Supporting Individual Artists: Five Funder Profiles

Susan Kunimatsu

One of the most interesting aspects of GIA’s Research Initiative on Support for Individual Artists has been the opportunity to delve deeply into funders’ programs and practices. By its very nature, data collection requires creating categories and standard definitions, and then using this vocabulary to quantify what funders are actually doing.

Examining programs that support individual artists, however, has challenged the methodologies of quantitative research and data collection. At the same time, it also provides a reminder that storytelling and anecdotal narrative are types of research as well, and in many cases the most informative way of providing information.

GIA engaged arts journalist Susan Kunimatsu to develop these five profiles of artist support programs that demonstrate a range of practices including regranting, using intermediaries, and forming partnerships with arts and nonarts organizations to achieve their goals. This is the beginning of a series we plan to continue, to provide a different lens to examine this work.

— Tommer Peterson, coeditor

Greater Columbus Arts Council

The Greater Columbus Arts Council was founded in 1970 as a community arts agency under the auspices of the Chamber of Commerce. Art as an engine for economic development remains a principle of its mission and programming. Its website lists three reasons “Why The Arts Matter”:

  • The arts have a profound economic impact on the city.
  • The arts attract and retain new talent and business.
  • The arts are important to residents and visitors.1

In 1973, the city of Columbus began contracting with the Arts Council to be its arts grantmaking agency. In 1977, the city first allotted a portion of its hotel/motel tax to fund the arts. The tax is currently at 10 percent; the Arts Council’s fractional share provides about $5 million of its $6 million annual budget. The remainder comes from Arts Festival revenue and funding from the state, private foundations, and donors. Arts Council programs encompass grantmaking and services to artists and arts organizations; a public art program; the annual Columbus Arts Festival; and promoting the arts through an online calendar, artist directory, and community awards program.

Ohio’s state capital and largest city, Columbus is home to several Fortune 500 corporations; the Ohio State University, one of the nation’s largest colleges; and the Battelle Memorial Institute, the world’s largest private research and development foundation. This industrial and intellectual wealth supports a lively cultural community encompassing museums, performance venues, and a range of arts organizations. In 2013 the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s budget for grantmaking was nearly $3.7 million. Most of this went to arts organizations in the form of operating support and project grants. Just over 5 percent, $191,000, went to individual artists’ programs.

The council’s 2012 Report to the Community states that “the Columbus community depends on the contributions of individual artists to the creative landscape. . . . Funding programs enable artists to refine and broaden their skills while continuing to create engaging, innovative work.”2 This translates into programs that use modest grants to leverage professional artistic opportunities. All applicants must be artists residing in Franklin County, which includes the city of Columbus.

Three funding programs help artists to take advantage of professional opportunities. In order to respond quickly as these opportunities arise, applications are accepted on a monthly cycle and reviewed by staff who make recommendations to the council’s Grants and International Committee, which awards funds until the annual allocation is exhausted. Professional Development Grants are awards of up to $1,000 for master classes, conferences, or business skills training. Supply Grants of up to $500 are available for materials to create new work. In 2013, these two programs together awarded $72,900 to 110 artists. Introduced in 2013, Performing Artist Travel Grants of up to $1,500 can be used to offset the costs of travel for performance opportunities.

In addition to funding, the Greater Columbus Arts Council has three service programs for individual artists. The Arts Legal Assistance Program, offered in partnership with the Columbus Bar Association, provides pro bono legal services on arts-related issues for artists and small arts organizations. The Arts Council staff screens applications on an ongoing basis. Participants can use the service twice a year. Through its OPPArt (Opportunities for Artists) series, the council offers professional development workshops, roundtables, and networking events for artists and small arts organizations; forty-four events were held in 2013. The council’s website hosts, a free listing of artists’ online profiles.

Established in 1986, the Individual Artist Fellowship is the Greater Columbus Arts Council’s flagship program for individual artists. Unrestricted awards of $150 to $5,000 are given for creation of new work or career advancement. A total of $48,300 was awarded to twenty-four artists in 2013. Current-year finalists and past recipients in visual and media arts are also eligible for the Artist Exchange, a two- to three-month residency in Columbus’s sister city of Dresden, Germany. Two residencies are awarded annually.

Fellowships are currently awarded in five disciplines: visual arts, media arts, literary arts, playwriting, and choreography. Awards in each discipline are administered by Columbus-based arts organizations. Funding is allocated to each discipline based on the number of applicants: roughly $5,000 for every twenty-five applications. Recipients are selected by a peer review process involving panelists from outside the Columbus area. Each organization designs its own selection process and, within its allocation, determines the number and size of awards. In addition to stipends, awardees receive discipline-specific support from their partner organization, such as exhibitions, screenings, readings, commissions, and performances of their work.

Ruby Harper, director of grants and services, has been with the Arts Council for seven years. She and a two-person staff manage all the grantmaking programs; efficiency is a priority. In 2010 Harper began to experiment with outsourcing the administration of the Individual Artist Fellowships “to leverage our resources with other community organizations’ resources.” By partnering with arts presenters, fellowship artists would get more exposure and audiences would have better access to their work. Fellowships in some disciplines were only available in alternate years; Harper wanted to make annual awards in all disciplines. Finding each discipline a home offered some stability.

“We retain ownership, they determine what works for the field,” is how Harper describes the council’s relationship with its regranting organizations, referred to as “partners.” When considering prospective partners, her first question is, “Who is the leader in that discipline?” She looks for organizations with the capacity to manage and grow with a fellowship program. Each organization designs an awards process that fits its capacity and serves its field. The Arts Council must approve the program design and shares some administrative and promotional responsibilities, including the online application system. Organizations receive administrative costs in addition to grant funds, but those costs cannot exceed the awards. All the organizations receive either operating support or project grants in addition to their fellowship contracts.

The Individual Artist Fellowship in dance is administered by Columbus Dance Theatre (CDT), a contemporary ballet company that operates a thirty-two-week performance season and a school of dance. CDT was one of the Arts Council’s first fellowship regranters; in 2013, CDT completed its fourth year with the program. Five Columbus Dances Fellowships of $2,000 are awarded annually. Choreographers submit new, original dance works of up to fifteen minutes in length, performed by dancers from the greater Columbus community. Excerpts of these works are presented live (although works on video have been accepted) to a three-person panel of one national and two local dance artists. In addition to the cash award, fellowship recipients’ works are produced at the Fisher Theatre, where CDT is the resident company. Production includes rehearsal time and space, technical support, advertising, and a weekend of three performances. Arts Council funding for the dance fellowships, including the stipends, is $17,250. CDT also receives about $36,000 in operating support.

CDT Artistic Director Tim Veach designed the Columbus Dances Fellowship to encourage independent choreographers to take their ideas beyond the proposal-on-paper stage, to create new work and engage with local dancers.

“The challenge of making grants for individuals [is that] individuals have challenges that organizations don’t,” he says. “They are their own infrastructure, they are their own corporation.” He recalls being a young choreographer filling out grant applications and feeling stymied by questions about marketing and financial plans. “I just wanted to make dances.” Now, having had the experience of building his own organization, he understands the size of the gulf that separates the choreographer from the realization of his or her vision. The fellowship is intended to provide not just funds but also the space and technical and administrative support to produce the work, to connect the artist with the audience. Veach knows that “to fund individual artists, you have to understand that they are not coming to the table with those things.”

Leeway Foundation

The Leeway Foundation is a small organization whose mission is to “honor women and trans artists for their ability to create social change through their artistic and cultural work.” Founded and endowed in 1993 by artist Linda Lee Alter, for its first decade, Leeway was a family foundation that made grants to women artists in Philadelphia and the surrounding five-county area. In the late 1990s the foundation began to look at art more specifically as a vehicle for social change. In 2004 Alter and the board of directors undertook a process of conscious introspection that transformed the foundation, its mission, constituency, leadership, and programs. They assembled an Advisory Council of community-based artists and arts advocates; conferred with peers and colleagues and among themselves; and worked with consultants to redesign their programs. While still supporting women artists, the foundation would focus its resources on “making the grant process accessible and equitable to all women artists — especially women whose work is often ignored, silenced, and marginalized because of who they are or what they create, such as women of color, immigrant women, queer women, transgender women, poor women, and women who take risks with art form and content.”3

The year “2005 was a particular moment,” recalls Executive Director Denise M. Brown. The foundation’s constituent base became broader and its applicant pool more diverse. At the same time, the foundation tightened the focus of its mission and programs. A member of Leeway’s Advisory Council prior to her appointment as director, Brown emphasizes that the foundation’s support of individual studio-based fine artists did not waver, but became more concentrated on practitioners of art as a voice for social change. Another question raised was whether to expand the foundation’s geographic reach beyond the metropolitan Philadelphia area.

“The general feeling was we should go deeper rather than wider,” Brown recalls. “There was a sense that we had untapped constituents” — immigrants, elders, certain artistic disciplines, ethnic communities. “There was work still to be done to get deeper into those communities. That’s where Community Partners play an important role for us.”

To introduce the new programs and engage with a new constituency, the Leeway Foundation forged relationships with a cohort of Community Partners: cultural, social service, and advocacy organizations that connected with specific sectors of the community. These partners continue to play key roles in the communication and outreach strategies the foundation employs to promote its grant programs. Partners host grant information and applicant support sessions and help publicize funding opportunities.

During this transition, the foundation also reinvented itself from within. Historically its board had been small and close-knit. Most members shared a personal connection with Alter; her daughter Sara Becker was board president. New members were recruited to form a larger, more community-based board reflecting the ethnically, culturally, and gender-diverse constituency that they now sought to serve. Like the Community Partners, board members are sought for their connections to “practices we want to support, access to communities we want to support,” according to Brown.

The Leeway Foundation’s philanthropy is funded solely from its endowment of $17 million. The 2008 financial crisis reduced the value of the endowment and the organization’s annual budget by nearly a third. The current operating budget of $940,000 provides a total of $225,000 in grants to over fifty artists. All funding is awarded through a peer review process.

Currently the foundation has two grant programs, Art and Change Grants and Transformation Awards. Applicant qualifications are the same for both programs: women and transgender artists whose work addresses social change issues with broad community impact. Applicants must reside in the six-county metropolitan Philadelphia area and demonstrate a lack of resources, financial or otherwise, to support their art. Funds are awarded in seven categories: crafts and textiles, folk art, literary arts, media arts, music, performance, and visual art. These categories encompass multiple disciplines and genres, and applications are accepted in multidisciplinary art. Artists’ work should show a clear intention toward social change. Leeway’s website lists ten areas of social change, including racial, economic, and environmental justice; feminism; and cultural preservation.

Art and Change Grants are project grants of up to $2,500 that are given twice a year. Project proposals are evaluated for their potential to create social change, to have an impact. In their application, artists may name a Change Partner: a person, organization, or business that connects the artist to her community. Change Partners cannot benefit financially from any grant award; rather they give context or testify to the importance of the artist’s work.

Transformation Awards are unrestricted grants of $15,000; up to eight are given annually. Applicants must show a five-year history of making art for social change. Grants are awarded in a two-stage process: finalists receive technical assistance and a stipend to prepare their work samples and then are evaluated on their body of work. In assessing the vision, activism, and potential impact of the artists’ work, panelists consider a long and complex list of definitions and questions that go beyond conventional criteria. They may be asked to weigh values such as cultural authenticity: building bridges between cultures versus cultural appropriation. Or, when is art the message, and when is art itself the social action?

Leeway’s website describes the “Anatomy of a Leeway Artist” with a list of nine qualities that include “underserved, under-acknowledged, and/or under-engaged,” nontraditional practitioners rarely recognized by more mainstream funders who are nevertheless “clearly using an ‘art form’ and working in a creative way to have significant impact.”4 These are the people whom the Leeway Foundation has made it its mission to support. Denise Brown describes their grantmaking process: “It’s like a learning community for everyone who participates. There are people who haven’t thought about their work in this way before. In this moment when there’s so much conversation around social engagement in the arts, that conversation gets richer and richer.”

McKnight Foundation

Minnesota is rich in arts philanthropy, the beneficiary of the highest state funding of the arts in the nation, and home to a number of venerable private foundations. The McKnight Foundation, based in Minneapolis, is a major presence in that landscape. Founded in 1953, it currently has about $2 billion in assets and has distributed nearly that amount in grants over its sixty-one-year history. Its 2012 grantmaking totaled almost $85 million. Its grant portfolio encompasses youth and education, the environment, and economic development, as well as the arts, with a geographic focus in Minnesota. In addition to its own programs, McKnight contributes to other major program partners, including six independent Minnesota Initiative Foundations, the Family Housing Fund, and Youthprise, an organization focusing on out-of-school time initiatives.

Eleven percent of the McKnight Foundation’s grantmaking, about $9.3 million in 2012, goes to the arts. In 2008, the foundation’s board decided to focus this funding on working artists. The Arts Program’s single goal states that “Minnesota thrives when its artists thrive. The McKnight Foundation supports working artists to create and contribute to vibrant communities.”5 In addition to grantmaking strategies for artist-centered nonprofits, they have three funding streams that directly target individual artists: the McKnight Artist Fellowships, artist grants through the Minnesota Regional Arts Councils, and the McKnight Distinguished Artist Award. The Distinguished Artist Award is a single prize of $50,000 awarded annually through a nomination process administered in-house. The other two programs rely on regranting by arts organizations, to assure the integrity of awards in every artistic discipline and the equitable distribution of funding throughout the state.

McKnight Arts Program Director Vickie Benson characterizes the Artist Fellowships as “midcareer recognition . . . a statement of achievement, honoring artists and their body of work.” When it was initiated thirty-two years ago, the goals of the Artist Fellowship program were twofold: to support artists and to further develop artist service organizations. Placing a McKnight Artist Fellowship program in an organization would do both. “It was a choice early on by the McKnight Foundation. It helped to build the whole arts ecosystem,” says Benson. In 2013 thirty-seven fellowships of $25,000 each were awarded to ceramic artists, choreographers, composers, dancers, media artists, musicians, photographers, playwrights, theater artists, visual artists, and writers by nine arts organizations. The partnering organizations are Northern Clay Center, Northrop Concerts and Lectures, American Composers Forum, IFP (Independent Filmmaker Project) Minnesota, MacPhail Center for Music, the Playwrights’ Center, Minneapolis College of Art and Design, the Loft Literary Center, and The organizations design their own programs in collaboration with the foundation. A key requirement is that the awards go directly to individual artists through a peer review selection process. The cohort of Artist Fellowship organizations has remained fairly stable. A few of the regranters have been with the program for the entire thirty-two years of its existence.

“We love long-term relationships that work well,” says Benson. “We look for organizations with a deep understanding of their field and the capacity to successfully run their own organization while managing a fellowship program.” Experience carries more weight now than it did in the beginning, when they were trying to build the field. In addition to funding, each organization offers its fellows resources and opportunities specific to their discipline: career development, residencies, commissions, and performances or exhibitions of their work.

The McKnight Fellowships for Dancers and Choreographers are based at Northrop Memorial Auditorium, a performing arts center at the University of Minnesota. Program Director Mary Ellen Childs, herself a past McKnight Fellow in music composition, recalls that “as an artist, when the fellowships came on board, it was exciting.” Three choreographers’ and three dancers’ fellowships are awarded annually. There are very few unrestricted grants for interpretive artists, so the dancers’ fellowships are a particularly unique opportunity. In addition to their stipend, each dancer chooses a choreographer (not necessarily another fellow) to create a new solo work expressly for him or her. All the new works receive a full staging at Northrop; the costs of the commission and performance are funded by McKnight. Choreographers are offered a residency at one of four sites nationally, to create, complete, or produce new work. Dance and choreography fellows receive career development training and mentoring, professional photography, and opportunities to share experiences at a four-day retreat and annual fellows’ dinner. “We maintain close relationships,” Childs says. “Once a fellow, always a fellow”

Regranting through the eleven Minnesota Regional Arts Councils makes McKnight funding available to artists in all eighty-seven Minnesota counties. The Regional Arts Councils were created by the state legislature in 1977 to be conduits for state funding. All are 501(c)(3) nonprofits. The councils are funded by annual state appropriations and a dedicated percentage of the state sales tax. Minnesota’s 2008 Clean Water, Land and Legacy constitutional amendment increased sales tax by three-eights of 1 percent to protect drinking water sources and the natural environment, support parks and trails, and preserve arts and cultural heritage. The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund receives slightly less than 20 percent of that revenue, but the impact has been significant. Funding to the Regional Arts Councils tripled, making state government Minnesota’s biggest arts funder.

The McKnight Foundation began regranting through the Regional Arts Councils in 1981. At McKnight’s request in 2010, the councils began directing all McKnight funds to individual artists. The foundation relies on the councils to set priorities and design programs that best serve their constituents’ needs, but does not control the program structure or staffing of the councils, which are accountable to the citizens of Minnesota through the legislature. Each council is required by law to conduct a needs assessment of its region every four years and to submit a biennial plan for services to be provided, based on the needs assessment. State funds are allocated to the councils based on population and geographic area served. The McKnight Foundation determines its own allocations using a similar formula.

The Central Minnesota Arts Board serves a four-county area centered on the city of St. Cloud, northwest of Minneapolis. Among the councils it receives the third-highest allocation in the state. Its annual budget is approximately $860,000, of which $650,000 goes directly to artists and organizations in the form of grants. It receives $100,000 from the McKnight Foundation to fund four programs: Individual Artist Awards, Artist Career Development grants, Adult Artist Scholarships, and a Teaching Artist Roster training program.

Individual Artist Awards are unrestricted grants for artistic excellence in visual art, literature, and performance. One award of $5,000 to an established artist and seven awards of $3,000 to emerging artists are made annually.

Artist Career Development grants of up to $3,000 support artists in taking the next step in their career. The purchase of equipment or services, time to do research or complete a project, education (excluding full-time study for a degree) — anything that will advance the artist’s career is eligible.

Adult Artist Scholarships are small, quick turnaround grants of up to $300 for tuition or workshop fees and supplies.

The Teaching Artist Roster is a unique program created by the Central Minnesota Arts Board in response to its needs assessment, which showed a shortage of artists available for school and community residencies. The Arts Board partners with two arts education programs to train studio artists to work in the classroom. Artists who successfully complete the training are placed on a roster, making them eligible for up to $5,400 per year in grants for artists’ residencies.

Leslie LeCuyer is the executive director of the Central Minnesota Arts Board. She believes that, as an established network with a thirty-four-year relationship with their respective communities, Regional Arts Councils offer valuable expertise to McKnight and other funders.

“We know our artists,” LeCuyer says. “We can make sure they are investing in the right people.” Vickie Benson concurs that by providing support for administrative operations as well as funds for regranting, McKnight gains valuable expertise and regional grounding from the councils. She feels that their regranters “have the pulse of what artists in their discipline or region need. . . . We work really closely together. We do see it as a partnership.”

Herb Alpert Foundation

Herb Alpert Award in the Arts

The Herb Alpert Foundation was established in the late 1980s by musician, visual artist, and recording industry entrepreneur Herb Alpert and his wife, singer Lani Hall. While the foundation supports a national array of cultural and social justice organizations, its focus is the arts and arts education, particularly music, in the Los Angeles area. The schools of music at UCLA and the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) both bear Alpert’s name in recognition of the tens of millions of dollars in endowment and scholarship funding they have received. Application to the foundation’s grant programs is by invitation only, and they seek out innovative projects that build capacity in organizations, individuals, and youth. In over two decades of grantmaking, the Alpert Foundation has had a significant impact on the arts nationally, especially in Southern California.

The Herb Alpert Award in the Arts is the foundation’s grant program for individual artists. Unrestricted awards of $75,000 are given annually to five midcareer artists, one each in the disciplines of dance, film/video, music, theater, and visual arts. Candidates are recommended by a nationwide group of fifty nominators, ten in each discipline. Each nominates two artists for a total field of 100 who are invited to apply. Three-person panels in each discipline then consider the candidates’ work samples and applications, as well as nominators’ recommendations, in search of “artists respected for their creativity, ingenuity, and bodies of work, at a moment in their lives when they are poised to propel their art in new and unpredictable directions . . . experimenters who are making something that matters within and beyond their field.”

The award has been administered by CalArts since its inception in 1994. Herb Alpert himself conceived the award in response to reductions in individual artist support at the National Endowment for the Arts, and funded it in the hope that it would inspire the establishment of similar prizes. He wanted to partner with a school to give students exposure to exceptional artists. The Alpert Foundation had already given significant endowment and scholarship support to CalArts, and President Steven Lavine anticipated that award recipients would be the kind of groundbreaking artists that CalArts tries to nurture. As part of their award, artists spend a week in residence at CalArts, and several have returned as faculty and administrators. At the time the award was created, the Alpert Foundation had a small staff, so the school gave the award an administrative home where artists would be running the program.

Last year marked the twentieth anniversary of the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts. The 2014 awards will be announced in May. One hundred awards have been made to date. The unrestricted gift of $75,000 has had major impact on a number of artists’ careers. Awardees have used the funds to complete or produce new work, to purchase or upgrade work space and equipment, to pay artistic collaborators, for travel or education, or just to buy some time to pursue their art.

“The intent is to make a difference in both someone’s life and, potentially, in contemporary cultural life and even the world,” says Irene Borger, longtime director of the award program. She and an assistant handle all the logistics of the nomination and peer review process. Since application is by nomination, the nominators, who remain anonymous, play a pivotal role in determining the makeup of the applicant pool. An artist and educator herself, Borger researches all the nominators and panelists, recruiting a new group every year (some nominators have served several times over the life of the award). In addition to geographic, ethnic, cultural, and gender diversity, they cover the full range of artistic activity, aesthetics, and genres in each discipline. Borger invites mature artists and arts professionals (writers, curators, artistic directors) who, as a group, see a broad range of artistic activity and look for work that takes risks. She pursues leads from past awardees and panelists, as well as from colleagues in the grantmaking field. Nominators, panelists, and applicants all receive stipends.

“Putting a panel together is a fascinating and alchemical adventure,” Borger says. “It is quite moving how people, so busy in their own full-fledged careers, are delighted to give their time and expertise. They deeply want exceptional artists to be championed and supported.”

For a number of Alpert Award recipients, the week in residence at CalArts has had a significant effect on their careers. Stephan Koplowitz, dean of the School of Dance, and Anne LeBaron, cochair of the Music Composition program, first came to the campus as Alpert artists in residence. Suzan-Lori Parks launched the Writing for Performance program in the School of Theater, where Erik Ehn was dean from 2005 to 2009. Many awardees have performed at the Roy and Edna Disney / CalArts Theater (REDCAT) at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. As CalArts vice president for special projects, Lynn Rosenfeld oversaw both the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts and the REDCAT. She believes that the collective impact of the one hundred artists who have spent time on campus during the life of the award is one of its greatest benefits.

“The artists in residence are important for students in terms of modeling, of understanding what it’s like to be an artist out in the world,” she says. “Many students have called [the residencies] ‘one of the most formative parts of my education.’ ” The Herb Alpert Foundation fully funds the artists’ stipends, the program staff, the residencies, performances, and other activities in support of the awardees’ work. In 2013 the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts constituted about 7 percent of the foundation’s total grantmaking, although this percentage varies from year to year.

The intent of the award is both to honor the artists’ achievements and assist in propelling them forward in new creative directions. “We forget that time is such a precious commodity,” says Irene Borger. “What the award really offers is the ability to feel less pressure from the market economy and, with that, the freedom to take a chance.”

Native Arts and Cultures Foundation

The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation is a young organization that has quickly achieved national scope and impact. While many arts grantmakers spend years defining their constituency and developing programs incrementally, the NACF was created as a strategic response to the need for an infrastructure to preserve and support Native American arts in the twenty-first century. Native board members and program staff at the Ford Foundation consulted Native leaders and provided a core of support for concrete action toward building that infrastructure. The NACF was founded in 2008 and, with endowment funding from the Ford Foundation and the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, opened an office in Vancouver, Washington, near Portland, Oregon, in 2009 and launched its first funding programs in 2010.

Real financial support for Native arts and artists has been a core value of the NACF from its founding. According to its mission statement, “The Native Arts and Cultures Foundation . . . is a . . . philanthropic organization dedicated exclusively to the revitalization, appreciation and perpetuation of Native arts and cultures.”6 The foundation’s grantmaking program is one of its principal strategies for supporting Native artists and arts organizations. While Native arts traditions date back thousands of years and the need for institutional support had been discussed for decades, the NACF was born with a sense of urgency. Its mission statement continues: “Unless we make a conscious effort to bolster our Indigenous arts and link our elders with emerging Native artists, those voices can be lost. When we lose a generation of artists and culture bearers, we also lose a generation of deep wisdom. Our young people are left without roots from which to draw life and hope.”7

The foundation has given operational support and capacity-building grants to arts organizations; funded community arts projects; and partnered with local funders on regional initiatives. Given its brief history, many of these have been pilot programs and short-term projects, building blocks in the development of core programs.

“We’ve always looked to support artists as a driving force in the community,” says Reuben Tomás Roqueñi, NACF’s founding program director, now in his fifth year with the organization. The Artist and Community Collaboration Initiative in 2012 gave grants of up to $10,000 to partnerships of artists and tribal or nonprofit organizations for arts projects that would foster community participation. In the same year, the Artist Networks and Convenings Initiative granted organizations up to $15,000 for projects such as conferences and master artist residencies that would help individual artists to connect, share knowledge, and build relationships across regions. These programs were both one-year initiatives funding organizations’ work with artists.

A two-year capacity-building initiative, the Regional Collaboration Pilot Program (2012–13) connected the NACF with five Native cultural organizations in Alaska, Hawaii, and the western United States. Each organization received $40,000 a year (one left the program after the first year) to develop new programming, strengthen working connections, and share best practices among their leaders. The NACF sought out organizations that already offered grants, professional development, and market opportunities for Native artists. The programs that grew out of this initiative ranged from needs assessments and local arts marketplaces to project grants and unrestricted funding. Together, they broadened and deepened the national network of support for Native artists.

Roqueñi states, however, that “our most important finding is that in order to support artists, you really have to give them the time and space to focus on their creativity.” The one program that has operated continuously since 2010 and increased its year-to-year grantmaking is the NACF Artist Fellowships, the foundation’s only program that directly funds individual artists. Members of federally and state-recognized Native tribes, Native Hawaiian, and Alaska Native artists are eligible for fellowships, which are unrestricted grants of up to $20,000, awarded in six disciplines: dance, film, literature, music, traditional arts, and visual arts. Recipients are chosen by review panels of five to seven artists and arts professionals assigned to each discipline. The panels recommend artists to the staff and board of NACF, who make the final awards in all disciplines. Artists are chosen based on the artistic excellence of their work, their achievements in their discipline and field, and their future potential as Native artists. While not a stated criterion, community involvement has been an important aspect of every fellowship that has been awarded. The first fellowships were awarded for 2011, and they consistently comprise a significant proportion of the foundation’s total grantmaking: from 20 to 45 percent annually. The number of recipients and total amount granted have increased each year since 2012. Sixteen artists will receive a total of $220,000 in 2014.

In order to reach a national pool of potential applicants, Roqueñi advertises through tribal and native community newspapers, periodicals targeting Native Americans such as Native Peoples magazine, and the NACF’s newsletter. The call for artists is emailed through NACF’s database and those of other organizations. In 2013 these outreach methods succeeded in attracting some three hundred applicants for sixteen fellowships. Roqueñi feels that all artists of color face cultural barriers in applying to mainstream grant programs. Clearly there is a large number of Native artists looking for recognition and support from their own communities, as well as from the broader population.

In addition to samples of their work, a résumé, and artist statement, fellowship applicants are asked to write a narrative discussing how their Native heritage informs their art, future directions in their work, and the potential impact of the award. The fellowship is intended to “provide the opportunity for study, reflection, experimentation, and discovery.” But there is also a stated desire to foster Native artists who “have the potential to be or already are powerful voices in the arts.”8 While specific projects or outcomes are not required by the current criteria, recipients are expected to report on their artistic production during their fellowship year. The profiles of the 2014 award winners on the NACF website all include plans for the work they hope to accomplish.

“The project narrative in the application gives context for where they are at,” says Roqueñi. “The panelists want to have a sense of what the artist is doing, what the money would support.” He adds that the artists “all talk about how they are going to involve their community.”


  2. 2012 Report to the Community, Greater Columbus Arts Council, p. 15
  3. “The Leeway Foundation introduces new grantmaking to support local women artist creating change,” press release, January 1, 2005,
  4. “Anatomy of a Leeway Artist,”
  6., “About the Foundation.”
  7., “Supporting Native Arts and Cultures.”
  8., 2014 NACF Artist Fellowships.