Why We Support Adventurous Art: Ruby Lerner & Lisa Dent on Creative Capital's Award Process

Still from Janine Antoni's "Touch."

Still from Janine Antoni’s “Touch.”

We’re gearing up for a busy winter at Creative Capital, as we prepare to announce our 2015 class of Visual Arts and Moving Image Awardees this Wednesday and to open our application for Emerging Fields, Performing Arts and Literature grants in February. I caught up with Ruby Lerner (Creative Capital’s President and Executive Director) and Lisa Dent (Director of Resources & Award Programs) to reflect on our original mission, the projects that have astonished us over the years and why we continue to support risk-takers.
Maura Guyote: Creative Capital has always been committed to supporting artists with singular visions who dream up ambitious projects and aren’t afraid to take risks. Can you talk about why that mission is important?
Ruby Lerner: In any field, if you don’t have experimenters, you don’t have progress. Think about the medical field. We’d still be using leeches if there hadn’t been experimentation and research. So experimentation is really critical for any field to move forward. It’s imperative. In the arts we see a lot of risk aversion, so there need to be portals where risk is honored and appreciated. Not all risks will succeed but we need people to stand behind the risk takers and that’s a role we’ve created for ourselves.
Lisa Dent: The risk is not just supporting the project but supporting the artists as they take those risks in their life. We want to provide support in a myriad of ways. In the beginning we select these projects that we feel are forward-thinking and challenging for audiences, and then we want to provide them with whatever they need, financially or otherwise. That’s the core of the mission that I think is really exciting—we go on a journey with our artists as they make the work.
Ruby: Yes, we’re taking a risk on a project and also on a person. And when we take that risk, our hope is that we’re providing this backbone for people to have a long-term, successful and happy life as a creative person. We are interested in the things that will help stabilize a career more generally, beyond the success of an individual project. We have some venture capitalists on our board and they say they feel we are in the same business, which is the nurturing of talent and talented people. And that really is what we do.
Hasan Elahi's "Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project."

Hasan Elahi’s “Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project.”

Maura: Are there a few examples you’d like to highlight of artists we support who are risk-takers?
Lisa: Some of the earlier Creative Capital Artists are people who’ve inspired me for years. One of the first projects that really hit me was Hasan Elahi’s Surveillance Suite (2006 Emerging Fields), where he was thinking about surveillance and his experiences being detained by airport security post-9/11. He thought about what it would be like to have an online presence all the time, before Facebook. He created this portal to put his whereabouts out there at every moment. And it’s fun to imagine the selection panel at Creative Capital seeing this project before a lot of social media existed. I feel it’s artists like that—who challenge the scope of the social world—who really make an impact.
Ruby: That’s a great example. I think about Jeffery Renard Allen (2006 Literature) who we funded in our very first Literature round for his novel Song of the Shank. We were with that project for eight years before it came to fruition, and that really speaks to the importance of combining not just money and services, but adding time into the equation. Song of the Shank came out this past summer. It was the front-page review in the Sunday New York Times’ book section. A lot of reviews said that the book catapulted him into the ranks of the great American novelists.
What I love is the ways Jeff used us over that eight year period. We give up to $50,000 for each project and we parse that money out carefully over time. The leverage that’s provided by those small amounts of money along the way has been pretty extraordinary, rather than writing someone a big check for $50,000 and then having it disappear. He used some of the money to hire babysitters over the years so that he had more time to write; he used some of the money to create his own residency programs in Africa where he needed to do research; he used some of the money to buy himself out of teaching for a semester so he could focus on the book. And then he used the last little bit of the money to supplement his book launch. That’s a very thoughtful use of our funds and incredibly strategic. And then, once the grant was completed, he became an alumnus and was eligible for our loan fund. So he used a loan to set up the book tour before the revenue came in. That is a brilliant and singular way to use our resources.
A reference photo of  Tom Wiggins from Jeffery Renard Allen's "Song of the Shank."

A reference photo of Tom Wiggins from Jeffery Renard Allen’s “Song of the Shank.”

One of our artists funded in our first year, Chris Doyle (2000 Visual Arts), got a Guggenheim this year and he told me that he structured his plans for that money based on the Creative Capital money flow. I think it’s so interesting that we might be modeling this behavior, so if people get large amounts of money they are structuring it in some useful way.
Lisa: Then there are the artists who get selected for our awards after they are pretty far along in their careers.  They have chosen to continue to push themselves artistically even in that later stage of their practice. I find it amazing that they are willing to risk the past work they’ve done and put something out there that’s different. I’m thinking about people like Janine Antoni or Ken Jacobs. Ken has been working for years…
Ruby: He’s an icon in the experimental film world!
Lisa: Yes, and he says, “I want to work differently and I need support in order to do it.” He’s been similarly careful about the way he’s used his funds over time to produce something new. So those late-career explorers are exciting to see.
Maura: What are some specific elements of our process that ensure we find adventurous artists with compelling ideas? How do we make sure the evaluators embrace risk as part of the application process?
Lisa: When I first saw the way our Letter of Inquiry [the first step in our application process] is constructed, it was clear to me that we were asking artists to think deeply about what they’re doing in a way that other organizations don’t. Normally, you’d just submit an artist’s statement and resume. But we ask artists to consider a variety of aspects of their projects, their life goals, and their goals for their artistic career. All of that not only paints a more complete picture of the project for everyone analyzing those applications it also provides a clearer description for the artists themselves. Over and over I hear that after filling out our application, an artist transformed the way they thought about the project for future applications to other organizations. It helps them clarify what they want.
Ruby: So many artists who don’t get the grant say how valuable the process of applying was. Over the years artists have come up to me and said, “I didn’t get the grant but I learned so much applying and then I went on and applied to something else and I got that grant.” That makes me so happy. The whole process introduces your work to a lot of new people. Plus, even if you don’t get an award your work was still reviewed by several prominent people in your field.
Lisa: We also talk to the consultants who review the applications about the heart of our mission and our interest in risk. We’re asking them to seek out things they may not have seen in traditional institutions and count that as a positive point in favor of the work.
Ruby: This is really important, because one of the things that started happening in the panels a few years ago is that the panelists were saying things like, “We’re not sure this person has earned this award; it’s not time for them yet; they need to do more.” And I thought, This is not a lifetime achievement award! We’re looking for people who have really exciting cultural ideas and we help them move those ideas forward. It can be a young person; it can be a mature person. It doesn’t really matter. But this idea that they needed to earn the award was bothering me. I thought, we’re talking about risk a lot but we’re not really seeing that operationally in the process. That’s when we added the wild card, where we ask all our evaluators to select projects that may not have received one of their highest scores but stuck with them as exciting or timely. That changed things. And Lisa, you told me 18 out of the 46 projects this year were wild cards at some point in the process! Of all the stats about this year’s awardees, that made me the happiest. It says that we have in fact operationalized risk in our process.
Otherwise we try to diversify the recommender base, the reader base, the panel base so we gets lots of other people in the mix. One thing you don’t want to do is enshrine a group of readers and evaluators so you’re always getting the same point of view. You want to add people that are new to the field, younger curators and programmers into the mix. And I think we’ve done that pretty well, too.
Lisa: Yes! Recently, I was asked about how we choose evaluators. There was an assumption that we only choose people in a few major cities. I had to clarify that we work with people all across the country. Diversity of geography is just as important as anything else. We want colleagues in every state and region, as much as possible. That way, artists’ applications are seen by curators and presenters who are in their region, and may be familiar with their work, but also outside of their area. We’ve seen concrete opportunities come out of that exposure.
Maura: And what about the fact that we allow anyone who wants to apply to submit a Letter of Inquiry?
Ruby: When we started, most places had gone to a nomination-only process, but there just have to be open portals in the field. I felt that it was important for us to do that as long as we could do it. And I still feel we wouldn’t end up with the rosters we end up with if we didn’t have such an open process.
Also, one thing that over the years has just been so painful is that we’ve become this repository of amazing project ideas way beyond what we can ever support ourselves, and we’ve seen panelists become so excited about some work that wasn’t getting a grant. We’ve gotten calls from readers asking, “Is it OK if I contact this artist? Whether or not they get a grant I’m really interested in their work.” And we’d say, “Call them today, and tell them where you heard about them!” Over these many years, I’ve felt that it’s great that those connections are happening informally but I thought we could accelerate the pace of those connections. That led to the creation of On Our Radar. If you make it past the first cut, which was a pretty dramatic cut from 3,700 to 800 artists this year, you can post on our On Our Radar site and then we promote that soon after we announce our new awardees. Our hope is that over time curators, programmers and exhibitors from around the world will look to that for ideas. Hopefully that’ll grow over time. I feel good about that because obviously we’re lavishing a lot of individualized attention on a small group of artists so this was a way to open up this very competitive process a little more. And it really underlines the piece of advice that I give to all artists: Apply, apply, apply! Because you just never know who will be reviewing your work and what could come out of it.
Still from Ken Jacobs' "Joys of Waiting for the Broadway Bus."

Still from Ken Jacobs’ “Joys of Waiting for the Broadway Bus.”

Maura: We’ll be announcing the 2015 Creative Capital Artists on January 7. Without naming any names, can you identify any artistic trends you saw in the Visual Arts and Moving Image applications this year, whether conceptually or formally?
Lisa: There were many proposals around issues like mass incarceration, climate change, food. For those really important and timely themes, it can be tricky; panelists had to ask what is it that a particular project is proposing to do that’s really pushing the ideas. There were also really compelling ideas that panelists found particularly adventurous because no one was really talking about them at the moment.
Ruby: We got a lot of proposals around what’s going on in the Middle East from many perspectives, in both Visual Arts and Moving Image. That was really interesting and exciting to see. We’ve always had a project or two here or there dealing with issues in the Middle East but we really hit a wave of exciting work in that area.
One of the other trends happening now is that everything is bleeding into everything else. You have a filmmaker who wants to do installation work and visual artists who want to make feature films. It’s so porous across categories. Something we’ve talked about over the years is why don’t we just get rid of these discipline categories because the work is just melding. I think honestly if I were creating Creative Capital today it should all be called Emerging Fields and we’d be looking in every discipline for people pushing the envelope.
Maura: In both our awards program and our professional development offerings, we strive to connect artists with the resources they need to build and sustain their careers. What kinds of resources and support do you think every artist needs?
Lisa: We’ve really expanded the services we offer to our awardees by having consultants in media and community engagement available to them; to understand how branding can help people access what you are doing and who you are. It’s just necessary at this point.
Ruby: Right, it takes a lot to succeed in a more and more complex environment. My favorite story about this is Sandra Schulberg who founded the Independent Feature Project. We were talking and she said, “You know in the ’70s when we created the IFP you could fit every independent feature filmmaker in my downtown loft.” And these were people coming from far and wide. That really was true, it was handful of makers. And now we have thousands and tens of thousands of art students, film students, performing artists coming out of schools every year. It’s a very different environment. To help any one artist or project idea it just takes a lot more energy and focus, planning, time and everything than it used to take. While technology has been greatly liberating and created incredible ways for people to connect with audiences, for instance, it’s also like, how many emails are in your inbox per day? How much social media can you even tolerate? It’s just endless. So calling attention to any one thing takes a lot more energy and you have to be a lot more strategic. That’s why Strategic Planning is one of the core components of our workshops—artists have to learn how to think in a strategic way.
I also think in our ever-expanding universe, a lot more people need more directed help. So it’s, “You need to talk to this person; I’m going to do an email introduction for you to this specific person,” rather than putting together an abstract plan and thinking about the kinds of people you need to meet. And more and more, this is the world we’re living in. It’s a way complex universe. Being an artist is not for the faint of heart!
Stay tuned for the announcement of the 2015 Creative Capital Artists on January 7, and save the date for our next open application period for projects in Emerging Fields, Literature and Performing Arts – opening Feb. 2 and closing on March 2.

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