PRINT September 1999

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Capital Suggestion

A NOVEL NONPROFIT ALLIANCE of twenty-two private foundations and philanthropies has been organized to provide modest grants to American artists, particularly those whose work might otherwise be ignored, rejected, or spurned by other funding organizations—and the public at large. The new group, called the Creative Capital Foundation, has already amassed assets of over five million dollars, and plans to formally announce its first round of awards, totaling one million dollars, early in the year 2000.

“We are looking for work that is of the moment, engages the issues of our time, and pushes the envelope in terms of form,” said Ruby Lerner, Creative Capital’s executive director. Recipients—chosen from the performing, media, and visual arts—will receive from five thousand to twenty thousand dollars. Since the initiative was announced in May, Creative Capital has been hailed as a much-needed sweetener to the bitter medicine artists choked down in 1994, when NEA funding for individual projects all but disappeared amid rancorous, often puerile debate over the proper nature and content of state-supported art. The formation of Creative Capital might also be seen as an indication of just how much the debate over government funding has cooled in the last five years, and the extent to which culturally transgressive art has been co-opted by the exigencies of the marketplace, in which consumer culture increasingly embraces material that challenges traditional notions of acceptability or taste.

In fact, according to the group’s press release, Creative Capital will provide instruction to participating artists to help them “develop audiences for the hybrid, surprising, hard-to-pigeonhole projects” that it supports, and each will receive “individually tailored advice in marketing and promotion, audience development and administration—even in contracts and copyrights” from a team of curators, producers, and publicity agents.

“We are interested in getting the art to the appropriate audience. That is the nature of our challenge,” Lerner said forthrightly. “The tools by which you accomplish that are called marketing. If you can find a better word than that, I’d love to hear it.” These consultations won’t be optional. However, Lerner stressed that evaluation and selection of artists’ projects would be conducted by an independent panel, without the participation of Creative Capital’s marketing specialists.

“In theory it sounds good,” remarked Andres Serrano, whose 1987 Piss Christ—a photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine—gained tremendous notoriety during the dispute over NEA-funded art in the early ’90s. “But I’d be a little cautious about entering into a relationship with people who might want to dictate the course of the work.”

Each Creative Capital grant will include a clause specifying that a percentage of future profits from the work will be handed back to the foundation. Organizers hope to thereby create a revolving fund, with future projects funded in part by current ones. “A lot of these projects won’t generate income. We’re prepared for that,” said Lerner, who characterized the profit-sharing plan as experimental. In more concrete terms, Creative Capital plans on raising a total of forty million dollars from individuals, corporations, and foundations over the next twenty years.

Among the group’s more vigorous supporters is Archibald L. Gillies, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, who sees Creative Capital as reviving a “Whitmanesque vision of America as a country that’s bustling and rippling with creative energies.” In addition to four hundred thousand dollars in funding, the Warhol Foundation has donated office space to the group, at 65 Bleecker Street in Manhattan. Other contributors include the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, the Heathcote Art Foundation, the Albert A. List Foundation, and the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation.

At its peak, NEA funding to individual artists reached about ten million dollars a year, ten times that of Creative Capital’s. Organizers are quick to point out that the fledgling organization represents only one of many possible strategies for filling the perceived funding gap. “This is not the solution to the problem of arts funding in America,” Lerner said. “But it’s an exciting addition to the mix.”

“Any funding for art is good. I think we should give them a chance,” said Serrano. “But the best thing is the hands-off approach.” This sounds a little like a visit to the Bronx Zoo, where people want to see the wild animals, but only in a controlled environment."

Daniel B. Schneider is a writer living in New York.