Ruby Lerner In Conversation with Cara Ober of Bmoreart

Ruby Lerner

Ruby Lerner

Creative Capital’s President and Founding Director Ruby Lerner spoke with Cara Ober, Editor in Chief at Bmoreart, last month. Find the original post published on January 29, 2014, here.
While most Baltimore artists are now familiar with The Rubys, the new artist grants designed to “support the region’s gems” with up to ten thousand dollars per project, few are aware of the origins of the grant’s name, or that they have a namesake. Although GBCA could have chosen any number of precious gems with which to christen these grants, the Rubys were decisively named for a champion in contemporary arts funding: Ruby Lerner, the President and Founding Director of Creative Capital.
The organization was founded in 1999 by the Warhol Foundation and is based in New York. Since its inception, with Ruby Lerner at the helm, Creative Capital has awarded $29 million in funding and advisory services to 530 artists and has brought professional development workshops to thousands more. The organization was launched as a response to the National Endowment for the Arts’ termination of a majority of its individual artist grants. As a result, the organization was determined to guarantee artistic freedom to its grantees, and to “support the latest thinking in the field” so that young and cutting edge projects, many which have problems receiving initial startup funding from other sources, can be realized. The organization funds diverse practices, from film to dance to visual art, as long as the projects are deemed exceptional and push cultural and aesthetic boundaries.
You will notice that even the organization’s name, Creative Capital, rings differently than other philanthropic arts organizations. Unlike most grants, which hand the artist a check and a pat on the back, Creative Capital structures their investment in artists the way venture capitalists do in the business world. The organization builds long-term relationships with artists and projects, provides staggered funding at strategic benchmarks in a project’s trajectory, and surrounds awardees with other types of resources, counsel and advisory services.
As CC grew and evolved, it became clear to Lerner that artists needed financial and professional education to become more self sufficient and productive. Creative Capital was one of the first organizations to offer professional development to artists, launching aProfessional Development Program in 2003 to share the tools and strategies they developed for their awardees with a wider community of artists. According to the CC website, the organization “has since become the leader in professional development for artists and the only national organization that has made a long-term commitment to artists’ professional development.”
This forward-thinking, artist-centric policy did not develop by accident. Ruby Lerner was hand-picked to develop and run this constantly evolving organization after a career in performing arts and independent media, where she served as Executive Director of the Association of Independent Film and Videomakers (AIVF), Publisher of Independent Film and Video Monthly, Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, a coalition of Southeastern performing artists, and IMAGE Film/Video Center, both based in Atlanta. Earlier in her career, Lerner was the Audience Development Director at the Manhattan Theatre Club, now one of New York’s foremost nonprofit theaters.
At the onset of The Rubys first granting cycle deadline (on February 2 for media, and performing arts), Ruby Lerner came to Baltimore to visit with the GBCA, to walk around Station North in the cold, and to have conversations with those planning Ruby-inspired grants for Baltimore artists. After lunch at the Chesapeake, Lerner agreed to sit down and discuss her contagious enthusiasm for The Rubys ( “I can’t believe there are artist grants named for ME!!”), the importance of funding individual artists, and her own experience in this rapidly developing field.
Cara Ober: First of all, can you explain why it is important to fund individual artists and not just arts organizations?
Ruby Lerner: The exciting, generative ideas always come from artists. Organizations are just vehicles for the ideas, and we need those organizations to be strong, too – because, if they’re not strong, there’s no place for the work to go.
Historically, most of the financial support for the arts has gone to major institutions, usually from cities and larger private foundations and wealthy individuals all helping those organizations to succeed. But philanthropy for many years didn’t go further. There has always been some support for mid-tier and younger organizations, but few communities funded individual artists. It has always been assumed that there was a trickle down effect for artists, but we know now that it isn’t 100% true. This kind of funding is not enough to vitalize a whole community of artists.
If you think about cultural changes more generally, if you think about the tech community and social entrepreneurship, it’s the young people with great, world-changing ideas that are the drivers. And in a way it’s always been this way in the art world.
CO: Can you talk a bit more about Creative Capital’s revolutionary approach to funding individual artists?
RL: We think of the art community as ‘startups’ for the cultural arena. That’s how we have thought about it from the beginning. People in the cultural community deserve financial support and training, parallel to other sectors – they are drivers in the community. (Ruby looks around and gestures to Baltimore’s Station North Arts District.) We are currently sitting in a part of town driven by artists and the arts. Look at what’s happening in this town: we are in an economic center in the City of Baltimore and it is all culturally driven. This is not inconsequential.
CO: The name Creative Capital suggests a business model of investing rather than philanthropy. Can you explain the difference between gifting and investing, and how this is interpreted by your organization?
RL: We are a very traditional 501(c)3. What we give to artists is a donation, but our philosophy is about investment in the talent of a person. We have several venture capitalists on our board, and many of them will say that they believe CC is in the same business: to nurture talent and encourage people with world changing ideas. Venture capitalists have a different bottom line than we do, of course, but in terms of the activity of supporting people who have talent, it’s the same.
CO: So, what could be read as a semantic difference actually indicates a huge philosophical difference?
RL: It’s a huge difference in philosophy, but operationally, too. When I was asked to come and invent this thing and I didn’t know anything about venture capitalism, I looked at the basic ways an investor works with a young business. What I thought was, ‘This is so logical! Why haven’t we been doing this for the past twenty-five years rather than thinking it was weird and creepy?’
In the art world, someone gets a check and a year later they’re expected to have changed the world. In venture capitalism, they’re expected to work with you for about seven years, because it takes time to actually build something. They know that you’re going to be giving different pools of money for different purposes throughout the life of a project, that they’re not going to give a huge check and have it disappear overnight. They’ll give you a small amount of money, and give you money along the way as benchmarks are being met.
Venture capitalists also understand that certain people have great ideas, but can’t balance a checkbook or that they don’t have the technology to support their idea, so they’re going to surround the person with people who can realize their idea with all the possible external resources to make it a success and also build the internal capacity of the business. Then, they expect a financial return when the business is a success.
After this research, it was so clear that we could develop a methodology and translate it into something that would work in the cultural arena. The idea (I didn’t name it – Arch Gillies, the former President of the Andy Warhol Foundation, came up with it at the time) that artistsare the creative capital, or part of it, of the country – is an important idea and so we use capital in creative ways to support them.
CO: What was your background before coming to Creative Capital? How did you end up here? I heard that you started out in Baltimore at Goucher College!
RL: That’s right. I went to Goucher College and got a degree in comparative religion. I fell in love with Baltimore when I was a student and it was pretty raunchy back then! There was a little shuttle that would go to Hopkins and MICA and I took this crazy poetry class with Joe Carterelli at MICA. It was absolutely brilliant and wonderful. I have been grateful for the experience I had at Goucher and I credit a number of things I have been able to accomplish to my education there. It’s a wonderful school.
CO: From there, where did you go? Sorry if it seems I am asking for your life story, but I am curious, how did you get from point A to B?
RL: It’s a crazy story. When I got hired at CC, I met with a board member who said he was embarrassed because he didn’t know my history… and I recited it… and afterwards I realized that this job – this Creative Capital job – is the only one that would make my crazy career make any sense!
After Goucher, I went to library school for three weeks at UNC, but ended up going to graduate school for theater. I worked for a couple of years in a wonderful, revolutionary program where the NC State Arts Council and community colleges worked together to place artists in community colleges throughout the state. Now everyone’s talking about community colleges, but back then no one was. Terry Sanford, the North Carolina Governor, said no one should every have to drive more than twenty minutes to go to college and had colleges located in all different areas – many were rural, all over the state. This program was transformative and the way most people – real people – will be educated in the future. I worked there for two years.
After that, I was like, “I’ve seen the trees and they are beautiful – get me to some subtitles!” So I moved to New York for my first tour of duty in 1976. I worked at the Manhattan Theater Club, an emerging, off-Broadway theater, and I got there at an amazing moment. It was an extraordinary experience to be at a theater with such a high level of integrity and very diverse programming. It had a writers and performance series, a cabaret, and was a very dynamic environment . We worked with a number of national and regional theater companies, and that is how I got to know Alternate ROOTS, a coalition of Southeastern performing artists. Later on, they were looking for a new director and I was homesick for the South – so I applied for the job and I got it. I spent four years in NY then four years there and these jobs really taught me most of the things that have worked their way into Creative Capital.
After that, I consulted for a few years, but I didn’t really like that because I’d work with organizations and check in months later to see where the plan was and nobody was making changes. It seemed like a waste of time.
Then, a local media center in Atlanta needed a director, so I applied and got it. I didn’t really know much about media, especially independent films, but everyone who worked there had masters degrees in film and they were looking for someone who knew how to run an organization. After that, I ended up on a national board for national media centers. They asked me to apply to direct the National Organization for Independent Media Centers, a 5000 member organization for independent film and video, so I did that for seven years in Atlanta. Out of that, I developed a great relationship with the Warhol Foundation.
So when Arch Gillies was looking to start this new thing he called me up and said, ‘I want to do this thing but I’m not going to do it unless I have the right person to run it.’ And I was speechless, but I said I was interested. We had lunch and that was it. I had been in the job six or seven months and he said he should probably have a resume on file, so I made one up for him. And, that’s the crazy trajectory of my career.
CO: It’s pretty amazing and staggering. Thank you for sharing that… I think many arts administrators assume there’s a linear trajectory to a career, but your experience proves the contrary. It seems like your professional flexibility has helped you to make Creative Capital nimble and responsive to artists’ changing needs. I am curious – since taking the job at Creative Capital in 1999, how has the organization grown and changed?
RL: In the beginning, it was just me and a few staff. We said we are not going to do feasibility studies and write position papers, we’re just going to make mistakes and do stuff. We’re going to act and we’re going to do it fast.
By March we opened for submissions. By August, before the first year ended, we had made a ridiculous number of grants… seventy-something, in all different amounts and all artistic disciplines except literature because we added that later… That was  insane, I don’t know what we were thinking, but that was the beginning and we began putting the accompanying programs in place. We have learned something new every day.
CO: So you just jumped in and hit the ground running?
RL: My favorite story is that, early in the life of the organization, one day something wasn’t working and we were trying to figure it out. Sean Elwood, the Artist Services Director, left the room and came back a few minutes later. I said, ‘What’s the matter?’ He said, ‘All I did was go to the bathroom and now we’re a whole new organization!’ (laughter) I love that because that is the spirit of the organization.
When we got to our tenth year, I woke up and thought: something’s wrong. We weren’t flexible like that any more, so we began to reevaluate all our programming. Technology had changed everything; when we launched no one knew how the Internet would change everything. We realized that if we were still going to be as useful and helpful as we wanted to be, we would have to dig in a bit more, to be more tailored, more individualized, and give people even more help. We stepped back and looked at our own internal structure.


The conversation with Ruby Lerner and Bmoreart will continue with a frank conversation about artists and money—stay tuned.

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