Four New Assumptions

A picture of the applications from the Berlin Biennial’s official Open Call.  Artist Files is also examining the process by which artists are chosen for opportunities.

Artist Files is at root an opportunity to rethink what grants to individual artists are for, and what they do. A Blade of Grass is starting this process with four assumptions:

  • All grants to individual artists should balance rewarding excellence against concretely serving a larger community of artists.
  • This grant is attempting to define excellence within a practice that is still being defined, so our discourse and criteria are valuable and should be as public as we can responsibly make them.
  • Artists are experts in their own continued economic sustainability, and can generate and share a body of knowledge about their economic reality that is more innovative and helpful than administering a set of top-down professional resources.
  • Impact can be defined holistically, in terms of how the money is spent by the individual artist, the discourse it generates and the resources it delivers to a larger community.

We created these new assumptions by looking at your average grant to an individual artist, in which the artist either submits to an open call or is contacted out of the blue by a nominating committee. The way artists enter this system is either somewhat arbitrary (anyone can apply), or it’s secret. There is generally little information about who is making these decisions or what the criteria are for deciding, but one assumes that the goal is to find the excellent artists and reward their excellence. That elite crop of grantees receives cash, and sometimes other assistance. Top-down “professional development” for artists is common, as are other types of resources that are generally geared toward what the grantmaker calls “Impact,” which you could also call making sure we don’t waste this money.

There’s a lot to be said for the existing process. It often bends over backward to be inclusive, particularly in the case of open calls. Rewarding excellence is a satisfying and effective philanthropic strategy. Making sure the money isn’t wasted is a responsibility that we take very seriously. 

But the usual process doesn’t assume any responsibility to serve the larger community of prospective grantees beyond processing their applications. It assumes that the discourse about how one makes funding decisions about artistic excellence are best kept secret at a time when artistic excellence is increasingly hard to define. It assumes that impact is restricted to the funds themselves, and that the best way to generate impact is to manage these grant funds to this elite pool of individuals.

As an artist who has been on the other side of this experience, I see tremendous value simply in making the decision-making process a transparent one. I didn’t know how these decisions were made until I started making them, and I look back on my own assumptions as a prospective grantee and hang my head in sorrow over all the time I wasted speaking to the wrong audience, in the wrong language. And while I don’t think we’ll define artistic excellence once and for all, I am excited about the potential this process offers in terms of rethinking impact. Every individual’s creative practice is worth supporting because entire art communities, not individual art stars, are the force that make communities vibrant and more livable. This grant is all about recognizing and organizing around that collective body. We are depending on your contribution and, if everything goes according to plan, collecting real resources from it that make living a creatively engaged life easier and more rewarding.

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