The Power of Artists (Janet's Blog)

This weekend I had the great privilege to talk with current and past board members and staff of Artist Trust, an organization that supports individual artists in Washington. Led by Fidelma McGinn, this is one of several organizations in the country running stellar grantmaking and service programs for artists. In addition to a great group of people, they met in Snohomish, WA, a small town surrounded by mountains with a river running through it.

The location was a renovated church studio/home of artists Karen Guzak and Warner Blake. Studio/home doesn’t really describe what Karen and Warner have created in this town. It really is an art center, a place for exhibits, concerts and art making. Plus, it is their studio and home. Their dedication to supporting individual artists is evident everywhere you look in the facility. Karen is a past board member of Artist Trust and she’s mayor of Snohomish. So, not only have she and Warner created an arts center and a home in this community, she is now involved in pubic policy work using, no doubt, her creative skills to solve people’s everyday issues. Mayor… you gotta love that.

GIA is fortunate to have many members who focus on supporting individual artists. They will gather in Chicago in October for a daylong preconference to discuss trends, challenges, experience art and listen to artists. Like Artist Trust, there have been leaders in this field who continue to remind us all that artists need to be promoted and supported. They are passionate advocates for artists with their funding peers and the general public... organizations like Creative Capital Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, Joan Mitchell Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, United States Artists, Andy Warhol Foundation, The Pollock-Krasner Foundation, Artists Legacy Foundation, Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation and more.

This year, the McKnight Foundation in Minneapolis changed the focus of its institutional funding to be “artist centric.” I’m not sure where this will ultimately take them but it reminded everyone from general managers to boards of directors who actually puts the product on the table. Sometimes I worry that nonprofit arts institutions have become desensitized to the needs and voices of the very people they were created to support.

Richard Evans, president of EMCArts, Inc. writing for the fall issue of the GIA Reader, talks about innovation and the need for institutions to utilize their “creative capital” when making decisions about the future. “In the past era, arts organizations were in many ways set up to contain and limit creative thinking, shutting out artists, in particular, from the realm of management and organizational problem solving, and thus sequestering some of the sector’s most valuable creative capital.”

He continues, “We divorced the creation and production of art from the systems of delivery we built, and robbed ourselves of some of our most important human resources, almost by design. The genuine integration of artists into our organizations—not to represent a programmatic perspective, but as full members of the team, divergent thinkers and creative strategists—was one challenge to which the orthodox business model did not rise.”

Richard goes on to say that innovation needs creative capital and that artists can be an integral part in the decision-making process. As anyone who has worked in the arts business knows, this is more complex than one might imagine. However, I do think artists have become marginalized in parts of the nonprofit arts sector because it is, well, easier to operate without them. This is something we can remedy. It just needs to stay “top of mind” for funders and managers.

I am grateful for those funding organizations whose emphasis is individual artists. They remind us that the power of the individual, of the single artist, is the foundation upon which we build all our work.