When I was approached by Deborah at A Blade Of Grass to curate a grant, I was immediately taken by the proposition. It was the first time I had ever read the words “curate a grant” written in a sentence, and she was presenting me with an opportunity to bring meaning to those words.
As a curator, I am familiar with both sides of philanthropy. It is an inevitable connection, and a necessary part of the cultural economy. I have been a grant writer applying for funding to develop visual art-based programs and projects, and I’ve sat as a juror on panels to select funding recipients. This duality has created an ‘insider’ perspective. I am fluent in the language that an artist must speak to make herself attractive to potential funding sources. This, I think, is the fundamental problem with philanthropy in the visual arts. It is too often based on a set of bureaucratic criteria and procedures, and the obligation is on the artist to fit neatly into a pre-existing structure. This disempowers the artist and limits the creative process by influencing the very what, why and how of an artist’s work. I am frequently part of conversations where artists express how estranged they feel from the grant-writing process.
When Deb presented me with the idea, she spoke about the inherent flaws within our current philanthropic system, particularly for artists working outside the image-based norm. A Blade of Grass is focused on “socially engaged” practices that make use of non-traditional spaces, become involved in communities, and create dialogue through proximity and exchange. With this fellowship I eagerly became part of the organization’s effort to create a new funding model that is based on and formed by the idea of social engagement in the visual arts. This opens up a new role for me. I can apply the curatorial method of research and knowledge-building in order to build out a particular set of aesthetic ideas to this process. In doing so, I can make meaning out of the often arbitrary selection process that determines how grants are awarded.
This grant is dependent upon the artist-curator relationship, and my commitment to know about artists by speaking to artists. This face-to-face encounter generates a closeness that most artists and funders rarely achieve because distance and impersonality are built into the system. It brings the funder to the artist, when typically artists are on an endless search for resources to support their lives and careers. This grant needs content from artists and art lovers to build the criteria by which the awards will be made. As the curator of this year’s grant I am obliged to be the custodian of these relationships, and to give every artist who agrees to participate in this process the care and thoughtful attention that their creativity deserves.