Funding Individual Artists – some ideas

While it’s a great time to be an artist in so many ways, it remains difficult to raise money for making art, much less for sustaining a career as an artist. In fact, funds for support of artists have been drying up over the years. In film and new media, where I work, there are just a handful of places to turn if you aren’t making very commercial work or social issue documentaries – Creative Capital and Jerome being the most prominent. There are others like LEF in New England, and Sundance, which also offers support through labs and services, but not nearly enough support is out there for interesting artistic work. I’ve worked in artists support organizations for most of my career, so I think about this often, and lately I’ve been dreaming up a few things I’d love to see. Here’s my wish list for new types of grants for artists (particularly media artists) that I’d love to see, in no particular order:

  1. More money to those supported – the more money vs. more people supported debate always rages on, but to my mind, that’s just because grant givers haven’t been able to truly keep up with inflation and use the more people argument as an excuse. Minimum grants should increase, and I’d love to see more funds giving greater than $50,000 USD per grant.
  2. General Operating Support for artists – Every nonprofit complains about wanting more general operating support and less funding tied to specific projects. This should be true for artist grants as well – fund artists for their career success and/or potential, not just their proposed project. Underwrite their living expenses for a year. Here’s a good place to start:
  3. Give the same amount you pay in salaries to the same number of artists. Have an ED/CEO making the big bucks? Give that same amount to one artist per year, to support whatever they want to do that year. Hell, add on what it would cost for insurance and benefits as well. Then pay as many artists as you have staff the same average yearly amount. This would bring some needed transparency to the process, and would actually be a great concept for fundraising.
  4. Commit to diversity, in all ways – racial/ethnic/sexual orientation/geographic/artistic practice, etc. Not that these are all equal, but you know what I mean. Sure, everyone says they do this, but not enough grants shake out this way. Don’t have enough applicants or nominees? That’s your fault, do better outreach. I could find 15 lesbian, African-American artists making cutting edge art or film in Georgia alone, but I’m not seeing that many of them on grant rolls, festival screening lists, in galleries or other artistic venues. I think this is an organizational failure – of improper scouting, not enough use of good nominators (not at the expense of open-calls), not enough outreach and an accrued liability where many people don’t feel they fit into established grant maker’s giving histories and thus don’t bother to apply (this last one is especially true for the lack of diversity on the film fest circuit).
  5. Increase support for established artists. Everyone loves emerging artists, and I’m not saying anyone should cut back support for them, but I know way too many “successful” artists over 40 who have won nearly every award and who can no longer get grants, but they still struggle to pay their bills and make their art.
  6. Portfolio Training – I’ve been on numerous grant panels, and you’d be shocked at the difference in the presentation skills of various artists. You can tell which ones went to schools that teach how to present their portfolio and those who didn’t, and it severely impacts how their work is received. Multiple grant organizations should conduct regional training workshops on how to apply for grants and how to present a portfolio. They should also agree on a common application form (this is in the works in many places), and every grant giver should be required to have a sample, successful application available on their website.
  7. Use the Crowd: I’ve seen numerous proposals for this, with this one being my favorite, but to my knowledge almost no one has embraced the crowd in their grant giving. You know, because their program staff are such experts (ahem) that they don’t need any help. There should be a fund available only to people who have completed a successful Kickstarter (or similar) campaign. There should be funds where the majority of applicants come from crowd-sourced nominations. There should be grants that come with a guaranteed minimum and a match for up to X amount of dollars raised from the crowd. And support for the campaign as well. There should be much more experimentation with participatory grant giving. Not to the detriment of other giving, but come on – Kickstarter is six years old now, and we’ve had no new funding mechanism invented since that time. That’s leadership for you…
  8. My personal bias here – there should be a fund to support media about art and artists. Almost no funding exists if you are making a documentary about art. We need more films showing great art and artists, and these works rarely get support. This should cover all disciplines and practices, and it should not just be film, but also new media.
  9. Travel grants – Fund artists to travel around the world. Not just to attend some conference, lab or retreat, but just to travel the world, live, think and perhaps make art as a result.
  10. Shake-up the decision-making process – Almost every grant program has a panel process. But panels don’t always pick the best art, they pick the art everyone can agree on (this is also true of festival juries). I’d love to see a different process, perhaps where each panelist can pick one artist they want to see supported whether or not anyone else agrees, and then the rest are decided by the committee. Let the panelists, especially the artists on the panel, take some risks and support some artists that not everyone can agree upon.
  11. More funds for exhibition, promotion, marketing and audience development. All of this work is falling to the artists themselves now, so let’s fund it separately from the funds given for production. Let’s have grants that go towards hiring a publicist, mounting an exhibit in Manhattan, touring a work or marketing a film.
  12. More funds promoting collaboration. Let’s recreate the Bell Labs without Bell. Let’s fund more artists to collaborate with scientists, with start-ups, with other artists in other disciplines.

That’s just twelve quick ideas. I could give twelve more, but let’s face it – what we really need are more funds for artists, no matter what the idea. Perhaps what we need most of all is a fund to promote the idea of giving more direct support for individual artists. Maybe we should fund a marketing campaign geared towards convincing more of these new dot-com millionaires to support artists.

note: I can’t seem to get the wordpress editor to number the last ones 10-11-12, so sorry for the weird numbering

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