New arts grantmaking ideas in action

Here’s the traditional path for artists to get funding: A public entity or private foundation puts out a grant application. Artists or arts organizations fill out the application with statements about and examples of their work. The grantmaker evaluates all of the applications, and then makes an announcement about which artists or organizations will receive funding.

The trouble is that this process isn’t necessarily transparent or accessible for everyone. Artists, nonprofits, and grantmakers themselves are saying louder and louder that the classic system tends to lead to the same people always getting funded, while for others, funding remains out of reach. And those who get shut out are often people of color, people from low-income communities, immigrants, non-native English speakers, and others for whom the application process is daunting, or who have assets and talents that aren’t recognized by typical grantmaking.

Increasingly, organizations are trying new approaches that give grantees more autonomy and decision-making influence. Rather than set out specific rules for what should be funded and how the money should be used, rather than make potential grantees prove their worth via rigorous applications, funders are using grants to empower artists to invest in their own communities.

Oyate Hotanin / The Unholy Tour, by artist Tom LeBlanc. Photo by Mary Richardson.
Oyate Hotanin / The Unholy Tour, by artist Tom LeBlanc. Photo by Mary Richardson.

In Minneapolis, the organizers of a project called “Homeland: Native Artists Create on the Ave” chose an alternative method of funding out of a desire to build community, instead of pitting artists against each other. The project gathered a group of artists to create public, interactive work along the American Indian Cultural Corridor on Minneapolis’ Franklin Avenue.

Homeland was a partnership between Springboard for the Arts and the Native American Community Development Institute (NACDI), with funding from Rosemary and David Good. The Goods were open to new approaches in distributing funds to artists, says Jun-Li Wang, artist community organizer at Springboard for the Arts. That flexibility meant that NACDI could lead the way, guiding the project based on their firsthand experience with Native artists.

It was with NACDI’s input that the project’s leaders decided to pursue a collective, artist-led grantmaking process. The organization’s staff felt that a competitive grant would be wrong for the Native community at that time, Wang explains.

NACDI and Springboard invited Native artists to attend open meetings on creative placemaking, and to share their ideas for potential projects. The organizers reached out not only to artists who had MFAs or who had been funded in the past, but also to people who didn’t call themselves artists but made things in their spare time, or who created art for cultural reasons that hadn’t been valued by the mainstream. Once they had heard each participant’s project idea, they asked the artists themselves to decide how they wanted to allocate the grant money. And the artists responded by splitting the pool of money among the whole group, voluntarily shifting funds around so that everyone would be able to make their project happen.

“It was amazing because everybody said, ‘All of the projects are great. We want to do all of them,’” says Taylor Payer, NACDI’s director of arts and cultural engagement. “There was this profound sense of trust.”

As the Homeland project was coming together, Payer realized that the artists’ public project ideas would require heavy foot traffic and interaction. She suggested planning the projects to culminate at Open Streets on Franklin Avenue, one of a series of annual events in which streets are shut down and filled with activity to promote bike and pedestrian safety.

On the day of Open Streets, Homeland’s artists invited passersby to participate in their projects: Artist Melissa Olson created a temporary bike lane and invited kids to paint bike panniers to raise awareness of safety for all bikers, including low-income people or Native elders who rely on their bikes to get around. Another artist, Rory Wakemup, designed Star Wars-themed powwow regalia that participants could help sew, learning about powwow customs up close. New Native Theatre performed a play about the concept of home, making use of an amphitheater at the American Indian Cultural Center that had previously been neglected.

“And since then, [the amphitheater] has been used,” Payer says. “That’s the definition of creative placemaking.”

New Native Theatre, by artist Riana Yazzie. Photo by Mary Richardson.
New Native Theatre, by artist Rhiana Yazzie. Photo by Mary Richardson.

Ultimately, every artist but one who had attended the initial information session led or contributed to a final project.

“I think in many cases, organizations or businesses worry that the wrong decision will be made, and something will go wrong or be bad,” says Wang. “This is where you have to have faith in the people that you’re working with — and of course you have to develop relationships and find partners who have the same values as you, or some of the same values and interests — but then it’s just trusting.”

That commitment to trust is made explicit in the “trust-based investment” model of grantmaking developed by The Whitman Institute, a foundation based in San Francisco. The Institute’s funding goals include giving to organizations that advance social, political, and economic equity. Trust-based investment was put into action to ensure that the Institute lives up to its principles: For funding to be equitably granted to a variety of organizations and communities, the grantmaking process must be made transparent and accessible to all, with real relationships built.

Among The Whitman Institute’s key practices of trust-based investment: “partner in a spirit of service,” “simplify and streamline paperwork,” and “support beyond the check.”

That idea of “support beyond the check” is central to the mission of People’s Liberty in Cincinnati, another grantmaker pursuing alternatives to traditional funding. People’s Liberty is a project of the Haile/US Bank Foundation, born of the foundation’s desire to have more visibility and direct connection with the community — to get out of their “eleventh floor of a nondescript office building,” as People’s Liberty CEO Eric Avner puts it — and to experiment with philanthropy focused on individuals.

The organization is designed to “invest in place by investing in people,” Avner says. The goal of its five-year lifespan is to build a network of individuals who have experience in community work and are actively engaged in Cincinnati.

People’s Liberty offers three levels of grantmaking: $10,000 project grants; $15,000 grants given to individuals to create installations in the People’s Liberty space; and $100,000 given to two people each year for “civic sabbaticals,” a year off from their usual work to focus on a passion project. Recipients are selected not by the parent foundation, but by a panel of community judges. People’s Liberty also maintains a physical presence in the community with a space that’s available to grantees 24 hours a day for meetings, film screenings, training sessions, and more.

Grants are not given exclusively to artists, but the focus on placemaking means that many of the projects do involve public installations or performances. Past projects include a piece of original music exploring the urban Appalachian experience; a print magazine highlighting creative restoration of historic buildings; and a free public festival called “Black Dance Is Beautiful.”

People’s Liberty’s key difference is that they make grants directly to people instead of to nonprofits — a workaround that actually required significant legal wrangling with the IRS, Avner explains. He also says that People’s Liberty would be happy to share their IRS letter, as well as other relevant information, with foundations looking to replicate their approach.

“We think it’s going to be an interesting model that’s going to change the way that people interact with foundations and the way that foundations interact with communities,” Avner says.

Alter Ego Project, by artist Rory Wakemup. Photo by Mary Richardson.
Alter Ego Project, by artist Rory Wakemup. Photo by Mary Richardson.

Both People’s Liberty and the leaders of the Homeland project are excited to keep experimenting and sharing their people-focused approaches to grantmaking. Among their advice for organizations hoping to try similar models:

Cater to the community you’re working in.
In gathering Native artists for the Homeland project, Springboard for the Arts deferred to NACDI’s staff on how to make Native artists feel welcome. Thanks to that guidance, they brought in an elder to bless the space before meeting with the artists, and made time to break bread as a group. They also made sure the food was catered by a Native-owned company, The Sioux Chef.

“That set a precedent of everyone coming into the space and feeling welcome and energized,” says Taylor Payer.

Offer services and support to make sure grantees can achieve their goals.
Besides the grants they give, People’s Liberty’s hires a rotating group of residents just starting their careers as graphic designers, photographers, videographers, and more. They earn on-the-job experience while providing their services to help grantees set up websites, create posters, and otherwise brand and publicize their projects. In fact, recipients of project grants go through a “launch day” of receiving design and storytelling support for their projects, after which they receive their grant checks.

“They can launch literally the next day, and they don’t have to worry about, oh my gosh, I have to think about how I can even get started,” Eric Avner says. “We essentially push them to get started.”

Consider alternatives to written applications.
Though Springboard had a project proposal form that they customized with NACDI’s help for the Homeland project, the participants were also able to share their ideas verbally to the group. The process was much simpler than a traditional grant proposal, making it more accessible to the artists who had never applied for grants before.

“For the artists who are involved in always applying for grants, this was a sigh of relief,” Payer explains, “and for the artists that had never done it before, it inspired them to look for other ways to fund future projects and not be intimidated.”

Be ready for surprises.
Allowing grant applicants to have more flexibility and autonomy means being willing to set aside expectations and stay open to the unexpected. For Eric Avner of People’s Liberty, that has meant being surprised by success stories like “Plop!,” Amy Scarpello and Abby Cornelius’ project in which giant 15-foot beanbags were installed in public places; or “Spaced Invaders,” Giacomo Ciminello’s oversized version of the Space Invaders arcade game, projected on buildings in vacant lots for interactive play.

With Homeland, the willingness to let NACDI and the Native artists lead made for an unexpected win: While the American Indian Cultural Corridor had been perceived as a “dead zone” during the previous year’s Open Streets on Franklin Avenue, NACDI heard feedback that it was the liveliest and most memorable part of the 2016 event, thanks to the Homeland artists.

“If you’re open to anything,” says Jun-Li Wang, “if you invite people to do whatever they dream about doing, you’re going to get something amazing.”