Private Donors Unite to Support Art
Spurned by the Government
By JUDITH H. DOBRZYNSKI MAY 3, 1999
Nearly two dozen foundations and philanthropists, reacting to cuts in Federal
arts spending, have joined forces to support artists who challenge convention.
The new group will attempt to make up for some of the individual grants the
Government ended in 1994 after years of controversy over works dealing with
nudity, sexuality and other provocative themes.
The new nonprofit organization, called Creative Capital Foundation, will be
announced officially next week. But it has already made it clear that it will not
shy away from the kind of innovative art that incited protests by religious and
”This is a boisterous, diverse country, and we have always had art that upsets
people,” said Archibald L. Gillies, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation
for the Visual Arts and one of the new group’s organizers. ”Controversy,” he
added, ”won’t bother us at all.”
Creative Capital hopes to raise $40 million over the next 20 years. With
current assets of more than $5 million, it plans to make its first round of
grants, totaling up to $1 million, early next year.
Going a step further, the organization will actively proselytize for freedom of
expression. The grants it plans to give each year to 50 to 60 artists will
requiring the winners to work with experts to develop audiences for their art
and to market it.
At its peak in the late 1980’s the National Endowment for the Arts awarded as
much as $10.5 million a year to more than 750 individual artists in grants of
$1,100 to $45,000. But since then the endowment has almost been
eliminated several times by members of Congress upset by those grants and
by what they said was the agency’s distance from American values. It has
survived, but with a budget cut nearly in half from its peak to $98 million in
the current fiscal year and no appetite to make awards that would restart the
cultural wars of the last decade.
Creative Capital is stepping into that breach. ”The Supreme Court has ruled
about pornography, but anything beyond that is fair game,” Mr. Gillies said.
”In this organization’s absolute principles, one comes first and that is funding
experimental, challenging art on its merits. Then after selecting it, we see
what the marketing potential is. The nature of the content is not a factor.”
With such talk, Creative Capital is throwing down the gauntlet to
conservatives who in recent years have tried to shut down some exhibitions
and performances. Though the fights have most often been about public
financing of controversial art, mainly by the endowment, some conflicts have
also centered on state and local arts grants and the commercial availability of
The president of the Christian Coalition, Randy Tate, said on learning on
Friday of the the new group, ”They can fund what they feel they need to
fund.” But referring to the Colorado school shootings, he said, ”Especially in
the context of the last week and a half, We have learned that images have
”I won’t condemn anything until I see it,” he added. ”But I would hope they
use great discretion and put forward images that strengthen society and
Creative Capital’s founders say they believe that this kind of art easily wins
financing, unlike the difficult art they will focus on. The group’s grants come
with a twist straight out of Wall Street and reflecting the business background
of some backers (like Jeffrey Soros, nephew of George Soros, the billionaire
financier). In a sure sign that this is the era of the deal, even in the arts, grant
winners must agree to share a portion of any proceeds from their project. The
cash will go back into Creative Capital’s kitty, increasing its capacity to
finance additional artists.
The Warhol Foundation, with a pledge to give $400,000 a year for the next
three years, is Creative Capital’s largest contributor. Others, including the
Norton Family Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Joe and Emily
Lowe Foundation, the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation and the Eli Broad
Family Foundation, have each promised up to $100,000 a year.
Creative Capital’s executive director, Ruby Lerner, said contributors knew
that the group would seek out and not shrink from artists like Karen Finley,
who often performs in the nude and famously smears her body in chocolate;
Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs offended many, and
other artists who caused headline-making conflicts.
Ms. Lerner said she told the contributors, ”We might get through the first 20
years and not have a single controversy, but we might have 50 of them in the
Creative Capital plans to award grants of $5,000 to $20,000 to performing,
visual and film or video artists, as well as those who make hybrid works. The
money will be split roughly equally among the four categories each year.
In the hope that the culture wars are over, William J. Ivey, the national
endowment’s new director, has put in a $150 million budget request for the
next fiscal year, up $52 million from the endowment’s current allocation, and
has raised the possibility of resuming individual grants. But he has made no
promises about when that might happen.
Supporters of the arts say they cannot wait. ”The arts are filled with energy,
yet sources of public finance are more and more precarious,” said Catharine
R. Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York
University. ”The important issue is supporting creativity.”
Ms. Stimpson has agreed to serve on Creative Capital’s board, as have Laurie
Anderson, the performance artist; Lewis Hyde, the writer; Ronald Feldman, a
New York art dealer, and Louise A. Velazquez, a senior business adviser at the
Interval Research Corporation, a Silicon Valley company that is trying to
engage the arts and high-tech in new ventures.
As the first big, national response to cuts in endowment grants, Creative
Capital could make a difference. ”Direct support is important,” Mr. Ivey of
the endowment said. ”Our grants had a significant impact on the careers of a
large range of artists.” But he and others agree that an equally important
effect may stem from the attempt to enlarge the audience for contemporary
art. ”Whenever individuals engage art and artists in a personal way with good
interpretation and explanation, it always expands the audience,” Mr. Ivey
Mr. Gillies described the process that Creative Capital’s founders envisioned
as broader than marketing. ”We will ask, ‘What does this project need to
succeed, what does an artist need to get to the next level?’ ” he said. Artists
will get individual advice from an array of volunteer curators, producers,
publicity agents and others who can help artists devise a plan to present their
work to the widest possible audience.
That plan helped woo contributors. ”Emerging artists get a lot of one-time
cash awards, but this affords them something else,” said Dini S. Merz, a
program officer at the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, which is giving
$300,000 over four years. ”It will answer the question ‘How can we help
artists help themselves?’ ”
But will artists agree to such interference, and an untested idea at that? Yong
Soon Min, a Korean-born artist who lives in California and is known for
politically charged, feminist work, said she had no problems with it. ”A
marketing plan can be very helpful,” she said. Rather, her concerns centered
on Creative Capital’s administrative ability to deliver on the promise.
She appears to be typical. Ms. Lerner said that in meetings Creative Capital
has had with artists around the country not a single one has raised objections.
Randall Bourscheidt, president of Alliance for the Arts, an advocacy group in
New York, is not surprised. ”Anyone looking for a grant can’t afford to ignore
this,” he said, adding that the conditions would not sound ominous to artists.
”It’s a series of expectations, but it doesn’t limit their voice or stifle their
Besides, as Mr. Gillies pointed out: ”If they don’t like that aspect, they can
say, ‘We’re not going to apply.’ Some artists will say, ‘I want to do what I do,
and I don’t want anyone hassling me,’ and they will go and get a fellowship
like the Guggenheim.”
The revenue-sharing requirements apparently did not disturb anyone either,
though the details are sketchy. Ms. Lerner said they would be worked out
individually with each grant agreement, and Mr. Gillies said Creative Capital
would probably ask for 10 to 15 percent of a project’s gross revenues. Creative
Capital would also have a cut if, say, a film, video or performance moved from
a nonprofit space to a commercial theater, as the musical ”Rent” did, for
The group has other plans to shore up the nation’s artistic infrastructure:
annual round tables to assess the state of the arts, an annual retreat for grant
recipients, a quarterly publication, a database of arts businesses and
nonprofit groups, public events and a Web site where artists can sell their art.
All that is in the future. Creative Capital, with its small staff, first has to hustle
to erect a structure for doling out money. Ms. Lerner wants to cast a wide net,
and so is sending staff members into studios, theaters and other arts centers
looking for prospects, is soliciting nominations from arts experts and on July
1 will start accepting applications from artists themselves.
Those who make the initial cut will be asked for work samples, a detailed
budget for their project and a schedule. The applications will go through a
peer panel review process, with the winners chosen or approved by the
Ideology aside, Mr. Gillies said the winners would have projects that have
artistic merit, not simply shock value. Creative Capital, he said, will not
”It’s not that we’ll support everything controversial,” he said. ”We will
support what people across the country are saying is good art, is exciting,