Kara Walker, Untitled , 1998. Gouache and pencil on paper. Walker is a grant recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation.
Kara Walker,Untitled, 1998. Gouache and pencil on paper. Walker is a grant recipient of the Joan Mitchell Foundation.

When the New York City-based Joan Mitchell Foundation embarked on a five-year strategic planning process in 2019, a big focus was how it could be more effective at supporting individual artists. The past year has only underscored the importance of such funding, as the sector’s historically tepid support left working artists uniquely vulnerable during the crisis.

“Outside of project funding, many grants to individual artists are one-time awards,” said Kay Takeda, the foundation’s deputy director of artist programs, when we spoke last March. “Very few funders commit to individual artists on a multi-year basis. Now might be a good time to consider why not.”

It’s against this backdrop that the foundation recently announced one of the outgrowths of its strategic planning exercise—the Joan Mitchell Fellowship, a new program that will annually award 15 artists working in the fields of painting and sculpture with $60,000 each in unrestricted funds. The award will be distributed over five years, with artists receiving an initial payment of $20,000 and annual installments of $10,000 across the subsequent four years.

Takeda was calling for more of this kind of funding back when the pandemic first hit, and a year later, the need is still strong. She frequently talks with artists trying to recoup payment from unpaid engagements and navigate the “geographically untethered world of Zoom,” often without offers of compensation. Some are staring down depleted savings, mounting debt, and increasing housing and food insecurity. Others are emerging from the pandemic relatively unscathed.

“There is no single story, although these conditions speak to a need for greater and more equitable capitalization of artists over a period of years as an essential part of rebuilding our arts ecosystem,” she told me. “For us, this makes asset-building and investment approaches even more necessary.”

Shifting the mindset

I explored funders’ lack of direct and multi-year support for artists way back in 2017 in a piece on the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Takeda reported that conditions on the ground have incrementally improved since then.

“Unrestricted funding in the visual arts has been anchored by a handful of committed funders over several decades,” she said. “That number is growing slowly, primarily with new local and regional awards and national commitments to artist grants from funders like Surdna Foundation.”

Surdna’s support for individual artists proved to be especially prescient across a tumultuous 2020. COVID-19 showed that “our social infrastructure is not designed to support arts and culture practitioners,” said F. Javier Torres-Campos, program director of the foundation’s Thriving Cultures program. “Reimagining all support systems for the social sector is a ripe opportunity for the field to collaborate on.”

While Takeda characterized funders’ pre-pandemic support for individual artists as encouraging, she noted that the majority of awards total $25,000 or less. This isn’t going to cut it for an artist living in Austin or Seattle, much less New York or the Bay Area. (Just ask the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. In late March, the San Francisco-based funder announced the four inaugural recipients of the Rainin Fellowship will each receive unrestricted grants of $100,000.)

Having funded artists at the $25,000 level for over 15 years, the foundation’s “case for substantially increasing our grant was clear,” Takeda said.

Artists navigating the gig economy told foundation reps about their time-consuming efforts to cobble together income from various sources. This feedback compelled Takeda and her team to ensure that the Joan Mitchell Fellowship went beyond a typical three-year commitment to five. “It felt central to a shift from an award to an investment mindset,” she told me. “With the fellowship, we are aligning ourselves, in a way, with the values behind guaranteed income—creating a reliable income stream, within the limits of philanthropy.”

This “investment mindset” also provides fellows with access to group learning opportunities and individualized follow-up in three priority areas: personal finance, thought leadership, and legacy planning. Takeda told me the foundation will decide whether to provide additional relief funding for artists by the late spring.

Difficult choices

As the leader of a small artist-endowed foundation with a national scope, Takeda tried to identify ways to generate the most bang for the buck during the strategic planning exercise. It quickly became apparent that the foundation’s direct support to individual artists encompassing six program areas “stretched our resources,” she said. In order to invest more deeply in artists, “we needed to focus on our strengths and most impactful commitments—in this case, the fellowship model and artist legacy planning.”

Leadership decided to close two programs—one supporting early-career artists and its Emergency Grants offering, which the foundation launched to support New Orleans-based artists after Hurricane Katrina. “These were not easy decisions,” Takeda said.

That said, the foundation’s support took on other forms during the pandemic. The foundation was an early contributor to Artist Relief and to the Creative Response Relief Fund in New Orleans. It also awarded two rounds of direct funding to its community of past recipients. By the end of 2020, the foundation had allocated just over $1 million toward relief funding for artists—far exceeding the original budget for Emergency Grants for 2020. For Takeda, “this confirmed for us our ability to pivot in order to remain responsive when the field needs us in this way.”

The foundation’s strategic planning process ultimately found leadership exploring the “need to create a model of support that works intentionally to help artists build stability and continuity of practice—especially through and following the pandemic,” Takeda said. “By moving resources to launch the fellowship, we are taking intentional steps to better address these underlying conditions.”

Check out the foundation’s strategic plan for 2020–2024 here.

“The work is iterative”

Takeda also spoke about how the pandemic affected its Artist-in-Residence program at the Joan Mitchell Center in New Orleans. “The 2020 spring session artists were on site for about a week before we needed to shut down to mitigate COVID risk on campus, and everyone returned home,” she said. “We could see that a national program with artists traveling to and living on site was not going to be possible for quite some time, and artist opportunities were drying up everywhere.”

Leadership concluded that a local residency model solely comprising New Orleans-based artists was the best way to respond. Center Director Toccarra Thomas and her team “put a tremendous amount of thought, care and ingenuity into a safe reopening and to the program plan overall,” Takeda told me. The foundation repurposed vacant lodging, temporarily converting bedrooms into studios to accommodate more artists. All programming went virtual.

“By the time we reopened in September 2020, artists were sorely needing dedicated space to work and seeking community with other artists,” Takeda said.

In early March, the foundation announced the 35 artists selected for its 2021 Artist-in-Residence program. The center’s policy only to host New Orleans-based artists will remain in place until the end of the year, and the center’s leadership will undertake its own strategic planning later in 2021. “This is another area where we will be listening out, in New Orleans and beyond,” Takeda said.

The foundation is also directing resources to the second major outgrowth of its strategic planning process—helping artists organize their life’s work through one of its central offerings, the Creating a Living Legacy initiative. “[Artists] are telling us the pandemic has created a context, and the time, to begin to consider questions and intentions for their legacy,” Takeda said. “There is a need for broader advocacy, education and investment in artist legacy planning, which requires collaboration and an expanding network.”

All the while, the sector’s reckoning with racial justice and equity has compelled Takeda and her staff to continually revisit “how we do things, to ensure we are structuring our funding toward equity, and to consider how we can support and learn from those who are making change and creating new models. At the foundation, this is a journey, and the work is iterative.”