Ruby Lerner Discusses Arts Funding on Barry’s Blog
Creative Capital’s President & Executive Director Ruby Lerner was recently interviewed by Barry Hessenius of Barry’s Blog about arts funding in the U.S. Barry’s Blog is a service of the Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF). You can find the original article here.
Barry: Creative Capital was launched in response to the NEA’s movement away from individual artist support as a result of the culture wars of the 1990’s. Why hasn’t the Endowment reinstated its artist support and what would you like to see them do now?
Ruby: I think you would have to ask the NEA that question. I suspect it is because it was the individual artists’ grants that got them into “trouble,” and certainly things now are even more polarized, so I don’t think we will see any movement toward reinstating awards to individuals. This is really tragic, as they not only provided substantial financial support annually to working artists, which has not been replaced by the private sector, but they took a leadership role in articulating the issues. There is no private funder that has the authority or standing to do that. In the absence of direct financial support, they can certainly make a commitment to the infrastructure of organizations that directly support artists. This would include service organizations at the national, state and local level, and that tier of presenting and exhibiting organizations that stay very close to artists, especially to their local artists. They exist in many mid-sized and larger communities.
Barry: In the past five years, there has been a marked upshift in concern for the challenges facing America’s artists with more organizations (like the Center for Cultural Innovation) centering on artist support, more commentators raising the issues of individual artists (like Diane Ragsdale’s Jumper blog) and from foundations across the country. Indeed the issue of how best to support individual artists is now a centerpiece of most gatherings. So perhaps we have come a long way from when you were a beacon in the desert as it were. But have we actually come very far? What is you assessment of the overall response by the nonprofit arts community to the needs of individual artists?
Ruby: Well, of course, it is great to see the increased discourse around issues facing artists. There was precious little conversation when we launched in 1999. And, of course, great to see new programs popping up here and there. So, all good. But I would say that what I feel Creative Capital has taught me is that a kind of piecemeal approach is just less effective. A new grant program here, a new professional development program there. At the end of the day, what is it all adding up to—locally or nationally? I heard the architect William McDonough speak many years ago and he said that there is a big difference between mere “activity” and “legacy.” I think about that almost every day. At CC, I hope we are striving for legacy!!! I am not interested in just doing cool stuff.
Barry: What, in your mind, are the major challenges facing individual artists and how can we best address those challenges? If you had to pick one singular challenge that is most important (other than financial support), what would it be?
Ruby: It might be their expectations. Very few artists ever have, or ever will, make a living solely from their artistic work, and yet the mythology persists. This is not to say it is impossible, but it is unlikely. Some artists love teaching, some work in the nonprofit realm, others find work in the commercial arena that pays very well. I often say to students, find something else you love to do as much as you love your artmaking, since it is pretty unlikely your art practice alone will support you. I don’t see this as a sad thing at all. How exciting, really, to have the incredible skill set that artists are trained in available to other sectors?
Barry: The nation’s universities continue to churn out those with degrees in fine arts (not all of whom, of course, are, or want to be, practicing artists). Yet the total number seems far greater than the real world opportunities for them. Is that a problem or asset? What can (should) be done about it? Indeed in an interview you said: “I have a lot of questions after this decade of work about what is happening to people in arts schools and programs. I think a lot of it is not empowering training. People come out of it confused about success, or unable to define success for themselves.” How can that concern best be addressed on a large scale?
Ruby: Again, the vast numbers of graduates, both at the undergrad and graduate levels, coming out of our colleges and universities, is staggering. And no, the artistic fields will never be able to absorb the volume. But again, is this good for the society, to have all these creative brains running around? Absolutely!
I think there is still an issue, although I think it has gotten better, with the teaching of professional practices in our arts programs. For many years, it was considered “vocational” training and scorned, not so much by the administration at the colleges, but by the faculty, who had not themselves had access to such programs when they were students. Mandatory professional practices classes in every arts program would make a big difference.
Barry: Arts advocacy has been principally carried on by arts organizations, and that effort has had a hard time rallying the nation’s individual artists to join its campaigns. Why has it been so difficult to organize the vast numbers of artists on behalf of advocacy and lobbying efforts? What can be done to finally get them more involved?
Ruby: I think if artists think that their efforts are going to support organizations that don’t necessarily support them, they will continue to be uninterested in getting involved. And we have tended to see advocacy as being only in the public sector, but frankly, at this point, I would like to be lobbying Google, Amazon and Apple.
Barry: In your ArtsFwd Summit address, you challenged your own organization to be more inventive in figuring out how to support imaginative and innovative art? You said you want to learn how to be as “savvy” as the artists in your program. How are you going about doing that? What are the human and financial resources necessary to be a useful partner to your grantees? How do you help them move from project to enterprise?
Ruby: It takes a village—that’s what I feel we have learned. We now believe that we need to “surround” each artist and project with a team of people and a bevy of informational resources in order to give them the best shot at success in a very crowded and confusing marketplace. That is both people and dollar intensive. We do a pretty good job, but it is still not as fully formed as I hope it will become. We are just at the beginning of thinking about those artists who are moving from project to enterprise, and that is really exciting—it will require different kinds of people and information—but the hope that we could help an artist further scale out the impact of their idea is pretty thrilling.
Barry: Creative Capital has an admirable record of having supported over 400 projects in its history. Yet that is but a drop in the bucket in light of the tens of thousands of artists that might benefit from more support. Creative Capital can only fund about 2 or 3% of those that apply for support. What is your thinking as to how to scale that number higher—much, much higher?
Ruby: We don’t necessarily think of growth in a linear way. I think we are at capacity for a program that works so intimately and over such a long period of time with its awardees. We don’t need more awardees (46 per round is a lot) and this isn’t something I find particularly interesting. We make about a $90,000 commitment to each project we support—up to $50,000 in financial support, with the services being valued around $40,000 additionally. That is a lot of money to be raising for each grantee roster! And as you will see in the next question, I think we found a much more interesting way to scale out our work through the Professional Development Program. Instead of adding a few more grantees each round, we deployed resources to build a program that has now reached more than 7,000 artists. We can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do everything. What I would love to see is more local and regional organizations adapting our comprehensive approach, but I recognize that it is both money and people intensive, and that it is a lot easier to just write someone a check and wish them luck on their project!
Barry: Your Professional Development Program provides career, community and confidence building tools to help all artists become successful artists, and you’ve worked with more than 5,500 artists in 175 communities in your first 10 years. What have you learned from that program and what are your plans for its future?
Ruby: The program is now up to more than 7,000 artists in more than 300 communities! It is so great—so moving. Everywhere I go now, artists will stop me to tell me the impact the workshops have had on them. It is such a powerful program. And it has so much potential to develop even further. The weekend workshops became pretty expensive for people to bring to their communities during the downturn and so we went “modular.” Partners, like state and local arts councils, fellowship programs, etc. can now design workshops for their very local needs—at a much lower cost. So, we have many less expensive options now, which is great. Plus, we started doing webinars about a year and a half ago and they are going gangbusters, we are doing almost one a week now, interviews, skills building, a variety of formats. It is great. We are working on Blended Learning now, trying to combine the best of what technology makes possible with those elements that only a live person in the room with you can bring. So, we will soon be able to offer an incredible range of ways for artists to participate with the program. Also, we have developed a LOT of collateral through our work with artists over the years, so could we put some of that together for additional offerings? In other words, how can we continue to make what we have learned and built through our work with our own awardees, more widely available to others?
Barry: Creative Capital was the focus of a Harvard Business School case study. What are the central elements of a program that is characterized by innovation and is entrepreneurial-centric?
Ruby: Staying alert to changes in the external environment, staying alert to opportunities, having a “bias for action,” the ability to move pretty quickly to try new things, and a commitment to honestly analyze what is working and what isn’t.
Barry: The relationship between the nation’s artists and the arts organizations that support them, provide platforms for their work and serve as bridges to the wider public sometimes finds those two groups at odds with each other. What is your assessment about how that relationship can be bolstered to be more productive and effective for all?
Ruby: I think the question of how the relationship between artists and organizations can be bolstered is an important one and I am not sure I have an answer. We do something that seems to be useful: we bring all parties together around the premiere of the artist’s project. The artist talks about their goals for the launch and the venue talks about what they are actually capable of doing to support the launch. I call these meetings “Rendezvous With Reality” sessions, because the artists are always disappointed by what the venue ISN’T going to do! But what is great is that we encourage the artist to use some of their Creative Capital money to accomplish some of the things they want the launch to accomplish. This is great for everyone—the artist definitely feels supported, but really, so does the venue! Nothing makes me happier than to walk into the conference room and see a table full of people all focused around maximizing the project launch. But really this activity reveals the artist to be a good partner to the venue, and we hope that is something that can be built upon for the future.
Barry: To what extent do those organizations like yours and others out there engaged in direct support for artists collaborate and cooperate with each other for the greater good? What might increase those working relationships?
Ruby: We have tons of collaborations through our PDP program—we rarely do direct marketing to individuals. But actually getting together to discuss what is working across all sectors, that isn’t happening, so I think we don’t know as much about each other as we should.
Barry: Have you noted any attitudinal changes on the part of artists over the past ten years? How do younger artists of today differ from artists of ten years ago?
Ruby: I think the current generation of artists does understand that they are walking into a tougher world. The infrastructure in the public sector has basically fallen apart, a lot of the foundation world is obsessed with impact questions, which represents a real narrowing to me (although they would say it represents focusing in on the work that is designed to promote social change). They aren’t afraid of words like “marketing,” and understand that the new media tools available allow them to amplify their voices in ways my generation of artists couldn’t even imagine. Also, they are really fun to work with because they often use humor to tackle serious subjects, which pulls people in.
Barry: Assess the current state of research into the needs, patterns of behavior, support for and public attitude towards individual artists. Where do we need more data and why?
Ruby: This is an area I really know so little about and where we all could use better information. But tracking individuals is so much harder than tracking organizations, so I know how difficult this is likely to be. And then what are we going to be able to do with the info once we get it? Is it going to make a difference to a conservative Congress, say? So, I think clarity about how we would use the data would be important before we go to the effort of collecting it.
Barry: Google calls you up one day and says: “Ruby, we want to do something to be supportive of America’s artists. Got any ideas?” What do you say to them?
Ruby: Tell them to call me! Send them on over! We see so many possible offshoots from what we are learning from artists, I could keep them busy for years! Seriously, call me!
Barry: Your program provides a full suite of services to your grantees, adopting an approach that is really more full-scale mentoring. What role might more seasoned artists play as mentors to younger artists and what is being done in that area that encourages you?
Ruby: When we reached our 10th Anniversary, about five years ago, we asked ourselves, what happened informally during our first decade that could/should be institutionalized? And the major thing we had observed is that artists who had strong support from other artists had fared the best. So we formalized this into an Artist Advisor program that brings in our previously funded grantees to work with a cohort of new grantees. This is THE best thing we have ever done, and not only are the Advisor to artist relationships strong, so are the relationships within each of the cohorts. It is fantastic!
Barry: What advice do you have to the philanthropic foundation community in terms of helping artists? What initiatives would you like to see come from that sector? What does it mean to risk negative blowback and even punishment for supporting controversial arts projects? What advice do you have for foundations to enable arts organizations to go forward as responsible change agents supporting change agent artists?
Ruby: The philanthropic sector should be the most adventurous sector in the society in terms of risk taking, and yet this isn’t always the case. Maybe it would be good for every philanthropy to have a “Failure Fund,” a small set aside for high risk ideas. We try to be that with every award, we often say that we are the risk capital for the field, but we know that isn’t for everyone! But a small mandated percentage, wouldn’t that be great? We have been really lucky, since we started our life with the charge to take risks in or funding, our wonderful donors, institutional and individual, have always known what they are supporting. And I think we have earned their trust, at this point. We have a pretty good track record of support for important, and sometimes, groundbreaking work.
The structure of philanthropic dollars really needs to be studied more. A number of years ago, to the best of my analytical ability and sleuthing at the time, I calculated that only the tiniest sliver of cultural support was going to assist living artists and the organizations that support them most directly… (You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to figure that out.) I remember being shocked at how low the percentage actually was.
I suspect that foundation boards might be the culprit. The program officers I know are fantastic. So, how are we going to get more knowledgeable people on the boards of both larger institutional entities and family foundations as well? How can foundation administrators make a more robust effort to educate the boards they have now about all the diverse activity going on in their own communities? Maybe there is more education going on than I am aware of; I hope so…
Barry: Are artists fully seated at the table in the Placemaking efforts of the arts? What role ought they play? Is there a place for artist activists at those tables?
Ruby: This is not a question I can answer, I just don’t know enough about what is happening on the ground with these efforts.
Barry: There is considerable evidence (with more research in the docket) that art and artists can play a very meaningful role in health care and the aging process. Has Creative Capital gotten involved in projects that are in that vein? When funding projects do you give any weight to those you think might have long-term benefits to both society and our sector?
Ruby: We support a lot of work that deals with social issues of all kinds—food, environment, criminal justice, etc. We also fund work that functions purely in the aesthetic realm and this inclusiveness and mix is what I think makes our artist rosters so juicy! I wouldn’t want to be an entity that only supports one kind of project. I think one of the things our artists love most is the mix of artistic disciplines, points of view, themes explored, diversity of aesthetics, age diversity, etc.
Barry: Why do you think the American public so little values artists, and do you have any thoughts on how that mindset and marginalization might be changed?
Ruby: I wonder how much interaction the public has with working artists. I think it is pretty limited. We have been going to the IdeaFestival in Louisville every fall and bringing four artists with us to present their projects. The attendees are not necessarily arts patrons; I call them “civilians.” There are high school and college students and, of course, many adults as well. And they won’t let the artists out of the auditorium, they have so many questions for them! The first year we went this lovely woman waited patiently for the crowd to clear and said to me, “I just wanted to say thank you. I have been a traditionalist my whole life and today you really opened my eyes.” Someone else said, “Your artists are talking about all the things we should be talking about as a society, but that we don’t.” Where are the opportunities for THIS kind of engagement?
Barry: The issues of diversity and race in the arts have become a front burner topic of late. How do you think we are doing in addressing the needs of artists of color, and what do we need to do more of?
Ruby: These issues have been at the forefront for as long as I have been in the field. They aren’t really new, and if they feel that way, I think that says what a poor job we have been doing in addressing equitability. This has been a key concern of ours since the beginning; in most years, at least 40% of our awardees have self-identified as other than Caucasian. I hope that number will just keep rising. We haven’t done nearly as well on the staff and board front, so we still have a lot of work to do. And geographic diversity, which we also care about, has not been what we would like either. We are pretty good on gender and age. A few years ago, the age range was from 27-79. That made me really happy! It ALL matters to us.
One of the reasons that we have been able to grow through experimentation has been the ongoing, never wavering, support of the Warhol and Duke Foundations and a number of committed individuals and small family foundations who have been consistent supporters since the very beginning. This adequate capitalization has given us breathing room. I have run undercapitalized organizations in the past with year-by-year project support—that is no way to support a field. IF something is working and you believe in it, commit to it long-term. This is the only way to build a healthy cultural ecosystem.
Barry: Thank you, Ruby.