Lightspring/shutterstock

Lightspring/shutterstock

Philanthropist Shelley Frost Rubin founded the Brooklyn-based A Blade of Grass (ABOG) in 2011 to “better understand how artists can illuminate and engage with social issues, expand the relationship between art and life, and build new audiences.” Its flagship grant offering, the Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art, supports “courageous artists in creating exchanges, experiences, and structures to enact social change.”

Almost a decade since ABOG’s launch, the idea that the arts can be a vehicle to “enact social change” has emerged as one of the hottest drivers of arts philanthropy. For instance, back in 2017, collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund bankrolled the $100 million Art for Justice Fund based at the Ford Foundation to safely reduce the U.S. prison population.

While funder interest in socially engaged art has been strong, A Blade of Grass executive director Deborah Fisher told me that the field is at an “inflection point” thanks to two key developments. First, she said that proponents continue to struggle to come up with language articulating why art is “an excellent philanthropic investment in social impact terms,” imperiling the field’s long-term sustainability.

Second, the larger funding community that is committed to socially engaged art is in flux. Most notably, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation halted its Artist as Activist program, which it launched in 2012.

Fisher also laid out a particularly encouraging development—the growing opportunity for artists to work with non-traditional arts funders, like hospitals, local police precincts, and city planning offices. In early February, ABOG and Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, published the Municipal Artist Partnership Guide to help artists access these promising funding sources and forge sustainable creative partnerships with local governments.

“Particularly Nebulous”

One of the perennial challenges facing organizations and artists is articulating the value of the arts experience. The idea of simply funding “art for arts’ sake” doesn’t cut it anymore, Fisher argues, since it transforms art into a luxury good, “and that doesn’t feel like a good philanthropic investment.”

Socially engaged art could square this circle since civic-minded funders would be drawn to projects that mitigate a social ill. Previous coverage in our arts vertical corroborates this theory. Funders ranging from Shelly Rubin’s Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation, Creative Capital, the Ford Foundation, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation have backed grant initiatives that call attention to social traumas.

Yet Fisher argues that funders, artists, and organizations need to tread carefully. “The language around the social impact of art is particularly nebulous,” she told me. “It can get easily caught up in valuing what other fields value, instead of figuring out what we should be assessing in art.” As a result, stakeholders end up evaluating outcomes that are “tangential to the art, or funding non-art projects in art contexts like increased equity in art organizations, or otherwise slipping off the opportunity to define why art itself—but not for its own sake—is so necessary.”

Fisher’s thoughts echo that of Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s managing director Susan Medak, who recently told me that “the new ethos is that art does not have value in its own right. It must serve a social purpose. Many of us fought for a generation for the right of artists to have their work validated purely on its own terms. It is a bit disheartening to some of us to find this growing pressure to serve other agendas.”

These comments suggest that while no one is calling for a one-size-fits-all definition for “socially engaged art,” stakeholders need to be transparent about what it can and cannot do.

An Evolving Funding and Programming Space

As a “funder who also fundraisers,” Fisher said projects that successfully enact social change can “do things like turn a failure into an unexpected success, hold a paradox, or create stakes that are so artificially low that somebody is more likely to take a risk or be open about a high stakes matter.”

Fisher’s definition suggests that for funders like ABOG, socially engaged art may not always address a discrete issue like encouraging legislators to enact sentencing reform. Fisher considers these soft skills a small part of a “broader ecosystem of change that can and should be separate from things like advocacy that advances a specific policy change.”

This isn’t to say measurement doesn’t play a critical role. ABOG works with artists so it can offer funders a transparent accounting of a project’s goals. This approach “keeps us from trying to contort ourselves into the impacts a funder would imagine a project to have,” Fisher said.

As for the larger funding community in this space, Fisher noted that “many of the organizations that we perceived as peers—both as funders and as programmers—when we started this work have evolved away from their programs, like Rauschenberg, or have been undergoing leadership transitions like Creative Time and Queens Museum.”

The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation launched its Artist as Activist program in 2012. Four years later, it announced that the program would focus solely on projects that “address the intersections between race, class and mass incarceration.” It named Artist as Activist fellows in 2016 and 2017 before ending the program. The foundation has no plans to revive it in the immediate future.

“We don’t have this huge field of organizational peers anymore,” Fisher said, “but we also feel like there’s a lot of potential” for other entities to fill the gaps. One organization doing good work is the Laundromat Project, whose Create Change Fellowship is a sister program to ABOG’s fellowship. The project, which has received support from the Surdna, Mellon, and Ford Foundations, “clearly and credibly articulates its role in the communities it serves and makes for interesting strategic decisions about deepening that role.”

Earlier this year, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts announced its Fall 2019 grantees. It awarded ABOG and the Laundromat Project grants for “providing support for socially engaged artists working in local communities.” It the first time the foundation awarded a grant to ABOG.

New Funding Sources

Fisher told me that artists and organizations are successfully tapping support from historically under-leveraged sources, like hospitals, local police precincts, and city planning offices.

Fisher attributes this development to the fact that artists are providing agencies with “credible, clear articulations of the specific value an artist or art project are providing. They’re articulating a strong value proposition for the art itself, as art.” This approach “doesn’t overstate the value of art by cheerleading or by collapsing into the vagueness that art is inherently good for its own sake. It largely holds the artists and the art accountable to outcomes that are reasonable and demonstrable for art.”

Fisher argues that approach differs from the conventional philanthropic pitch in the creative placemaking space which advocates “try to translate art into another language or fit the impact needs of another sector.”

Fisher pointed to the project First, Do No Harm, in which artist Tara Rynders offers nurses arts-based healing strategies for dealing with compassion fatigue. Rynders received funding for the project from Rose Medical Center in Denver. By increasing empathy for nurses and improving their well-being, the project “doesn’t try to make Tara responsible for solving the whole problem of nursing as a sector,” Fisher said.

The Municipal Artist Partnership Guide

In early February, ABOG and Animating Democracy published the Municipal Artist Partnership Guide to help artists access these funding sources and forge sustainable creative partnerships with local governments.

The guide provides users with instructions on how to start and sustain a partnership, case studies of successful projects, and tools and resources like sample documents and budget templates.

After conducting a nation-wide field scan of municipal artist partnerships, ABOG found that the number one indicator of success or failure is the quality of the relationship between the artist and the person working in the civic agency who partners with the artist. “When each of these folks understands a little bit about the other’s skills, needs, tools, and language, and what the other is accountable for, projects have a much higher chance of both aesthetic and pragmatic success,” Fisher said.

Again, Fisher encourages stakeholders to be flexible and transparent in how they define progress. “Successful partnerships with artists yield an unexpected result. Still, it’s not a magical result—it’s more like unexpected or magical things can happen when both the artist and the agency navigate a reasonable risk, for a good reason, with a great deal of commitment, together.”

Fisher hopes readers will be inspired to consider incorporating artists and the arts into budgets not allocated explicitly to arts enrichment or economic growth alone and visit municipal-artist.org to learn more about these success stories and how to replicate them.

Other Organizational Developments

ABOG will be announcing the 2020 winners of the Fellowship for Socially Engaged Art in May. Previously, each fellowship included a stipend of $20,000, field research, a film, and other opportunities. Fisher said she and her team “found that this approach limited our ability to create the best possible content, and created some power dynamics between fellowship projects and A Blade of Grass that are just the thing we are generally trying to avoid—fellows felt on the hook to a funder.”

As a result, in 2018, ABOG changed the fellowship guidelines. It now consists of a $20,000 stipend, participation in a cohort, and field research, thereby decreasing fellows’ sense of obligation to do anything other than their work.

ABOG also adopted a more curatorial towards its other offerings, like films and its magazine, so that they weren’t entirely limited to fellowship projects. “This new approach allows more investment in ideas, reaching specific audiences, and taking advantage of particular opportunities to see projects that can be difficult to experience,” Fisher told me.

In late May, ABOG will release issue four of A Blade of Grass Magazine, which will explore how artists are rethinking how they hold and wield power collectively. To coincide with the release, ABOG will hold its biannual assembly. The issue of governance will be on the top of the agenda, with participants discussing "tangible applications for looking at our individual roles within institutions and systems, and learning about new ways of enacting these systems,” Fisher said.

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