Are we ready to leap? On the Support for Individual Artists Pre-Conference

When I left the Mellon Foundation in 2010 to move to the Netherlands I thought I had attended my last Grantmakers in the Arts conference, but I am quite happy to have been invited to take part in the 2013 GIA conference as one of several conference bloggers. For my first day, I was assigned to cover the Support for Individual Artists Pre-Conference. This is a longstanding event that, as one of the conference hosts admitted, can feel a little clubby to newcomers. I can’t speak for other newcomers but I thought the vibe from the get-go was incredibly relaxed and inclusive—in no small part because the day began with a participatory music experience led by musician Dan Blacksberg called Spontaneous Ensemble Music for Scratch Orchestra.

Part 1: On the origins of our structures and whether they may need to be disassembled to reflect the way artists make work today.

Holly Sidford, Ted Berger, Frances Phillips and Cindy Gehrig led the first session of the day, which was aimed at reviewing the history of support for artists in the US. Panelists reflected upon the significant impacts on artists of public programs, including the WPA (a program designed for all citizens but which benefited artists, as well); the Social Security Act (which enabled artists to collect unemployment between jobs); the establishment of the NEA and NYSCA, which led to the state arts agency movement; artist in schools programs, which spread across the US; and the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, a much revered program that ran from 1974 to 1981, and which had an annual impact of $300 million ($800 million in today’s dollars).

The panel also discussed the emergence of private support for artists, which began to grow in the late 80s, but which was modeled on early support for artists by the Guggenheim Foundation. In contrast to public support systems that required artists to “give back” to the community, panelists noted that private support was “an evolved form of patronage” aimed at fostering the “flowering of genius” and at giving talented individuals the “leisure to pursue their work.”

Out of reflections on these rationales and their origins, the panelists noted three enduring concepts:

  • A conceptual framework (credited to Nello McDaniel) that puts the artist at the center, as the hub, with spokes leading to various source of support (e.g., Family, Work in the Field, Work in Other Fields, Artist-in-Schools Programs, Residencies, Grants, Unemployment). The image was meant to convey two ideas: (1) Artists have agency and a way of making life through multiple support systems; and (2) the whole system needs to be managed every day.
  • Lack of support for the whole artist: by-and-large, the arts support system is about “making work” and “bringing that work to the public.”
  • Lack of adequate compensation for artists, stemming in large part from the fact that support for artists is generally channeled through organizations but also from the idea that too much support will have a corrupting influence on the artist.

As a newcomer I found it helpful to hear others take stock of this history as well as to point out that much of the vocabulary, frames, and beliefs underpinning individual support for artists today, to a large degree, hearken back to early rationales for support. The group also reflected on some trends in philanthropy that have emerged since the culture wars, including: seeing the artist as a contributor not only to artistic life but to economic and social life; the decline in international work and exchange; a pulling back in the sense of collective research and action; and the emergence of many permutations on the support for individual artist “model” including the growth in artist support organizations (like Creative Capital) and intermediaries (though it was also noted that the intermediaries may be increasingly vulnerable).

The discussion among the group centered primarily on suggesting edits, additions, and caveats that should be added to a timeline the panelists had created, which marked the emergence and loss of support for individual artists over time. Toward the end of the session Ben Cameron asked the panelists: What’s the most important conversation for us to have that will determine what we should be doing ten years from now? They responded:

  • Ted: We should be talking about what’s happening to independent workers in general.  Artists are like the factory workers in Detroit.
  • Frances: We should be thinking about what makes good youth development
  • Holly: Inequality, climate and metrics.

As the session wound down, artist Magda Martinez attempted to synthesize what she had been listening to and said she wondered if there was a thread of equality (dividing up the pie in equal slices) versus equity (investing more in some so that they can achieve equality). She ended with a question that would echo throughout the day: How far are funders willing to go to disassemble structures to reflect how people make work today?

Part II: What is an “individual artist” and what do we mean by “support”?

A significant challenge facing the sector, and the topic of the second session of the day, was calculating current levels of support for individual artists. Alan Brown, Claudia Bach, and Tommer Peterson reported on an exploratory research project being undertaken by GIA, aimed at just that end. Tracing the funds flowing and trickling to artists from philanthropic sources is, without a doubt, fraught with challenges. Not only does much of the monetary and non-monetary support (tricky to capture and quantify) flow through intermediaries, including arts organizations and crowdfunding sites, but on a much more fundamental level it seems that this exercise is complicated by the fact that the field does not seem to have a shared conception of what is meant by “individual artists” or what counts as “support.” For example …

What criteria should be used to categorize a person or entity as an individual artist? Do artists working in collectives count? Do choreographers that had to incorporate as 501c3s to be eligible for grants count? Do commissions count as a form of support? Grants to artists that come from sources outside of Arts & Culture programs? Grants channeled through crowdfunding sites?

And as critical as these definitional and taxonomical concerns appeared to become as the conversation grew, they began to recede in the face a more systemic and perhaps fundamental issue raised: How much will funders really understand about support for artists if they are looking only at philanthropic support? As one funder put it, referencing the hub and spoke model mentioned earlier: We’re trying to create the wheel that will support the artists … but we’re only measuring one spoke of the wheel.

In introducing the session Alan Brown noted that although he and others working on the project thought that “counting money was the center of this research” what they found was that in order to do that work they first needed to understand the motivations, methods, and tools that funders were using. He also reported that there was a lot of energy around intermediaries (and some debate among funders around their value or role). My sense is that if Alan and other working on this project can begin to illuminate these methods, motivations, and tools (including the use and impact of intermediaries) that this would be quite valuable to the field.

An Unexamined Lunch

The second panel was on my mind as I made my way to lunch, which was provided by Jon Rubin of Conflict Kitchen. Jon Rubin is an art professor from Carnegie Mellon University and Conflict Kitchen is a restaurant in Pittsburgh that serves only ethnic foods from nations with which US is in conflict. Participants were fortunate to be given a taste of what this catalytic public art project is about and the opportunity to hear the principals talk about their work.

Ironically, Jon Rubin is an artist entrepreneur that does not need much philanthropic support. He mentioned that 80 percent of his support comes from those that buy the food that is served at Conflict Kitchen. He mentioned a couple grants, including one from the Heinz Foundation; however, I found out later that the grant from Heinz didn’t come from the Arts & Culture program. After experiencing this nontraditional (but highly impactful) art project I wondered how many arts funders in the room (a) would consider Jon Rubin to be an individual artists; or (2) would have a mechanism for supporting Conflict Kitchen.

I thought again of the spoke and wheel metaphor that had been used throughout the day and how much it relied on the idea of the artist at the center as “something to be supported” by the monies running from the periphery to the center through the spokes. As I listened to Jon Rubin a very different conceptual framework was coming to mind: the artist as a node on a network, whose value comes from being able to connect people across divides, who is by nature an entrepreneur, and who has found a way to earn money not only to support his own artistic practice but to employ and support others as well.

I expected that there would perhaps be some discussion of this project and how it illuminates exactly the points that many artists were making in the earlier sessions about how artists now have a very different relationship to making and financing their work, and even how we define such things as “artist” or “public art.” But the experience was not raised for discussion. Perhaps I was alone in feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance between the day’s discussion and the artistic experience of lunch?

Part 3: On having faith.

The rest of the day turned to looking to the future. We first heard from three funders with innovative programs aimed, it seemed to me, at supporting the whole artist. The first was Tony Grant who, with his wife started the Sustainable Arts Foundation to help artists and writers with families pursue creative careers. As Tony put it, “It’s one thing to be a starving artist; it’s not really acceptable to raise starving children. When creative people decide to settle down and raise a family, we want them to not give up their creativity.” The second was Carolyn Somers of the Joan Mitchell Foundation, an artist-endowed foundation, who discussed its very successful “Creating a Living Legacy” program (now being replicated in cities around the US) designed to help older artists organize and document their work. And the third was Ben Cameron who discussed the Doris Duke Charitable Trust’s Performing Artist Initiative aimed at providing support that will help artists get off the creation treadmill and buy themselves time to think. In addition to large cash grants the program (offered in partnership with Creative Capital) provides technical assistance and guidance to artists on the tax and financial implications of their awards and guides them through a process designed to help them make choices about such things as when to take their disbursements and how to prioritize their financial needs. This was an inspiring session in large part because all three programs appeared to be (1) designed in direct response to the needs of artists; and (2) exceedingly flexible in their implementation.

Finally, the day ended with four artists (Byron Au Yong, Ann Carlson, Andrew MacLean, and Ain Gordon) discussing support that was meaningful to them but also considering the future of support for individual artists. Panelists reflected on moments in their lives when sometimes rather small grants had made a difference in their career trajectories; however, they, and other artists in the audience, also described the ways that frames, eligibility requirements, formats, and questions posed in the grant seeking process frequently make it difficult for artists to present themselves authentically. This was a key topic that floated to the surface throughout the day.

I was particularly taken with a small exchange between Ain Gordon and Ann Carlson around the disparity between the real and imagined project (a disparity that inevitably confronts every artistic endeavor):

  • Ain: Is it possible to promote a culture in the application process of complicated truth telling in which artists could say, “I don’t have any idea how much it costs so why don’t you tell me how much you can give me.” Or “I can’t raise any money so why don’t you give me all of it.” How can we talk about un-viability as viable?
  • Ann: […] There is a fiction between how a project is imagined and written about. I’d be curious to hear everyone talk about that acknowledged disparity between the real and imagined project. And there’s no way to get away from that because we’re always imagining into the future.
  • Ain: Unless we weren’t asked to describe the project.

In the end I walked away from my first Support for Individual Artists pre-Conference event with three takeaways:

  1. We can learn a lot from talking directly to artists, watching them work, and allowing ourselves to see that they are more than the sum of their work, and that they are no longer living and making work as they did even ten years ago.
  2. Those that care about supporting individual artists may need to radically change their structures, processes, and the types of support if they want to continue to be beneficial.
  3. In this time of shifting sands, rather than trying to anticipate or steer, funders may do better to grant more faith to artists and follow them, rather than seeking to lead them, into the future.