The following is the final report from the Brooklyn Commune Project’s “Foundations, Funding and Philanthropy” research group, prepared by group coordinator Kimberly Bartosik.
In June 2013, on behalf of the Brooklyn Commune Project’s research group, “Philanthropy and Funding within the Performing Arts,” artist Dean Moss and I together interviewed three significant figures within the performing arts world: Moira Brennan, Map Fund Program Director; Dana Whitco, Founding Director of the Center for Creative Research and Associate Director of NYU Tisch’s Institute of Performing Arts; and Jennifer Wright Cook, Executive Director of The Field. I additionally interviewed Sam Miller, President of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and longtime, dedicated arts advocate.
What follows is my summary of what I learned from these conversations.
While we didn’t approach our interviewees with a concrete set of questions, the pressing question of “How can we get more money directly to independent artists?” drove our conversations. From that query, we tried to understand the dynamics of the current funding environment — along with its history from the culture wars to our present moment — from the perspective of funders and arts leaders. Not surprisingly, we uncovered and deconstructed many myths.
I also had a personal query about artists’ midlife career challenges. I kept wondering how we can prevent excellent, dedicated artists from falling through the cracks in a system structured to support emerging and established artists, with little thought given to the gulf in between. Is survival related primarily to the artists work or is it more a function of who they are, who they know?
We aren’t sure what all this means, but if we take the time to acknowledge what we’ve has worked and what has not, history can teach us a lot. As we move forward it seems crucial to maintain realistic expectations of what’s possible in our American culture as it is, and which changes appear so intractable as to require comprehensive systemic re-invention.
Perhaps the most important idea that surfaced from these rich conversations was the notion of resilience, on both sides—from those who ask and those who give. As artists, our responsiveness to our world is part of our job, and our ability to adapt without losing the core of our professional/personal mission is key to our survival. Likewise, those who support our work—by funding us, creating policy, advocating on our behalf, reminding the world that what we do is essential—must never be satisfied with what’s right in front of them.
We want our overall arts ecologyto be a healthier one, and through these conversations, we hope that some of the outstanding myths can be put to rest, allowing ideas around sustainability to become realities rather than remaining as utopian theory.
Fact vs. Fiction
There is painfully little sense of urgency in our culture towards the arts and arts funding. Social issues are dominant, and funders, boards, trustees—those in power and control of money—often fail to make the connection between vitality in the arts sector and a healthy, dynamic culture and overall economy.
“Ours is a young culture,” says Moira Brennan, and that might add to a general lack of understanding of the value of the arts. “All artists need to be activists”, she added. They need to assert their voice in the electoral process, especially in local politics. Artists need to have a better understanding of how philanthropy and funding systems work. The more that artists understand how money is allocated, the more they can put their energies into cultivating sources that are right for them.
And while the current funding environment offers significant support for a select group of performing artists (i.e. the recipients of the Doris Duke Performing Arts Award), it is a myth that this indicates a plethora of resources. Rather, most artists live a life of unstable precariousness, funding their lives and art through a patchwork system of short term work, low-paying arts administration or teaching jobs and small to mid size grants.
Very few arguments can be made against the fact that putting money directly into the hands of individual artists produces incredibly effective, palpable results, yet this is challenging for many reasons, including certain tax laws (discussed below) which make funding individuals much more difficult than organizations.
The prevalence over the last decade of grant programs with limited life spans (discussed later), combined with “fickle funder syndrome” – where trustees get restless and want to change program focus – also decreases the likelihood of supporting individual artists. Organizations, by virtue of their scale and infrastructure, are more likely to withstand the changes in a funding landscape that is always dependent on local and national economic forces, foundation trustees’ interests and cycles of changing interests in the culture at large.
The notion that funders don’t trust artists (as a backlash of the culture wars, for example) and therefore don’t want to fund them directly is largely a myth. The problems are systemic: our current system is designed to make accountability a priority and is devised to prioritize measurable impact over individual effect. It’s a lot easier to track the “success” — through charts and statistics — of a large organization than an individual artist. Our government needs proof, and proof can be found in quantitative rather than qualitative data.
This focus on accountability has been prevalent since the early 2000’s, when a series of articles in the press – including some published by The Boston Globe – suggested that some foundations were operating without public accountability, but gaining public benefit through tax exemption. At about the same time, the passage of The Sarbanes-Oxley Act (http://www.soxlaw.com/) fueled concern that even institutions already working within the guidelines of the law would somehow be under suspicion in the future.
Foundation accountability led to new reporting requirements, internal auditing of funding programs, etc. At some of the large and mid-sized Foundations, Program Officers have experienced increasing internal and external scrutiny. The expectation of accountability has frequently been passed to grantees.
While having 501c3 status can be valuable in many cases, many individual artists find the process burdensome and expensive. And though few individual artists will face this situation, 501c3 organizations must have an annual audit if they make over $100K/yr, adding further burden to the artists’ resources and limited capacity.
The mechanics of funding is really complicated – and will always be more complicated now than in the past and less complicated now than in the future.
Crucial turning points in the support of individual artists
Since the mid-1990s’ varying levels of focus have been placed on issues around individual artist sustainability. At NEFA, Sam Miller dealt directly with the impact of the culture wars and the implosion of the NEA by developing The NDP: National Dance Project. The NEA, along with dismantling its individual artists grants, had also stopped its support for partnerships in commissioning and touring, yet Miller understood that partnerships were essential when supporting the work of an artist who no longer had a company but was now working project to project. He also realized the importance of multi-year support and better functionality.
2004 marked a defining event: the American Assembly, a national meeting which highlighted the relationship between the performing arts and the academy. This watershed moment coincided with the shift from thinking about serving artists as a subset of institutions to serving individual artists. Needs of artists who were working outside of institutions were considered, including issues around sustainability, health care, retirement, education, debt issues, etc. These were all acknowledged as part of an artist’s life. The American Assembly marked the birth of the Creative Campus movement.
From The American Assembly, funders started looking at individuals and higher education as a space of opportunity. From this sprang the development of the
Center for Creative Research, an initiative of NEFA/NDP with Mellon support, and in partnership with Wesleyan University, Dartmouth College, University of Maryland and University of Minnesota. CCR offered opportunities for choreographers to engage in sustained and collaborative research activities. Questions driving the program included: how might artists and partner universities benefit from artists engaging in deeper relationships with institutions of higher education? What happens when artists engage in discourse, research and practice with engineers, scientists, literature scholars, etc. outside their field? It seemed possible to nurture artists’ long-term thinking within the walls of learning institutions. These founding partners became homes for investigation.
Twelve CCR artists were in residence for extended periods of time to build relationships that would inform the advancement of their work. However, securing funding to sustain CCR and broaden its impact to a larger group of artists proved challenging, and despite passionate, focused leadership, the program never emerged from the pilot phase. It is now in another pilot residency (undergoing some transformation) at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
CCR founder Dana Whitco said, point blank, “If we value transformation why not bring in the experts of transformation (artists!). It’s the job of an artist to be transformative. In an innovation economy why don’t we value transformation? There is no market value to transformation!”
Out of a national conversation parallel to that inspired by the American Assembly came ideas that informed the creation of LINC (Leveraging Investments in Creativity), a program purposefully designed to sunset after ten years which focused on insurance, housing, artist live-work spaces, and the creation of networks of cities called Creative Communities. LINC also inspired new support systems implemented by the intermediary organizations such as Meet the Composer, American Music Center, National Performance Network and others. US Artists also emerged as a force within that time period.
The Impact of Unstable Funding
Over the past decade, in an attempt to allocate money more directly and expediently, some funders have gravitated towards supporting temporary programs designed to last no longer than 10 years, LINC and the Doris Duke Performing Arts Awards among them. Designed to avoid the cumbersome administrative structures and rigorous staff oversight required for long-term, endowed programs, these temporary initiatives bring another set of challenges: How can artists develop a strategy for a sustainable career in an inherently unstable landscape?
The unreliability of funding impedes not only the artist’s sustainability but also their creative growth and ability to take risks. Jennifer Wright Cook considered risk explicitly when creating The Field’s 2013 report “to fail and fail big, a case study of mid-career artists, success and failure” (available for download at http://www.thefield.org/.)
Jennifer acknowledges that most individual artists start from zero every time. We squeeze projects into grant programs because funding is so limited. In “to fail and fail big” she learned that, if you have no stability, you can’t afford to take risks, and therefore failure — where there’s a possibility for deep learning and significant growth — isn’t even a choice. Thus the question of risk becomes one of privilege for those who have already been receiving support in significant ways.
Relationship Building and Transparency
Reflecting on the trends of the past decade and recent funding phenomena, the deeper problem these conversations reveal isn’t merely a lack of resources, but how – and by whom – they are allocated.
All artists know that the art they make plays only one part in whether or not they receive funding, commissions and career support. Just as in life, relationships are everything.
Dana Whitco wisely noted that philanthropy is a “relationship business,” and “whatever your role in the system, it matters how you relate to people. It’s important to say what you are doing, and to be engaged in ongoing conversation and dialogue.”
The question then, when it comes to funding, is how and with whom should artists be building relationships? If funding programs have limited lifespans by design, how can artists build up meaningful relationships with funders over time? And if funding organizations are not transparent about their priorities and panel participants, if presenters are increasingly inaccessible for even informational meetings, how can individual artists nurture these essential relationships?
The Doris Duke Performing Arts Award allocates $275,000 individual grants to 10 artists per year over a 10 year period and have been credited with ameliorating some of the issues around sustainability with their multi-level focus on supporting the life of an artist.
For grantees it’s life changing and sustaining, but because of the non-competitive nature of these grants — the fact that artists are nominated, and then those artists nominate the next cohort — many artists are experiencing a significant sense of invisibility. At least an open process creates the appearance that someone has actually read our grant proposal.
When we have a voice, we exist. When we don’t, we don’t even know if our name is on the table. So… who decides??
Even a cursory examination of the arts funding landscape reveals that there is a small cohort of curators, administrators and foundation program officers who influence policy and funding initiatives. The relationship structures are opaque though it is clear that there is a symbiotic relationship between aesthetic influencers and resource providers, thus curators and administrators may encourage a funder to support specific programs or artists.
This lack of transparency creates not only distrust but a sense of futility in many artists, as it creates the appearance that only a very few artists are supported, often repeatedly, while others are repeatedly turned down, or are never in contention to begin with.
And when those very few supported artists are also our friends and colleagues , the fact that they have been granted enormous power to impact – or not – other artists’ lives, creates a strange and unhealthy hierarchy in an already small community.
Not only does this create a pervasive sense of exclusion and inequity, there is the very real consequence that new, innovative and unexpected voices are being overlooked. Also, artists, like all people, mature at different times. Substantial support at crucial creative and career crossroads could mean the difference between a breakdown or a breakthrough.
Who are we missing by keeping these substantial grants within the nomination-based model and what is the long term cost to the health of the arts ecosystem when institutional opacity breeds a culture of distrust and futility?
The Promise & Problems of Crowdfunding
For better or worse, the promise of crowdfunding has changed the conversation in the arts funding world. While it offers the promise of more expedient access to resources and may allow artists to operate more effectively without 501c3’s or fiscal sponsors, it once again passes a significant burden of self-funding back to the artist.
Foundations, organizations and presenters are increasingly looking for artists to submit project budgets with significant income from artist-driven crowd funding campaigns. Thus artists are increasingly expected to subsidize the cost of their own work, even though they are, ostensibly, providing a service to the presenter.
Kickstarter was designed to help start projects, not fund them in their entirety, though this is generally not considered when funders and presenters return the burden of project funding to artists. While Kickstarter may help an artist raise more money from individual donors, the reality is that most artists’ peer networks are under-resourced to begin with and are not a reliable source of capital. Also, most arts projects are under-funded from the outset, budgets submitted to funders are inevitably below the actual cost and presenters frequently take a significant percentage of funds allocated to a project for administrative costs.
Certainly artists should avail themselves of any tools to help fund their projects, but it is disingenuous of funders and presenters to use this opportunity to pass even more of the costs of production back to artists. Artists may well be expected to become more entrepreneurial, but at one point does the attempt to monetize the arts – especially dance, which doesn’t have a marketable product – overwhelm the artistic component and become self-defeating?
Art is not a democracy: a few will shine, a few will linger and then leave, and many—the majority—will search for inspiring and creative ways of ensuring that their practice gets the support it needs. But the establishment of a healthier arts ecosytem, where more artists can aspire to long-term creative practice, seems essential.
What follows are some questions and recommendations based on our interviews:
For background on the Creative Campus, see:
The Creative Campus: The Training, Sustaining, and Presenting of the Performing Arts in American Higher Education: http://americanassembly.org/project/creative-campus-training-sustaining-and-presenting-performing-arts-american-higher-education
Creative Campus: a partnership of artists and higher learning institutions:
Thoughts on Art, Truth, and Higher Education
Creative Campus background reading:
The Creative Campus/American Assembly/Google Books: http://books.google.com/books?id=DO0KkYPlR2wC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false