Granting Reconfigured for Social Engagement

Artist Files participants
A Blade of Grass preferred to be represented by participating artists rather than the organization’s logo. (photo courtesy A Blade of Grass)

A Blade of Grass is rethinking what a grant to an individual artist can be. Earlier this year, the nonprofit organization, which explores alternative models of funding for interactive and participatory art practices, launched Artist Files, the first project in a multiyear experiment. The inaugural grant is rooted in the concept of social engagement and hinges on the harbinger of interactivity: the internet. Artist Files is completely public-facing, presenting the entire grant process in the form of blog posts and probing questions on the organization’s website. Visitors are invited to register and comment.

A Blade of Grass Executive Director Deborah Fisher believes that although grants can be wonderful, flaws in our philanthropic system create roadblocks for visual artists whose work produces experiences rather than objects. Fisher described the rationale behind Artist Files on the organization’s blog:

We’re all adults here — we can admit that grants are terribly, terribly unfair. There are not enough of them, for one thing! The overwhelming majority of artists who need funding don’t get it, and nobody gets enough. It is perhaps less obvious that grants aren’t given freely. Funders have their own goals, their own definitions of impact and excellence. Grants are partnerships in which money is exchanged for a specific kind of meaning and impact.

This begs the question: exactly what kind of meaning and impact is A Blade of Grass seeking with its new, experimental granting model?

For Artist Files, artists, funders, and the participating public assess meaning and impact using four very important assertions:

  • Artistic excellence will include serving a larger community of artists.
  • Because social practice is not concrete or easily defined, the discourse and criteria surrounding the Artist Files grant are valuable and should be made public.
  • Artists are independent and financially responsible for their own incomes and resources, and it is more valuable for Artist Files to enable artists to share this knowledge among their colleagues than to administer a set of top-down professional resources.
  • For socially engaged work, impact can be defined holistically, encompassing how the money is spent by the individual artist, the dialogue a project generates, and the resources delivered to a larger community.

“Professional development,” or workshops on the best business practices of being an artist, are common in traditional grants; so are resources such as “technical or administrative support,” in which the grant-making organization delivers knowledge to the artist who received funding.  Although these steps reflect good intentions with some grants, they are also self-serving for the granting organization: they prove that funds were not wasted and that the organization will receive a strong report at the end of the project, ensuring the grant’s “success” based on ephemeral qualities such as “excellence” or “meaning.”

Artist Files aims to redefine impact for socially engaged art practices (which have thus far refused definition) by allowing for multiple methods of evaluation, by people besides the granting staff at A Blade of Grass and the recipients. All participating artists as well as the general public are invited to weigh in on the grant and its results, in an attempt to capture the ripple effect of funding throughout the social practice community. Traditional grants usually establish some evaluative criteria, but applicants or nominees and the faceless decision makers remain separated and largely anonymous. Artist Files has upended the model by publicly announcing all of the twenty nominees, introducing a curator to engage with each artist one-on-one in his or her studio, and publishing guidelines and decisions for discussion with the public.

From left: executive director Deborah Fisher and curator Kalia Brooks.
A Blade of Grass executive director Deborah Fisher (left) and curator Kalia Brooks (right) (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

For this inaugural grant, curator Kalia Brooks was invited to determine the criteria of social engagement and to nominate the  participating artists. “I’m so honored and excited to be a part of this process,” Brooks said in a recent interview. “It’s a fusion of my curatorial focus with practical application. These artists can actually make a difference in people’s lives.”  The concept of curating a grant may seem strange, but she used the same methodology she would employ for an exhibition. Brooks identified generosity as the key principle for visual art interactions, and in an post about the essential tasks of both the artist and the audience in a socially engaged project, she elaborated on the importance of intangible feelings as a result of the interaction. By using generosity as a framework for social engagement, she intends to neutralize “good” or “bad” moralistic associations. “I am interested in the structures that allow us to build social behavior, not merely the morality of the actions themselves,” she writes.

The Artist Files process was originally designed as a three-phase grant but has since evolved. “Above all we have to be flexible,” said Brooks. “It’s important that we follow the path that the discourse lays forth. This might mean making changes. We’re already thinking about next year and considering other platforms for dialogue. I don’t think we’ll be using the blog again in the same way.” In phase one, twenty artists were selected to do studio visits with Brooks. The criteria for selection, unedited footage of the visits, and contextual information provided by Brooks was presented online for the public. This phase included a panel discussion called “The Aesthetics of Doing,” which addressed the grant’s core theme of generosity in collaborative art. The panelists were Stephen Duncombe, co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism; Micaela Martegani, president of More Art; and Christina Vassallo, executive director of Flux Factory, and the event was moderated by Manon Slome, president and chief curator of No Longer Empty.

In phase two, there will be a “summit” with Fisher, Brooks, and all twenty artists, emphasizing the dialogic nature of the experiment. The group will give feedback about the process and organizational challenges, and begin to consider the criteria for awards as well as any products or programs that could grow out of Artist Files. Phase two had originally included a preliminary selection of ten artists for a second round of studio visits, but both participants and administrators agreed that the summit approach was a better fit for the nature of the project. Ultimately, four $10,000 grants will be awarded.  These are not project-based and have no spending restrictions, but there is a reporting requirement that includes sharing information about the recipient’s finances. The award are being funded by Shelly Rubin, the founder and board chair of A Blade of Grass, who believes in the importance and efficacy of socially engaged art. A Blade of Grass has made a multiyear commitment to gathering information about artists’ economic lives with the goal of creating a resource for the larger artistic community — yet another expression of generosity.

Fisher and Brooks
Fisher and Brooks pose at A Blade of Grass’s Chelsea office

Fisher and Brooks both acknowledged the problematic nature of this experiment and the inevitable conflicts that will surface. Unpolished presentations of artwork are by definition rough, and not everyone will agree that this is the best method. “I think my colleagues in granting are doing very important work, great work,” Fisher said. “Artist Files isn’t meant to be antagonistic, and it doesn’t intend to be a replacement for the existing structure. We’re interested in opening up a dialogue about this type of practice and how artists in this arena are working. How does this occur, and what is needed?” Artist Files has taken a bold and thorough approach to the challenge of trying to figure out what socially engaged art is, and how funding models might be more responsive. More importantly, it publicly identifies not only the criteria but the decision makers and the competition. Increasing transparency to build trust and shared knowledge, A Blade of Grass hopes to offer like-minded organizations new tactics for equalizing the power dynamic among artists and grant makers.

New videos from the artists as well as curatorial context and criteria will be published online in the coming weeks. The final recipients of the inaugural Artist Files grants will be announced in December.

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