Shine on Me: Scenes from the Support for Individual Artists Preconference

Shine on me
Let the light shine on me

The Black Monks of Mississippi

I spent the day at Grantmakers in The Arts’ Support for Individual Artists preconference (entitled Artists and Grantmakers: A Shared Enterprise). Dozens of artists and funders took part in the program, performing, offering panel presentations, Web pages, video clips, and PowerPoints.

While the subjects varied from the psychodynamics of funder-artist relationships to program evaluation to small-scale experiments with alternative funding models, two underlying themes emerged again and again.

People don’t work hard to devise alternatives if they’re happy with the way things are. I’d say dissatisfaction mingled with the desire for improvement is the dominant mood, albeit generously leavened by gratitude (those who’ve received grants), pleasure (those who enjoy their work as artists and/or grant-givers), and an ever-renewing spirit of social entrepreneurship (widely shared).

The meta-unhappiness, of course, has to do with the scale of available resources. Even more of it would have been expressed if the artist-panelists had been consistent losers in the grants game, instead of fairly regular winners. But it also has to do with the challenges of being a grants-giver in a field in which one reliably says “No” ten or twenty (or thirty) times more often than “Yes.” Even the smallest, most experimental programs are inundated with applications: Lorelei Stewart of the brand-new Propeller Fund (one of several experiments in direct support to nontraditional groups and artists seeded by the Warhol Foundation) reported 143 applications for the first round of 15 grants (five at $6,000, ten at $2,000).

There is a vast desire to create beauty and meaning that impels countless individuals to try to make livings as artists despite the daunting challenges that entails. But the pool of available funds is anything but vast.

If I had a magic wand, I would sprinkle fairy-dust over the assembled grantmakers, such that each and every one of them would decide to give a small but significant slice of their energy to new efforts to enlarge that pool in significant ways. Especially at a time of epidemic and persistent unemployment in this country, it’s a scandal that we have no public service employment for artists. (A new WPA is one of my hobby-horses; here’s a talk I gave on it at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York last spring.)

When I said this to an old friend I met here, she said that people have just plain given up on government, and she may be right. Bad idea—since it leaves the public sector even more susceptible to those who want to use for something other than the public good—albeit somewhat understandable. But that still leaves room for passionate advocacy on behalf of prioritizing the work of artists in the private sector. Among funders, as in other professions, it is easy to be consumed with one’s very real and pressing responsibilities, letting the larger conversation slip away.

The most experimental programs presented in this preconference were minuscule in scale, scope, and grant amounts. The Fire This Time Fund, an independent giving circle, distributes about $10,000 a year to “creative cultural as well as creative, community organizing and education projects that provoke critical thought by raising awareness or dialogue around justice issues,” prioritizing informal, non-institutional groups. Eleven recipients were funded in 2009, so grant amounts are obviously small. But not as small as the $100-500 grants given by Chances Dances under the banner of “The Critical Fierceness Grant,” supporting “personal exploration, community development and radical change through art” for those “who identify themselves or their work as queer.”

There’s no getting around it: it’s all about relationship. Consistently, the representatives of these smaller, less formal programs report a trade-off they feel may be worth making under current conditions: yes, we don’t give much money, but the DIY-style with which we operate makes us free to work with people in a way that feels good. When Isis Ferguson from The Fire This Time Fund listed the four questions that comprise TFTT’s grant application, delighted laughter rippled through the room. I imagine many artists would be thrilled with this as the universal grant application template:

1. What is your project and why do you love it?
2. Why should we be excited about your project and how is it compatible with our guidelines?
3. Do you really think you have what it takes to pull this thing off? What resources do you have that you can draw upon to help make this project a success? If you get less money than you ask for, how will it affect your project?
4. Will your project give us more hope? For real? Tell us 2-3 of your project goals.

The event was described as being about “ways artists and funders inform each other, develop meaningful and productive relationships, and work together to create and refine programs that support kindred visions and consequential collaborations.” There’s a little bit of wishful thinking in that, of course. As one funder pointed out in the session on grantor-artist dynamics, grant-getting is a test. “The grantmaker sets up the test,” said Ute Zimmerman, program manager of Artadia, which supports individual visual artists, “establishes the criteria, and decides who fails or passes.”

When a funder asked members of the grantor-artist dynamics panel how they feel about foundations’ current emphasis on “return on investment,” and the many metrics intended to measure it, the mood descended. Chicago Dancemakers Forum director Ginger Farley said this orientation “Turns our eye away from thing that’s most central to what we are trying to do.” Visual and performing artist Theaster Gates used the moment for the day’s most passionate performance, saying that this orientation “Turned me into a whore that consistently aims to please all of you. You will lust for the activity of my projects and the projects of people like me, and will end up creating a cultural beast.” “This is the kind of personality it breeds,” said dancer and choreographer Julia Antonick, “existential depression.”

Ute Zimmerman stressed that the grantor-artist relationship needs respect. “I’m a person that you’re dealing with,” she said to a hypothetical applicant, “I need to be dealt with with respect.”

In a later panel, Roell Schmidt of Links Hall asked rhetorically whether artists dream of money, and answered this way: “Artists dream of validation,” which often comes in this society in the form of money, but may come in other ways.

Indeed, money is nothing to sneeze at, but whether or not they have it, everyone wants to be seen truly, fully, clearly. Everyone wants what the performance group The Black Monks of Mississipi (Jason Adasiewicz, Yaw Agyeman, LeRoy Bach, Theaster Gates, Khari Lemuel, Charisma Sweat) sang in the words I quoted to open this blog: Let the light shine on me. How possible that may be in a relationship so profoundly shaped by scarcity and rejection, I just don’t know.

While you think about this, listen to the Shirelles ask that eternal question of artist to patron, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?”