well, you know, in Chapel Hill, I did have the nickname “Fun Queen.”