Supporting Individual Artists
Translating Value, Evaluating Outcomes
At October’s GIA preconference “Measuring Impact and Translating Value: Support for Individual Artists,” more than six dozen funders convened to share their experiences supporting individual artists and to ponder how to gauge and communicate the results. The Jerome Foundation’s Eleanor Savage and Tucson Pima Arts Council’s Roberto Bedoya shepherded an agenda that included five artists speaking about their work and careers. After lunch, participants chose topical group conversations, each led by a funder, reporting results in a “Long Table” format. Participants could tour the host venue, Maker City LA, a downtown collective work space for creative businesses, artists, and entrepreneurs.
Kicked off by planning committee chair Joe Smoke of Los Angeles’s Cultural Affairs Department, the organizers made the case for the day’s themes of “measuring impact” and “translating value.” In this era of big data, we have become preoccupied with measurement. Some objected to the narrowness of the concept. “Measurement implies numbers,” one participant noted, “and not all or even the best evaluations involve numbers.” Case studies, narratives, open-ended answers on surveys, and the artworks themselves are also ways of charting the results of grants and awards. The word impact also came under scrutiny — one person quipped that it reminds her of an auto accident. Is that really how we conceptualize the creative process? Do artists not bring their own considerable resources to the work and play powerful roles in outcomes?
Are All Artists Entrepreneurs?
To set the frame, Judilee Reed, who directs Thriving Cultures at the Surdna Foundation, engaged Alice Loy, cofounder of Creative Startups in Santa Fe, in a conversation about entrepreneurship and how business incubators assess outcomes. Organizers had asked participants to read in advance “The Death of the Artist — and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur” (Deresiewicz 2015). Both Reed and Loy objected to the article’s stark dichotomy: most artists have always worked for wages, on contract or selling work, while few have subsisted on grants. Reed commented, “this article makes me so sad. So many artists whose work inspires me aren’t just trying to build a business. . . . Though they can be legible in the marketplace, they see themselves as creators of gifts, the highest sensibility of our collective and spiritual selves.” She cited a Dakota sculptor from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation who describes his work as both serving his community and generating income.
Reed and Loy agreed that younger artists are more apt to proactively imagine and pursue an entrepreneurial work practice, and fewer are pursuing publishers and galleries. New organizations and programs have emerged to provide entrepreneurial support (e.g., the ten-year initiative Leveraging Investments in Creativity), and more arts schools are teaching career-tending skills. Loy described her team’s ten-year effort, emerging from University of New Mexico: “Students wanted to build creative cultural businesses, but there were no case studies, no rules, no resources.” Creative Startups’ Accelerator program aims at artists who strive to “go big, hire people, and raise a lot of capital.” The team also supports artists engaged in community development, including its current Zuni ArtPlace project.
Their discussion, lively and verging on insightful debate, dove into the “valuation” question. Loy’s Accelerator artists aim for financial and employment-generating results. “The notion that most artists want to be small scale is destructive to artists,” Loy argued. Reed, in contrast, stressed how Surdna focuses on cultural investments that foundations can execute where commercial markets cannot. Members of the audience honed in on the valuation challenge, wondering about crowd funding and fretting about quality in the face of entrepreneurial pressures. The session brilliantly placed a major tension on the table: Do we value artists’ work for their financial success or for the intrinsic values they bring to their communities and publics? Or a combination? When asked for a good evaluation example, Markusen cited Gadwa’s multimethod research on nonprofit Artspace projects’ built, owned, and managed as affordable live-work space for artists (Gadwa 2010; Gadwa and Muessig 2011).
Multiple Outcomes and Ways of Demonstrating Value
The planning committee invited five artists to share what matters to them — how do they value support and gauge outcomes? The first case study paired Natalie Hemmens, an LA-based designer and manufacturer of fine leather handbags and accessories, with Cheng-Chieh Yu, a cross-cultural choreographer who teaches in World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA. The interviewer, myself, briefly shared highlights from a just-completed survey of fifteen years of Creative Capital (CC) awardees. Of services provided, respondents (31 percent of all awardees) valued most highly retreats with interdisciplinary cohorts at which they brainstormed their projects and listened to others, often finding collaborators for future projects. Encouraged by CC, half of the respondents aspired to align their work with non-arts fields (e.g., science, social work, health care, criminal justice); of these, 85 percent succeeded. Some 42 percent now devote more time to building audiences through marketing, branding, and career maintenance, while cutting back on paid jobs and rest and renewal but not time with family and friends. While 79 percent have increased their incomes, most still struggle to enhance retirement savings. Asked about post-award additional funds they have raised for their artwork, artists reported an average of $257,000. If all awardees (n = 579) raised similar amounts on average, the total raised to date would be nearly $100 million.
Hemmens and Yu offered a remarkable contrast. Hemmens described her trajectory from adolescence through business school in Maine to Los Angeles design and manufacturing, applying education and work experiences, including retailing, to her enterprise. As for outcomes, whether her handbags sell is the clearest measure but also whether her customers return and what they say about the bags. Yu stated that her ambitions for her work are distinct from her personal success. Trained in Taiwan and dancing in New York City for twelve years, she observed the struggles of choreographers, especially immigrants, to survive — often by engaging in community work and running dance schools for children. Since 2001 the crux of Yu’s work has been cultural exchange and immersion in the theory and practice of dance. “My contribution is to share my experience: I see teaching and learning as the same thing.” Her students’ learning is a primary outcome. Her employer, the university, evaluates her work on how well she creates new knowledge, not by how many people come to her performances — a criterion that encourages invention and artist-to-artist dialogue.
The conversation clarified that artists value multiple outcomes: the quality of the work, its reception by audiences and employers, income and resources to invest in further work, and their experience creating it. Asked how each feels valued, Hemmens responded that she loves doing her work. And her market visibility is satisfying: her bags were once rejected by a retail outlet as “not professional,” but years later the same buyer sought her out. For Yu, landing and keeping her job as a professor, observing her students’ and audiences’ learning, and performing internationally are major forms of validation.
Diminishing the Distance between Artist and Audience
A second case study probed artists’ relationships with their publics. Working with Arts Midwest on building public will, Kevin Kirkpatrick of Metropolitan Group interviewed Banafsheh Sayyad, dancer, choreographer, and founder of Dance of Oneness, which fuses traditional Persian dance with postmodernism and spirituality, and Erahm Christopher, a social researcher and filmmaker/entrepreneur, who recently completed a feature film called Listen, comprised of documentary stories about youth transformation. At the outset, Kirkpatrick stated that the arts community has not been able to sustain broad public support for the arts. “We’ve said, ‘Don’t you want this?’ rather than inquiring.” Exploring what people care about, he summarized surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one conversations with leaders of communities of color. Of those responding, 63 percent rate as important everyday opportunities to be artistic and creative and experience their culture, valuing these opportunities for helping them connect with others and themselves. This audience includes people of color, women of all ages, parents of younger children, and people under forty. Conversely, about 11 percent of people do not value such opportunities — disproportionately white, rural, and older men. In the discussion, several people referred to sociologists’ “hierarchy of needs” models as useful in understanding economic, social, and cultural differences in creative engagement.
Both Sayyad and Christopher recounted how they build their artistic practice by connecting with people directly. Christopher bridges social divides through creative story-telling, especially with challenged youth. In a recent project, he invited young people to film a year in their lives by talking, writing a screenplay, engaging in the film-making process, and exhibiting the results. Choreographer Sayyad looks for opportunities to eliminate the distance between dancers and audiences, aged five to eighty-five, through interactive workshops and concerts that conclude with post-performance freestyle dancing. “It is better for artists if people feel that they are creating themselves as well as applauding professionals.” She harvests choreographic ideas from the spontaneous and collected movements of participants.
Kirkpatrick asked both how they gauge outcomes. Christopher recounted how he began to go after private investors, inviting them to his youth workshops in a very violent school and demonstrating the tangible changes — “This kid has not been in a fight for four months!” In the discussion, preconference participants proposed developing surveys to ask people how they experience a performance or exhibit rather than how much money they spend on a nearby restaurant meal, a pioneering technique used by Theatre Bay Area (Lord 2012). Some invoked Gifts of the Muse (McCarthy et al. 2004), a powerful case for the intrinsic values of the arts. Ted Berger noted that amateur sports does a better job of inviting all to participate while whetting appetites for observing top-notch performances. Another cited research findings that K–12 arts teachers are preoccupied with identifying talent and demanding quality, discouraging most students (who are future parents) from believing the arts are for them (Gross 1995). Others cautioned that cultural identity plays a powerful role in how people want to participate in the arts.
Group Deliberations and Long-Table Sharing
After lunch, participants chose one of six small group discussions. They reconvened at a “Long Table,” an open-ended, nonhierarchical format developed by artist/activist/writer/director Lois Weaver. 1 As each group populated the dining seats, others could join to question, debate, or make a point.
The first group tackled evaluation. Frances Phillips worried “in this moment of big data, if we don’t work on this and include artists in the conversion, it is going to be done to us.” They wondered how data collectors can be facilitators too, and how intelligence gathered can be useful to artists themselves. Should evaluations include how artists relate to other fields of work and experience? Should evaluation go beyond measures and numbers to probe how people are affected by artists’ works? Should “direct support” include entrepreneurial training, services, and gatherings? Does storytelling have a role to play in evaluation? Evaluation beyond a year or two could “give ourselves and artists room to learn, generate and absorb new ideas.” Joe Smoke underscored the challenge of evaluating grants lasting a season or year. Most agreed that support should proceed with a set of explicit values and goals, with evaluation integrated from the start.
A second group debated equity outcomes. Reaching beyond formal equality and class/race/ethnicity/gender, the team suggested that equity means meeting people where they are and rightsizing for each community and person. Who makes funding decisions? Are there gatekeepers who define quality, excellence, aesthetics? In diverse communities, who are the on-the-ground people who know the culture bearers, and are they supported? Can they be incorporated into the decision-making process? Doesn’t achieving equity require power shifts and associated risks? One member invoked the money trail: how the nineteenth-century newly rich created museums and symphony halls as a form of charity for the masses. “Our organizations are built on this nineteenth-century structure; the boards of directors have all the power.” Minnesota arts funders supported the Loft Literary Center’s “Inroads” program as a model for reaching artists who are not networked. The program hired artists of color to mentor artists from their own communities. Another funder advocated “deep hanging out” as a method to learn about the aspirations and culture of artists of color. To finish, convener Quetzal Flores, program manager at Alliance for California Traditional Arts, led the group in a sung summary, a rhythmic and terse exercise in collective songwriting.
A third group identified initiatives for supporting individual artists that are working effectively. Convener Ruby Harper shared how the Greater Columbus Arts Council (GCAC) simplified its application, scrapping nomination procedures, infusing flexibility in awards, disbursing money up front, and offering professional development support. Dispensing with work samples, they make awards on the basis of artists’ aspirations. Group members recommended nontraditional venues for reaching and supporting artists: “Meet them where they are. Don’t expect them to come to you.” “Question your practices!” “Think of your ‘why,’ and build your program accordingly.” Some are bringing grantees into their organizational “families” to develop deeper relationships with them. “Invite them to all your events; bestow benefits, status, and access that go beyond the one-time touch point.” The Joan Mitchell Foundation supports artists over their lifetimes with opportunities to come back again. Others counseled connecting professional artists with community groups and with mentors who will help make their work look more professional. Addressing equity, one funder created material in multiple languages: “It made a huge difference in who applied!” In entering new communities, GCAC is implementing the New York Foundation for the Arts’ open hours, taking it one step further. “Rather than holding office hours, we sit in a location in a neighborhood and invite artists to drop in and talk to us.” Several aspire to convene their awardees more often and in their communities. In Columbus, the council plans a daylong summit on diversity “to bring in communities that we haven’t addressed in the past — LGBT, African American, people with disabilities — not just for grant programs but to share everything on our arts calendar.”
A fourth group explored stability and resilience for artists. Encumbered by debt on finishing their educations, many artists find it difficult to invest in their careers. Often arts schools do not educate about career realities: few alumni have workable career plans or can imagine a lifetime of creativity taking many forms. Some arts schools are beginning to offer entrepreneurship skill and strategic planning for students. But Actors Fund’s Keith McNutt counters that “faculty don’t want this message; hence the myth persists that true artists grind their originality from focused solitude.” The team endorsed postgraduate connection to other artists: could funders help provide these? Underwriting studio and live-work space for artists can help, as can active professional associations and networks. Aging artists, noted McNutt, often have no 410(k), pension, or retirement savings. Frances Phillips noted that the Haas Fund’s grantmaking for low-income individuals promotes asset building with small matching grants as incentives to save. Could something similar assist artists? The team also addressed the importance of creative economy studies that help broad publics see K–12 arts education as fundamental and programs that demonstrate to children that the arts do offer viable careers.
The fifth group tackled the topic “how can we increase awareness of the value of artists?” They shared experiences of noticing when an artist felt valued and responded to the question “when did you swoon over an artist’s work?” They wondered whether artists’ value is quantifiable. “Value is when the artist is activated,” reported one, “and seen as a contributor in the society.” They debated the tendency to value creative people based on their financial returns. “Was Warhol successful because of the money he made or the art he made?” one asked rhetorically. Another team member posed two questions: “Of the work you support, how does it get under the skin and into the soul? And if it disappeared, what would you miss the most?” The group reflected on how different countries value artists, with some honoring them as expressive contributors and thinkers. At the Joan Mitchell Foundation, a senior artist working as a peer coach and mentoring other artist teachers stated that “I never felt so valued as when I was able to go through this effort.” At the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), the staff pulls together artist cohorts to foster networks of relationships. They encourage conversations — on race, disability, for instance — with artists in an intimate and comfortable place. NEFA’s Jane Preston’s swoon is a project to put the artists’ work they support on tour together. Another funder expressed concerns about the concept of entrepreneurialism: “We have to be very careful about it. Really, everyone should be taught business skills, career planning, and saving in high school. But we ought to be working on a different plane.”
The sixth group pondered “what frameworks do we use to advocate for artists?” Reporting out, and questioning the “we” in the posed question, team members stressed that efforts should be with artists, not for them. And which artists among the many with diverse opinions on how engagement and advocacy should occur? Heather Pontonio of the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation suggested that funders ask artists, “How does this question make you feel?” The group concluded that it has to be both “for and with,” but they recommend repeatedly asking artists to join funders in advocacy. Some members underscored general public ignorance about how long and how much resources many art projects require. Tatiana Hernandez of the Hemera Foundation expressed skepticism about advocacy as a funder priority: “I wonder if focusing on advocacy is like expecting an arts organization to market their way out of a rut — it is a distraction from creating work that has meaning for people and place. If the work is compelling, do we need to advocate for it?” Group members endorsed trusting artists, both in their work and as voices for their profession.
An Ongoing Project
The preconference agenda reinforced ongoing efforts by GIA to share practices and explore new frontiers for artist support. GIA innovations include the proposed national standard taxonomy for reporting artist funding data across nonprofits. The taxonomy would track funding nationally and provide a snapshot of philanthropic “inputs” to artists. As a complement, this year’s conversations focused on outcomes. GIA is talking to several university programs interested in using the taxonomy to mount a new database to track support for individual artists. Participants also received copies of the marvelous GIA “Support for Individual Artists Timeline,” begun by Ted Berger, Cynthia Gehrig, Frances Phillips, and Holly Sidford as a participatory exercise at the 2013 GIA preconference.2 The timeline begins in 1846 with the establishment of the Smithsonian, honors the Actors Fund of America’s (1882) continuing assistance for theater artists, and charts government, institutional, foundation, and interest group innovations, as well as key publications. The timeline contains sidebars noting cultural shifts (e.g., the first radio use of the term rock and roll) and key artistic innovations (e.g., Alvin Ailey’s Revelations , Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party , and Eve Ensler’s Vagina Monologues ).
The preconference’s liveliness and vigorous debate demonstrate that funders are continuing to experiment with and improve support for artists. The energy level in Los Angeles was high. Participants shared pioneering work and welcomed new insights. With some urgency, arts grantmakers will continue to scrutinize valuation/validation, equity, links to other sectors, and viable career paths. And they had fun, enjoyed each other’s company, shared experiences, and marveled at the abundance of funder creativity gathered in one room.
- See http://publicaddresssystems.org/projects/long-table for more information about Long Tables.
- The timeline was published in GIA Reader 26, no. 1 (Winter 2015); http://www.giarts.org/article/support-individual-artists-timeline.