Profiles of Arts Grantmakers

Finding (and Funding) the Immigrant or Traditional Artist: Five Arts Grantmakers

Betsy Peterson

At the annual GIA conference last fall, a group of twenty or so participants gathered together for a roundtable session devoted to funding individual immigrant and traditional artists. Organized by staff or board members of the Bush Foundation and the Flintridge Foundation, the roundtable session provided one of the first opportunities for foundation program officers engaged in this type of support to share information and to identify common concerns and strategies to meet them. And, indeed, common concerns and themes did emerge in the discussion.

To be sure, foundations offering support programs that accommodate or target individual traditional and immigrant artists encounter all of the challenges involved in administering any individual artist support program (from legal questions to administrative capacity), but they also grapple with the challenges of bringing new considerations (unfamiliar artistic traditions, diverse definitions of creativity, and diverse notions about the role of the artist) into the missions and administrative processes of their foundations.

The following profile expands on the roundtable discussion by looking at the common concerns and varied programmatic strategies developed by foundations working in this area. In preparing the article, program officers from several foundations offering such programs were interviewed further. As a group, they offer a menu of creative strategies for foundations to consider.

In a world that is increasingly interconnected, everything seems to come down to access — access to resources, access to information, access to expertise. Many foundation programs that offer support to immigrant and traditional artists have addressed concerns about artists' access to their resources. In some cases, explicit efforts to reach a more diverse population of artists and artistic traditions were responses to changes in a foundation's mission or to a program evaluation. An evaluation of the Bush Artist Fellowships Program in 1995-96 encouraged the Bush Foundation to adopt a more flexible application and process to accommodate studio crafts and traditional arts. The Creative Work Fund (a joint fund of the Columbia Foundation, Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, Miriam and Peter Haas Fund, and Walter and Elise Haas Fund) which offers support to artists for the creation of work in collaboration with private nonprofits, developed a separate category for traditional arts in response both to a change in the Fund's mission that stressed service to culturally diverse communities and also to a program evaluation that singled out emerging artists and traditional artists (particularly from newcomer communities) as groups that were not well served through the funding process.

Separate categories or expanded definitions?
Considering the approaches of the Bush Foundation and the Creative Work Fund pinpoints what is perhaps the central question involved in providing support for traditional or immigrant artists: Do you create a separate category for traditional or newcomer arts and run the risk of marginalizing them, or do you include them in existing program categories and run the risk of creating an uneven playing field? The variety of approaches indicates that there are no right answers. The Bush and Jerome foundations, both of which have revised their existing application process to accommodate a greater range of artistic traditions, note an increase in applications from traditional and immigrant artists in existing categories. Both indicate, however, that the number of such artists who make it to final rounds or become fellows is low.

In contrast, Melissa Franklin, director of the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, noted that a separate folk arts category was created in 2000, the ninth year of the program, in part, because folk artists were not making it to the final round. She says, “We always included traditional arts, defining it in broad terms. Some folk artists were funded, but it was always a struggle. We finally said, ‘Let's try another way.'” Frances Phillips, talking about her experience with the Creative Work Fund, concurred, “Traditional artists simply did not make it into the final rounds.”

While the two contrasting approaches seem to point to a clear-cut “either/or” choice, questions of access and program design are more subtle and complex. While organizational priorities, commitment, and willingness to risk come into play when considering ways to accommodate unfamiliar artistic traditions, the question is not only one of marginalization or mainstreaming. Access is a two-way street. While artists deserve greater access to resources, foundations need access to the artists and to the knowledge and expertise to adjudicate the work. Where do you find traditional or immigrant artists? What constitutes their community and audience? Who are their peers? How do you judge the work?

Questions Determine Answers
The truism — how you ask the question defines the answer — applies to any funding application process. Virtually every program officer interviewed for this article modified the usual application process and requirements to some degree. While some changes aim to make applications more streamlined and user-friendly, others require some rethinking of the creative process and the role of the artist.

Fellowship programs for individual artists have often been seen as mechanisms that allow the artist to “buy time” to create. The moment or place for creativity is sometimes seen as distinct and apart from performance. Rooted in the late nineteenth century, western Romantic notions of art and the artist's role equate the act of creation with individual genius, experimentation, newness, or breaking tradition — hardly attributes one thinks of when considering traditional arts or non-western artistic traditions such as Chinese opera or Lao textiles. Recognizing that fellowship programs for individual artists often favor or value experimentation and newness over other aspects of the creative process, several programs have developed applications accounting for these differences, in ways that try to accept other cultural traditions on their own terms. Frances Phillips noted that guidelines for the Creative Work Fund were modified to downplay the emphasis on “the new” and to soften the automatic association of artistic excellence with experimentation.

Other program officers talked about modifications that focus on the learning process and the relationship to a community. Julie Dalgleish, director of the Bush Artist Fellowships, observed, “In the traditional arts, art is more integral to day-to-day life. It is not so much about funding the individual but how the individual works in the community.” At the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, application questions were changed to probe the artist's relationship to a community and a tradition. As part of the application for the Durfee Foundation's Master Musician Fellowship Program (designed to serve virtuoso musicians working in non-notated musical traditions and to support apprenticeships between masters and their chosen apprentices), artists are asked to discuss their training and teaching experience. Claire Peeps, executive director, explains further, “We also make site visits. It's important to see the teaching relationship in context. We want to know where the artists see the future of their music. Who do they see as the future masters, carrying on the tradition? I do not presume to know the answer.”

Getting the Word Out and the Applications In
Adjustments in program design and application processes also extend to publicity and methods of identifying appropriate applicants. When asked how they found traditional and immigrant artists, every funder commented on the importance of networks. Claire Peeps remarked, “Networks are critical. Make sure you have a network of people who really know the traditions and cultures into which you are entering.” Such comments echo the experience of folk arts organizations and folk arts programs housed at state arts agencies, many of which have operated apprenticeship programs for several years and rely on contacts in myriad cultural communities to identify artists.

For the Pew Fellowships in the Arts, artists were reached by relying upon the extensive, long-term networks cultivated by the Philadelphia Folklore Project, a folk arts private nonprofit organization. Melissa Franklin notes, “Our relationship with PFP was critical. We would not have reached artists otherwise.” In designing programs and building networks, Pew and others turned to what were sometimes new contacts and resources. Some consulted with the Folk Arts Program at the NEA and the Fund for Folk Culture. Others looked to state arts agencies, ethnic service organizations, locally-based ethnomusicologists and folklorists, knowledgeable presenters and curators, and other individuals well-versed in particular traditions.

While knowing what to ask and who to ask for help is critical to reaching traditional and immigrant artists, it is still only a first step. Barriers of race and class exist and are sometimes compounded by barriers of language. Claire Peeps says, “By and large, we are dealing with people who live outside the mainstream and face economic or language barriers.” Anticipating that the artists will have problems navigating the application process, several programs tried working with intermediary organizations (such as Pew's relationship with the Philadelphia Folklore Project) or developing a nomination process. The Creative Work Fund, now in the throes of its first round, decided to enlist the aid of six knowledgeable people to nominate and work with artists throughout the duration of the application process. The Durfee Foundation relied on a network of over fifteen nominators for the first two rounds of the Master Musician Fellowships but has now moved to an open application process. While she still relies informally on a network of nominators and supporters to assist applicants, Claire Peeps now feels more comfortable with the process and confident that the demand is strong and the pool of qualified applicants sufficiently broad and deep.

Rethinking the Panel
As is now apparent, the real meaning of access and its ramifications extend throughout the entire fellowship process. Gaining access to knowledge and expertise also necessitates rethinking the panel review process and panelist composition. Fear of the unknown, concerns about quality, and a lack of familiarity with a vast range of artistic expression are often cited as obstacles that prevent full and reasoned consideration of immigrant or traditional artists. Being ill-equipped to adjudicate unfamiliar artistic traditions, however, can become the basis for repeated (if unintended) exclusion.

Julie Dalgleish noted that changing the composition of their panels to include broader expertise has been “the most important change.” She added that while there were still few traditional arts fellows, there are now increased numbers of crafts fellows. “While most applications still come from studio artists, we see changes now in the artists chosen as finalists, and in who panelists stop to look at in the first rounds of review.” At Pew, preliminary discipline panels send nominations to a final panel that includes representatives of disciplines in the final round. In 2000, traditional arts finalists vied with nominees in painting and scriptworks for twelve fellowships. Of the final twelve, seven were traditional artists representing artistic traditions as diverse as klezmer music, Afro-Cuban drumming, steel pan instrument making, Haitian painting, and Irish traditional music. From Melissa Franklin's perspective, however, folk arts specialists did not function as apologists. “The fear about quality was unfounded. The [folk arts] category was so strong and the art was of such high quality, everything else was icing on the cake. The folk arts specialists informed the discussion and made it richer, but the art came first.”

A Final Word about Flexibility
In his letters, the poet John Keats speaks about negative capability as an ability to live with uncertainty and the unknown, something shared by all of the fellowship programs involving traditional and immigrant artists. In tackling the challenge of access and trying to reach artists not well-served heretofore, successful programs are ones that have recognized programmatic blind spots, have anticipated potential obstacles along the way, and have been willing to try something new. The Flintridge Foundation, for instance, has struggled with a folk arts fellowship category in the past, and recently decided to put the category on hiatus pending further study. According to Pam Wolkoff, “The board and staff realized that program design, networking, and artist outreach were complex questions requiring further planning. If we take this on, we need to do it right.”

Doing it right requires something as unscientific as a commitment to flexibility and follow through, and a delight in learning new things. Those who are designing and honing their programs deserve the last word here. When asked what she has learned from the experience, Frances Phillips laughed, “I knew I didn't know much when I started, but now I really know I don't know much. I was intrigued when I started, but now I'm more intrigued.” At the Durfee Foundation, site visits with master and apprentice artists have proved to be so instructive that the foundation is considering visits in their other programs. At Pew, redesign of the application questions coupled with some of the traditional artists' responses have made the staff rethink parts of the whole application process. Questions regarding the artists' relationship to a community or artistic tradition, for instance, are now topics “we feel we should ask all of our artists. All artists work within particular traditions, and knowing how they see themselves in that context is very useful....The whole idea that there are folk arts over here and the rest of the arts over there helps no one. There is more that we share in common than not.”

Elizabeth E. Peterson is program director, the Fund for Folk Culture.