How Ruby Lerner’s Vision Shaped the Unique Model of Creative Capital 

When the NEA stopped funding most individual artists in 1994, a group of people in the art world decided to take action. Archibald Gillies, then President of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, spearheaded the creation of a new organization that would fund individual artists making radical work, and he asked Ruby Lerner to lead it. Lerner shaped what would become Creative Capital, making it more than just a granting organization, but adopting the most visionary ideas about what it meant to partner with artists as they make risk-taking, adventurous work.

We asked Lerner to discuss the creation of Creative Capital, starting with its early history, and origin. Speaking about the art world’s reaction to the NEA’s decision not to fund individual artists, she said, “There was a lot of talk in the beginning. There were a lot of years of retreats, and conversations in foundation offices. Basically, everybody was confused about what to do, except Arch Gillies.” Lerner explained that Gillies was in a perfect position to act as a leader because his foundation wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the success of an individual artist, Andy Warhol. As the president of a major foundation in the United States, Gillies was well connected to others who helped him provide funds to start this new organization. “He talked to anybody who let him in the door,” said Lerner. After a few years, he put together a group of foundations and a few individuals who wanted to partner with him.

Toward the end of 1997, Lerner was head of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF). She had also participated in many of Gillies’ early discussions around responding to the NEA’s decision to stop funding individual artists. She knew this organization’s mission would be to fund individual artists in all disciplines, and wouldn’t be subject to whoever was in political power at the time. Lerner said that Gillies told her, “You know I want to do this, and I’m not going to do it if I can’t raise at least five million dollars. You need that to have enough money to try things and fail. And I don’t want to do it if I don’t have the right person to run it—someone like you.” In response, Lerner said she “was totally tongue-tied, it was not what I expected in the conversation.”

Lerner says she felt she was the right choice for the job because she came from the arts field, and yet wasn’t someone “embedded in a foundation, or wedded to a lot of ‘foundationy’ ideas.” It was clear to her and Gillies that they needed to rethink a lot of the old way of doing things. “I knew what I didn’t want to do,” Lerner explained. “There had been some other cultural efforts by the philanthropic community that had spent way too much time with conferences, and position papers, trying to figure out what to do. I didn’t want to do that—I wanted to try things out that might actually help artists. I wanted to do shit.”

“My overarching philosophy was once we funded somebody, we were in the ‘yes’ business. Whatever they feel they need, we should try to be responsive.”

Year Zero

In Lerner’s mind, they would figure out the process through actually giving grants to artists. “I thought, we’re going to make mistakes. We’re not going to get it right the first time, but by actually doing things we’re going to learn. We’re not going to do endless studies to see what will work—our feasibility study would be the thing itself.”

Leslie Singer, now COO of Creative Capital, was working for Lerner at AIVF at the time. Soon after Gillies invited Lerner to direct Creative Capital, she pulled Singer aside, saying she wouldn’t accept the new position unless she also came with her. “So, I hired her before I hired myself, basically,” says Lerner. Singer spent the last few months of ’98 setting up the books, preparing the administrative side of the organization. “We opened the doors on the first Monday in January 1999.”

Lerner was determined that they would give out grants that first year of Creative Capital’s existence. In the first award cycle, through an open application process and targeted outreach, Creative Capital supported 81 artists working on 75 projects working in all disciplines. When asked about what it was like that first year, Lerner said, “The fact that I don’t remember that much probably tells you how chaotic it was. It was crazy.” Looking back at the number of awards, Lerner comments, “It was kind of insane. It’s crazy to set up a whole apparatus: to put together panels, to do outreach, and to make grants.” The first year, said Lerner, “almost killed us.”

The First Artist Retreat

The early expectation around Creative Capital was that it would merely give out grants to risk-taking artists, but Lerner had something far more ambitious in mind. “The first thing I said to Arch when he hired me is that I’ll have to have the money to bring the artists together,” she said. Gillies was hesitant at first, but Lerner told him, “this will turn out to be the most important thing we do.”

That gathering turned into the Artist Retreat, a multi-day convening of artists and arts professionals dedicated to making the projects, for which they had received a Creative Capital Award, a reality. Lerner says that the vision for this was modeled partly on her experience at Alternate Roots, a grassroots organization in the south supporting community-based artists doing original work. In 2000, Creative Capital secured space at Skowhegan in Maine for a weekend in August.

They invited all the artists that received awards that first year to come, but only half agreed to come, mostly, says Lerner, out of skepticism and confusion about what the gathering actually was. Lerner said she told the staff, “Trust me, when we do this once, we will never have to beg people to come again. And of course, we didn’t. It was amazing.” Today, the Creative Capital Artist Retreat has expanded to accommodate around 300 attendees, becoming a core part of the award, and has proven to be an integral event spurring the careers and networks for many artists.

Funding at Strategic Moments

Lerner and the team she formed at Creative Capital were determined to create a granting organization that dispersed money to artists through a system of benchmarks, encouraging them to think strategically about the money they would need over the lifespan of their project. The model was based on venture capital companies that were known for creating a framework of success for many startups in Silicon Valley at the time. “If they’re going to make a million-dollar investment in a business,” Lerner explained, “they’re not writing a check for a million dollars to that business. They say, ‘Here’s $250,000. Go out and do the research to see if your product is filling a need.’ Ok, great: it is. Now we’ll give you another 250 to prototype it, and then we’ll give you money to create it and market it.” Lerner felt that this model provided a way to think about how money, strategically applied, can open up a lot of possibilities for the artist. Doling out the money in this way created “headspace for people to think about their project in different phases, and other stabilizing needs beyond the project itself.”

As Creative Capital continued on, they refined this model and learned from their experience. For instance, Lerner explained, “there was a point when a number of artists were coming in after they had their openings, in different disciplines from film to performance, and they were all super disappointed at the things that had not happened around the premieres of their projects.” There was a clear problem that the staff realized they could solve. “We could do an intervention into what I used to call the ‘expectation-disappointment curve.’ We could do this by bringing all engaged parties  to the table before the fact instead of dealing with the disappointment afterward.”

As Arch Gillies and others supported Lerner’s ideas that sounded crazy, Lerner strove to create an organization that would trust the artist when their project ideas were nascent, rather than when they had already made the work.

About three to six months before the premiere date of a particular project, Creative Capital began to convene all the people involved to bring a work of art to the public—directors of museums, film festivals, or publishers, as well as the artist, and mediated by Creative Capital staff. They would discuss how best to make the work a success. “The stakeholder meeting was a big innovation,” said Lerner. The small amount of money that Creative Capital offered toward this premiere moment, up to $7,500, “made a huge difference around the premieres of these projects because you could target based on what wasn’t going to happen otherwise.”

Bringing an artwork to the public can be as much a collaborative effort as the creation of the work itself. Lerner reflected on how her experience working with filmmakers at AIVF influenced her to bring models in the film world to all arts disciplines. “They understood that it took a village to release a film, and sometimes to make it.”

Professional Development Changes Lives

Lerner and the growing team at Creative Capital realized that, especially since most art schools at that time weren’t teaching their students how to manage the business side of artistic practice (not to mention the many artists that don’t attend art school), there was a vast need to fill. With the help of Colleen Keegan and others, they spearheaded a series of workshops and intensives for the Creative Capital Awardees, which were designed to help artists gain skills around planning their career strategically, communicating about and promoting their work, addressing financial literacy, and legal issues.

Keegan and Creative Capital developed a Strategic Planning workbook that helped artists think through their future, and career, to better understand what they needed to develop a thriving practice. The resources were so helpful, Lerner said, that she found out artists were sharing it with their network. “I said to myself, people are sharing this information informally with their colleagues and friends anyway—couldn’t we make this information more widely available?” Creative Capital wanted these workshops to be artist-led, and paid awardees to pass on the skills and expertise they had developed throughout the course of their career.

Lerner raised money to develop a series of affordable, or free, career advancement workshops digitally and in-person across the country. Through this programming accessible to artists in all disciplines, Creative Capital has made an indelible mark on the field, helping artists professionalize their practice. Today, coupling professional development with funding is more common in the arts. Lerner remembered one early intensive she attended in Houston, one of the first of its kind: “It was clearly transformative for a lot of those artists.”

Scaling at the Speed of Intimacy

Under Lerner’s guidance, Creative Capital set up models for working with artists, like the stakeholder meeting, but it never completely codified its process because, as Lerner explained, every artist is different, as are their needs. “My overarching philosophy was,” Lerner said, “once we funded somebody, we were in the ‘yes’ business. Whatever they feel they need, we should try to be responsive unless it’s something that just clearly doesn’t make any sense.”

But how do you scale an arts organization up to support more artists, yet still maintain “maximal flexibility,” as Lerner termed it? “There is a big danger in thinking about scale,” Lerner agreed, “and the value system that precedes thinking about scale. So I think more about how to ‘scale at the speed of intimacy.’ When I think about Creative Capital—in its universe it’s a scaled organization in a lot of ways.” Over the last twenty years, the organization has grown from being known mostly in the New York arts scene, to being a recognized name as an arts funder across the country, from Louisville, Kentucky to Anchorage, Alaska. “We had to do a lot of work to get to that point,” Lerner insisted, “but it’s all been incredibly personal and intimate, through us schlepping our asses all over America, through asking artists to talk about us and share information, and colleagues to share educational resources with their students. In my mind it has scaled in exactly the right away.”

Visionary work can often seem like a far-fetched idea before it is realized—this is true as much for Creative Capital, as it is for the artists projects it supports. As Gillies and others supported Lerner’s ideas that sounded crazy, Lerner strove to create an organization that would trust the artist when their project ideas were nascent, rather than when they had already made the work. “In the early days I used to say that I wanted Creative Capital to be a post-cynical organization for exactly that reason.” An arts organization could not be cynical about the vision of artists, if it was to ask artists to lead the way to a better future. “We fund a project,” Lerner said, “but we go on a journey with a person.”

When Lerner left Creative Capital in 2016, the organization had grown from a two person operation, to a nonprofit with around 15 employees, and about 20 board members. Some of those members had been around since even before Creative Capital officially started, like Lewis Hyde, whose book, The Gift, Lerner says, had a profound impact on Gillies. William Bowes, who passed away in 2018, was another founding board member whose vision guided Lerner’s tenure at Creative Capital. “He was truly my mentor and I feel so blessed to have had his guidance.” Thinking back on Hyde, Bowes, and others whose influence remains in the DNA of the organization, Lerner said, “Creative Capital has been so blessed to have had the support and guidance of so many wise people!”

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