Funding for Creatives: Is the Age of the Foundation Over?

I see so many great artists, designers, creative entrepreneurs who apply for funding, and after going through the ringer, get denied. It seems that it you don’t fit into a certain stereotype — or aren’t already known — the traditional route of seeking business loans, grants from foundations and various non-profits is almost futile. This is especially true if what you are doing is something new, different, or in an industry/genre that these people aren’t familiar with.

Let’s face it, many people who sit of boards or head up foundations are living in a bubble going for the same kinds of projects time after time. In fact, how many artists or writers get grants or funding consistently? Quite a few! It’s almost as if they’ve proven they got funding from one reputable source, then it’s okay to give the green light because it looks good for the foundation to be in the know, not to mention an opportunity for press. Again, most board members and judges don’t go out of their comfort zone (ask any of them if they know about new art movements, and they don’t), and many really don’t care but are partaking for social cache. Then there are the ones who grant to former colleagues (cough*cough* NEA grants cough*), former students, or as in the case of a Rome Prize juror — their girlfriend. It really is like winning the lottery sometimes and not just based on reputation or quality of what you do. This isn’t to say everyone who gets awarded isn’t deserving, but it can be very spotty at best.

More than a few friends have also applied for “yay small businesses!” grants that are supposed to help the local economy or contribute to culture, but because the industry wasn’t a familiar one, got denied. It’s also hilarious when this happens with the last resort: bank loans. How many programs are there for small businesses, women-owned, minority, arts related? How many of them actually hand you down a loan for something creative that isn’t a total raw deal? Sure it’s good PR for the bank to have these programs, but they are so muddled with bureaucracy that you’d be amazed how many deserving recipients get denied. On the flipside I’ve seen hucksters who claim to be a non-profit, but in fact are a for-profit business, and yet they’ll get awarded funding thanks to friends or grant writers who know how to spin it.

I’ll admit I was incredibly disappointed when I filed for an emergency funds grant for artists. I have my medical bills, and pretty much lost a year of taking care of business, even having to turn down teaching gigs because I was either undergoing radiation or couldn’t walk. This foundation in New York came recommended, not to mention I saw some of their past recipients and thought I had higher quality work, but the grant wasn’t based on the work itself. Or so they claimed. I gave them everything they asked for, they still wanted more. They wanted 3 references — they called them all, and yet still then wanted another 3. After 4 months and a financial paperwork enema, they broke their own rule and wanted to see my work. Oddly they only wanted 2001-2004 (?) and I was flatly denied. This was supposed to be a grant based on medical expenses and lost income, not if you liked my art, if I was part of a certain clique, or if you “got it”.  After demanding so much from me to prove I was worthy, they never even responded to my query as to why I got denied. Way to treat artists you supposedly are supporting. I had been denied grants before — no one can seem to decide if I am fine art or illustration — but this was the one that pissed me off the most, because I was still hardly able to move and hadn’t even been able to get to my studio except for one event. They couldn’t even dignify me with a reason. The experience has put me off ever applying for a grant with any non-profit from now on.

Now here’s the funny part: everyone I know who has been denied grant or bank loans went to the internet and got funding. In fact, many got over-funded! Thanks to websites like Kickstarter, funding isn’t based on a small group of old ladies who don’t like nudes in art or a guy in a bad suit looking at your credit score. These are contributions from people who actually get what you are doing, or are just interested and want to be involved. No politics, no bullshit, and if one person isn’t into what you are doing, you don’t get outright denied. An arts foundation that wouldn’t give one friend the time of day? She was able to raise over $10,000 to do her art project. Another friend who was denied all the “yay entrepreneurs!” grants AND a bank loan? She raised over $12,000 to start her business. Yep, they got more from the internet than from the organizations who exist for the purposes of funding.

In the digital age, and with all the things it is rendering obsolete, is “crowdfunding” going to replace these organizations in the long-term?

Please share your stories, because I’m very curious to see where this is all going.

2 thoughts on “Funding for Creatives: Is the Age of the Foundation Over?”

  1. AP, I think you hit the nail on the head with the comfort zone/social cache thing. It looks good to be on those boards; it’s a little like people getting into politics via the school board and/or city council. It’s something to put on your political or social resume.
    Not that there aren’t people on these boards who aren’t genuinely interested in the arts; they just feel like they have a knowledge gap and so look for the validation of previous awards to help them decide.
    So I’m loving Kickstarter and the egalitarianism of the ‘Net. A total win-win: you can help support things that you believe in or are interested in even if you don’t have deep pockets, and the people needing these small or micro loans can get the help w/out having to deal with the banks’ uber conservative financial models.
    Crowdsourcing is the 21st century and I couldn’t be happier. Financial democracy at its finest. 🙂

    And I’m disgusted as hell at the hoops you had to go through to get NO help with your medical bills.
    I mean, for crissakes; it wasn’t like you were doing something stupid and had an accident-you had CANCER.
    I’d like to know who they actually DO help…
    Wonder if there’s a ‘Kickstarter’ like site for artists’ emergency medical expenses? That would ROCK…and the artist could send a little ‘thank you’ piece or something.

    Just an idea. Thanks for touching on this. I really think that our future will come from the efforts of shoestring innovators and projects like IngenuityFest and the other open arts happenings that bring the arts for the general public in an interactive and friendly way. Once people feel engaged and connected (with whatever,) they support it in all kinds of ways.
    And then MAYBE we’ll be able to work out of our Cleveland Paralysis.
    Our biggest threat has always been the herd mentality thing…way too many people waiting to be told what to think, what to do, and when to think or do it. Sometimes this place feels like a mental LaBrea Tarpits! Ha!

  2. Indeed! And the validation of previous awards I think is a big thing.
    Although I was told by someone that celebs and millionaires are using it to fund vanity projects (dunno how that gets approved) and if that keeps happening, it will cause it to go so mainstream and full of noise that you’ll need a reputation all over again.

    There are other sites that raise money for various causes/people and you can use it to raise money for your medical expenses, but I didn’t want to do that. I already had a few little art sales online. Guess I thought a foundation that has a grant specifically for my need would *gasp* take me seriously!

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