Supporting Excellence in the Arts – Lessons from GIA 2013

To this newcomer, the 2013 Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Philadelphia was a whirlwind tour through dozens of ideas and themes that have currency among arts funders, from creative placemaking to creativity and aging, from combatting racism in our own practice to ensuring all students receive a robust arts education. A few days after the final breakfast, I’ve achieved some distance from the details, and from that vantage, I want to reflect on a fundamental question that cropped up in various plenary presentations, breakout sessions, and side conversations throughout the conference: How can we as grantmakers most effectively support excellence in the arts? The question has special resonance for me as I step into a new role as Executive Director of the Whiting Foundation, which gives to individual writers.

A Voice from the Other Side of the Grant

Two remarkable artists gave plenary talks that not only moved and inspired everyone I spoke to in the audience but also demonstrated the speakers’ facility with the written and spoken word. Each is the kind of artist any of us would be proud to have supported, the kind we have in mind when we think about artistic excellence. And, in the course of retelling her own development as a writer, each offered important lessons for how to think about grant program design.

Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes, author of Water by the Spoonful and In the Heights, grew up “in the barrio” in Philadelphia; among her family, she was “the one who got out,” though not the only artist: a cousin was inspired by her success to write his first novel from prison. He has just finished his third. That inspiring success was enabled – or at least facilitated – by three critical grants, one received when Hudes was a sophomore at Yale, one when she was a graduate student in playwriting at Brown, and one when she had achieved enough commercial success with In the Heights to face the hard choice between signing up to write for the screen and re-devoting herself to less remunerative but more personal writing. In each case, as she put it, it was the length (one to two years), quantity (enough to allow her to quit the jobs she held to pay the rent), and quality (no strings attached) of the grant that made it transformative. At least in this case, it seems that the best thing a grantmaker could do was spot a potential talent, give her the gift of time, and get out of her way.

These grants worked differently from each other in an important way, it seems to me. The first freed a young artist who had thrown herself into theater at college from the need to work over a summer, offering what may have been her first chance to get lost in a single project; the second gave force to the eternal promise of the MFA as an uninterrupted opportunity to focus on craft, to experiment, and to produce. Both awards encouraged an early-career artist in important ways: they were bellows to a spark that, for all anyone could know in advance, might have sputtered out rather than catching.

The third grant, by contrast, emboldened an artist in full command of her powers to turn down a lucrative screenwriting gig – “my agent fumed,” Hudes gleefully recalled – to pursue a project with much less commercial promise that she couldn’t quite get out of her head. The result was the Pulitzer-winning Water by the Spoonful, the second play in what is now a trilogy. This third grant was a different kind of gamble: by this point, we could be pretty sure Hudes was going to make something wonderful (television and film are both vibrant media, after all), but the grantmaker presumably believed she would make something more wonderful without financial pressure.

It’s hard to know what might have happened without any one – or even all three – of these philanthropic interventions. Hudes clearly has immense inner resources to complement her immense talent: she had made it to Yale before the first of the grants she mentioned, and from the lectern she conveyed such mastery and conviction that it was hard to imagine her not creating art and amazing audiences. If cultural philanthropy did not exist, perhaps Hudes would have made the time and mental space to make equally acclaimed work. Or perhaps she would have followed so many of her classmates into business or medicine or law and put her art on hold, for a few years or a lifetime. Ultimately, we can only celebrate what did happen, and take Hudes seriously when she says that the support she received – long-term, sufficient, and unqualified – was crucial for her.

Considering How We Give

We can also think hard about what Hudes’s example tells us about how we select grantees. Of course we do our best to assess talent, but is there a way to know in advance who has the grit to persevere in a life dedicated to art, which can be hard even with grant support? Is there a way to identify the established artist who has a new, brilliant idea that won’t attract commercial support, that she can only pursue with philanthropic dollars? How can we nurture the excellent art that otherwise might not happen?

Expertise and judgment must be the answer, and, thanks to IRS rules, it is almost always the expertise and judgment of panels that determine which individual artists and arts organizations receive grants. I moderated what seemed to be one of the more tactical of the breakout sessions, in which Ian David Moss of Fractured Atlas and Createquity and Ed Harsh of New Music USA presented on ways of “Rethinking the Grant Panel.” Diane Ragsdale has an excellent summary of the presentations in her final post from the conference, so I will only say here that there seemed to be a hunger to discuss the specific changes that some funders are making to their panels. Some of the questions that we could only touch on (or didn’t even have time to) in the one-hour session include:

  • How can we use technology effectively to expand grant panels to fairly evaluate the work of a growing number of artists?
  • What kinds of expertise are most important on grant panels? Should a jazz pianist’s proposal be evaluated only by other jazz pianists?
  • At what stage and by whom should different criteria (artistic excellence, project potential, financial sustainability, etc.) be evaluated?
  • How can we balance the advantages of a model that requires consensus among judges (e.g., fairness, direct comparison of applicants) with the advantages of a model that gives weight to the passionate advocacy judges may feel for an especially strong applicant?
  • What should be the role of deliberation, face-to-face or otherwise, in selecting grantees?
  • From a technical perspective, should we account for “easy” and “hard” graders among panelists?
  • Who wins and who loses when we adopt new techniques like dispersed panels or applications that emphasize public presentation through a website?
  • What promising innovations is no one trying yet?

We plan to continue the conversation about these and other questions; leave a comment if you’d like to be a part of it.

We actually know surprisingly little about how private arts funders give to individual artists. Grantmakers in the Arts publishes an annual report on the state of giving to arts organizations that, despite the imperfections of the data, is an excellent guide to the field. GIA is now a year into a similar project covering giving to individuals, which was the subject of a breakout session at the conference and a plenary discussion at the “Support for Individual Artists” preconference. GIA’s Tommer Peterson (the quiet heart of the conference) is leading work with Alan Brown and Claudia Bach to catalogue the various ways funders can support individual artists, from outright cash grants made directly to artists to the provision of a variety of in-kind services through a financial intermediary. Once a taxonomy is established by March 2014, the real work will begin, as data is collected from pilot sites to test the system before GIA establishes a national database. Within a few years, we may learn much more about the tools available to us as funders and how those tools are currently being used. In the meantime, GIA has collected articles on the topic and provides updates on what they’ve learned so far on their website.

Who Will Support the Sensitive Child?

And, of course, we can continue to learn from artists what makes the difference to them. I want to close by returning to the second artist who gave a plenary talk at this year’s conference, National Book Award-winning poet Nikky Finney. Finney opened with a quote from Willa Cather: “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.” She spoke movingly about growing up as a “sensitive child” and the editorial attention of a high-school English teacher who helped her realize that her intense experience of the world was something to be treasured, mastered, and recorded. (Hudes spoke of similar attention, from a local street musician who give her a crucial cassette and an unforgiving Russian piano teacher.) Toward the end Finney posed a question that was also an exhortation (roughly transcribed): “Who looks for and seeks the sensitive child before she needs money to make her art? Call out her name to let her know she has been loved and cherished. Make her know that what she has witnessed – whatever it has been – greatly matters in this world.”

For those of us with our heads fully in the technical construction of grant panels by that final breakfast, Finney was, as she said artists must, “saying the hard thing beautifully.” This was a plea to consider the stage when an intervention – philanthropic or otherwise – can make the most difference in fostering excellent art: the stage when a child is learning how to confront and express the creative impulse within her, is accumulating unbeknownst to her the resources and materials that will fuel her art for years, and is making the choices that will one day turn her into a professional poet.

There is a clear message here for those who grant in arts education, but there is also an important lesson for those of us who support adult artists. It matters that we give; it matters to whom we give; and it also matters when in their development as artists we give. There is something special about support that comes early enough to turn the sensitive child into an artist – or that, later, comes at a moment when the artist must choose between art and another of life’s demands. As we strive to improve our grantmaking, how can we more effectively intervene with the right person at the right moment to make possible the commitment to a potential masterpiece – or to a lifetime of creating excellent art?