Artist-Centered Grantmaking & Lives of Artists

How knowledge of artists’ internal development can benefit artists and the field that serves them, Part II

Marc Zegans

This is part two of a two-part series on individual artist support written by Marc Zegans and published by GIA. In follow-up to his GIA Reader article from 2017, Zegans offers his perspective on the cycle of creative growth that artists experience throughout their careers and opportunities for grantmakers to re-examine how they develop and adjust their practices to meet nonlinear needs. In this installment, Zegans emphasizes the opportunity to advance artist-centered grantmaking “by providing a paradigm for appropriately supporting artists at creative crossroads” and parallel possibilities for supporting artists and field building.

Read the first part again here.

Implications for Practice

The Arc of a Fulfilled Creative Life/Punctuated Path of Creative Development model suggests myriad possibilities for advancing best practice in artist-centered grantmaking, most significantly, by providing a paradigm for appropriately supporting artists at creative crossroads. The next two sections discuss several possibilities for Artist Support and Field Building.

Artist Support

By developing grant strategies that more closely match the developmental arc of artists’ creative lives, funders can humanize grant making and increase its efficacy. Specifically, they can [1] Support informed practice; [2] Develop stage and phase matched funding screens; [3] Provide stage specific support; and [4] Intensively support artists in transition.

1. Informed Practice

Little investment has been made in understanding and communicating about how artists’ creative lives evolve, the common challenges they face, and how they can meet these challenges effectively. Developmental funding tends to go, instead, toward teaching artists’ technical, promotional, and business skills, valuable all, but not keyed to creative growth.

Developing programs that foster artists’ internal development — a different task than supplying them with basic business skills — can markedly improve their life outcomes. In this connection, a particularly promising opportunity lies in forging partnerships with universities and colleges of art and design, convening professional development programs for artists in much the same way that continuing education is a staple component of the professions.

2. Stage and Phase Matched Screens

Funders can incorporate simple, self-reporting questionnaires that describe an artist’s state of internal development into their screening processes. For example, is the artist at the beginning of an exciting new stage of development, accelerating quickly, coming to the end of a developmental period, or in a state of transitional flux? Is the artist becoming integrated into the art world, appearing as a strong and original voice, rising in eminence, or dispensing wisdom and crafting legacy?

Data gleaned from these self-reports will enable grant makers and peer evaluation panels to develop more accurate pictures of artists’ specific needs and likely prospects. Well-designed screens will also provide useful guidance for determining specific grant size, conditions governing use and individually tailored non-cash support. Additionally, funding screens matched to stage and phase of internal development enable funders to identify natural cohorts whose common needs can be met through targeted programs.

3. Stage Specific Support

Developing Discipline. Artists cultivating core capabilities in degree programs have access to the resources and role models they need to further their craft through deliberate practice. Beginners working outside the formal system can benefit enormously from better access to tools, support, and education in formats tailored to their specific needs. Such resources would focus on developing effective and sustainable practice, providing critical review of work, and nurturing robust appreciative and expressive systems. Investment in building mentor programs and social support networks for artists belonging to underserved groups offer meaningful prospects for high-value results.

Achieving Mastery, Self-Authorship. Funding to artists in the achieving mastery and embracing self-authorship stages will benefit from calibrating individual grants to artists to their location at the beginning, middle or end of each stage.

Attaining Eminence. Enabling artists at this stage to deepen their capacities for advocacy, mentorship, and collaboration with junior colleagues, and to pursue sophisticated career management strategies will enrich the field by greatly enhancing these artists’ effectiveness as public actors. This end can be well served by providing leadership development training, creative coaching, and public relations support for artists invested in the process of managing their growing eminence.

Crafting Legacy. Rapid expansion of the over-60 population has bred a pressing demand to chart pathways for artists needing to craft their legacies. Funding the development of case studies, experience-based heuristics, and derivative instruction will close a major gap in knowledgeable support for late-stage artists.

Sizeable opportunity also lies in creating intergenerational channels through which late life artists can share work and wisdom with younger artists. Fostering connection, providing funds for mentorship and collaboration across generations, and documenting these experiences will powerfully enrich artists’ lives while strengthening the lines of cultural transmission. Programs for artists crafting legacy would also usefully include resources for legacy related art projects such as retrospectives, and symposia for vibrant lesser-known artists.

4. Support for Artists in Transition

The single biggest opportunity for constructive artist-centered grantmaking is to support artists shifting from one structure of meaning to the next. Meeting this need demands: Thoughtful Inquiry, Generally Applicable Interventions, and Crisis Specific Support.

Thoughtful Inquiry. Artists in transition need to know that their struggles are not unique, and that they require well documented, readily available, peer tested, tools that work. Such a body of work simply does not exist. Investment in research, sharing of findings, development of teaching tools, and means of effective transmission are needed now.

Generally Applicable Interventions. Several categories of structured support are broadly applicable to transitions in creative life. These include reflective residencies; community-based peer support, and continuing education in schools of art and design.

  • Reflective Residencies. Artist residencies are typically geared to the creation of work. Artists in transition require different things: time and safe space for reflection, opportunity for informal dialogue, facilitated peer discussion, emotional support, and professional advice and counsel. Residencies designed to meet these requirements would constitute a fundamental programmatic innovation filling a critical gap in artist support.
  • Community-Based Peer Support, Education, and Counsel. Moving from one structure of meaning to the next can take several years. While retreats and residencies provide crucial occasions for reflection and discernment, much of the work in creative evolution per force takes place in daily life. Facilitated peer support, and access to educational resources and skilled guidance located in the community are potent and highly scalable complements to reflective residencies.
  • Continuing Education in Schools of Art and Design. Gathering artists in transition at each stage of their careers is a natural opportunity for schools of art and design to maintain lifelong productive relationships with their alumni and to extend their footprints into the communities they serve.

Programs offered by these institutions can outline means of accomplishing metamorphic changes in creative identity, establish opportunities for safe experimentation, provide individual and small group consultation, and offer appropriate venues for sharing and vetting transitional work. Properly designed, such programs will benefit artists and improve the economic position of host institutions. Grantmakers can provide useful stimulus by seeding and evaluating pilot programs, convening leaders of peer institutions, disseminating lessons learned, and creating advanced training institutes that teach the teachers.

Crisis Specific Support. In addition to the general affordances I just described, artists need support geared to the specific transitions they are facing. Here, crisis by crisis, is some of what is needed.

  • Role Crisis. Many beginners approach the challenge of entering the life of a working artist with a mix of dismay and overt resistance. This, in part, is why so many drop out. At the heart of their reluctance is an overly restrictive conception of creative identity, one that divides the artist into a pure self who creates and a practical persona who, in self-abasing ways, secures life’s necessities. When young artists are introduced to a more extensive view through which they can form authentic, capable, empowered, socially implicated creative selves, they tend to find the concept liberating and begin to advance in their pursuits.

Fledgling artists particularly need vocabulary that will help them visualize the life of a working artist and how they can enter this role. This role-specific vocabulary will come from models and case-based illustrations of productive pathways; advice and encouragement, and emotionally safe places where they can speak honestly about their fears, work through the natural resistance they experience, and develop the confidence to proceed. Such support complements but is sharply different in focus from technical training in business-of-art topics.

  • Differentiation Crisis. Artists struggling with the challenges that precede the blooming of original voice need help developing sufficiently robust self-confidence, inner resourcefulness, and technique to be voices that stand out. Such artists can benefit from practices grounded in documented experience, time for taking stock, and skilled advice. Investments in the documentation and analysis of such transitions and in training and networking supportive professionals can markedly increase the likelihood that artists transitioning to original voice will succeed.
  • Extension Crisis. Artists rising in eminence must decide whether to reach beyond the work that established their reputations and to speak not only for themselves, but to and for the field, through education, mobilization, collaboration, and advocacy. If artists so situated choose to assume the responsibilities that attend to public eminence, they will benefit from support in determining how they can do so effectively. They will also need to develop networks of peers, mentors, and advisors who can help them meet these responsibilities well.

Convening newly eminent artists (i.e., creatively influential artists who have begun speaking on behalf of the craft and undertaking significant citizen service to the field) for dialogue and training in much the same manner that cohorts of school principals, newly elected members of Congress, and fresh-minted university presidents are gathered to develop insight and build relationships can be a particularly effective funding strategy.

  • Continuation Crisis. Artists growing in years eventually face the question, “Do I continue, and, if so, how?” This question demands deep reflection on what it means to have limited and uncertain time remaining. Artists so engaged can profit from the experience of others and from direct assistance in confronting their fears and developing access to fresh creative energy. They also need technical assistance in sorting out the complexities of summing up their careers and determining what they will leave behind.
  • A coordinated approach to meeting these needs has much to recommend it. Funding and evaluating one-stop shopping support teams that can help with assessment, planning, late-stage practice development, and estate planning would be a particularly worthwhile contribution.

Field Building

Keying artistic support practices to artists’ internal development can better calibrate grantmaking to need and opportunity. The keys to successful artist-centered field building are [1] research, [2] convening, and [3] provision of skilled developmental counsel.

  1. Research
    We need to know far more about how artists experience, engage, and negotiate the developmental challenges that shape the paths of their lives, and this knowledge must be widely shared. Studies that map artists’ life-paths and follow them through crucial transitions will provide actionable information to artists and to those who provide artist support. Early research should both systematically discover, assess, distill, and advance best practice. Documentation of practices, interventions, and conditions that increase creativity, satisfaction, stability, reputation, and quality of life for artists at different stages of their journey will be of particular importance.
  2. Convening
    Gathering artists at key transitions to discuss problems, needs, opportunities, and solutions via focus groups and in mixed conversation with funders and intermediaries promises to be a potent source of insight and guidance for program design. Convening can also be a useful resource for working with intermediaries to shape their agendas relating to artist education and individual counseling.

    Cross-field working groups populated with innovative artists, funders, scholars, support professional, educators and leaders of intermediary organizations can further facilitate the progress and promotion of best practice. Finally, convening panels and executive sessions that explore how to integrate developmental models of the creative life into philanthropic practice can be a catalyst for innovation.

  3. Developmental Counsel
    Artists in transition, if they seek help at all, turn to peers, mentors, therapists, and a small but growing cadre of “creativity coaches.” Distribution of such resources is patchwork, and access is limited. Investments in building professional networks and training for professionals capable of delivering competent transitional support to artists can harvest the opportunity to meet a profound, barely served, need. Investments in expanding the supply of competent developmental counsel can be staged, perhaps beginning with multi-site pilots that incorporate cross-site dialogue and robust evaluation protocols.

Service in Alignment

Though artists lead fiercely independent lives and make the world new by dint of their self-invention, they are not immune to the need for insight into how their lives unfold and the metamorphic changes that occur along the way, nor are they immune from the need for structured support and relevant counsel.

Such affordances will not appear in a vacuum. Their mobilization depends on spirited champions who foster ways of understanding artists on terms that accurately describe their internal landscapes and developmental paths. Thoughtful grantmakers who rally fellow funders and intermediaries to invest wisely in furnishing artists with the means to shine brilliantly as they traverse the arc of their creative lives must be among them. If you have read this far, I hope that you will be such a champion.


My deepest thanks to Linda Aldrich, Dudley Cocke, Nadia Elokdah, Prudy Kohler, Deborah Oster Pannell, Frances Phillips, Noah James Saunders, Andrea Saveri, and Jason Weeks for their support, encouragement, and sage counsel in bringing this article to fruition.