Back in 2016, Suzy Delvalle took over for Ruby Lerner as the president and executive director of Creative Capital. I found it to be an intriguing development at the time, given the grantmaker’s outsized influence in a giving space where artists receive surprisingly scant direct support.
Since its founding in 1999, Creative Capital has supported 561 projects representing artists with over $45 million in funding, professional development opportunities, consulting, artists retreats, and more. Where would Delvalle take the grantmaker next? Earlier this summer, we got an answer when Creative Capital announced that in recognition of its 20th anniversary, it will be moving to an annual cycle of awards and retreats. Awardees will continue to receive $50,000 in project funding, supplemented by an additional $50,000 in career development services.
The funder also announced that it will continue a new practice from last year’s award cycle of accepting all applications without regard to discipline, and engaging a multidisciplinary panel of practitioners from a wide range of fields to select awardees. “Annual awards, open to projects of all disciplines, will ensure that we’re accessible to artists when they need us most,” said Delvalle. “The new award cycle reflects both our mission to amplify the full spectrum of the country’s artistic voices, and our commitment to growing and strengthening Creative Capital itself.”
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Delvalle about these new developments in addition to some of the most pressing challenges facing artists in a precarious philanthropic climate. Here’s a recap of our chat.
Overseeing a “Generative Network”
Delvalle hails from Curaçao, and started her professional career in banking before her passion for the arts brought her to New York. It was an eye-opening experience. “I learned firsthand that so many opportunities in the art world, especially for people of color, are only possible thanks to the tireless work of the trailblazers who’ve come before, who generously offer mentorship and guidance,” she said. “It’s through the support of so many incredible women in the arts that I am where I am today.”
Delvalle’s predecessor, Ruby Lerner, led Creative Capital for 17 years. As only the second president and executive director of Creative Capital, Delvalle quickly came to realize that the funder’s biggest asset is its community—“a generative network that creates new connections and deepens relationships between artists and opportunities.
“There’s such a need for a space for artists to share their incredible work, dreams and ideas, as well as discuss their challenges and solutions. My role has been to help build and shape the Creative Capital community and the artist awardees, and to be more inclusive and representative of all the artistic voices and experts around the country.”
The More Things Change
Creative Capital was founded by concerned artist advocates who were dismayed at the inconsistent government support of artists, especially after the NEA was forced to cut funding to most individual artists as a result of the culture wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Since then, things have become worse.
Research from Grantmakers in the Arts found that total public arts funding, when adjusted for inflation, decreased by 12.8 percent over the past two decades. In real dollars, state arts agency appropriations decreased by 25 percent, local funding contracted by 9 percent and federal funds have remained virtually flat. Despite “nominal dollar increases” in recent years, “public funding for the arts has not kept pace with inflation,” wrote the report’s author, Ryan Stubbs.
Philanthropy has stepped up to fill the gaps—to an extent. While grantmakers have provided consistent support for arts organizations and museums, funding for individual artists, relatively speaking, has lagged. How do we know this? Because funders say so.
A few years back, the Davyd Whaley Foundation launched with the goal of filling an “overlooked gap” in surging L.A.’s art philanthropy, namely the lack of support of a “certain population of individual artists working in Southern California.” Upon announcing the Roy Lichtenstein Award, Foundation for Contemporary Arts Executive Director Jack Cowart said, “We especially hope this will challenge and inspire future named awards by other artists to support this notable program of direct grants to deserving artists.”
And in 2018, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation updated its New & Experimental Works program so that two-thirds of grant funds are designated to artists and their direct expenses. “This decision was informed by the reality that many of our grantees’ projects are underfunded, which is often met with a reduction of artists fees,” said arts program officer Adriana Griñó.
“Follow Where the Artists Lead Us”
Given the fact that Creative Capital has been providing direct support for individual artists for a generation, Delvalle is uniquely positioned to articulate how the needs of artists continue to evolve in the face of what the funder’s press release calls “changing artistic practices and economic realities.”
“A lot of the challenges we help artists to address aren’t new—the basic questions of having enough time, having enough money to pay performers for a project or maintain a studio space,” Delvalle said. “The scale of those problems varies over time, and according to where you live, as the cost of living rises or falls, but the nature of them is constant. What really changes is what’s required for the art, as artistic practices continue to evolve.”
“Our goal has always been to provide support for the art of the future—projects that push boundaries, that look not at what concerns us now, but what we will be talking about five, ten, fifteen years later. In other words, to follow where artists lead us…. The projects that excite us the most are the ones that are ambitious; sometimes even seem impossible. When we sit down with the evaluators who help us choose awardees, the most heated discussions are often around the projects that seem the most fantastical. For a lot of artists, Creative Capital is the first funder of their biggest ideas, then other organizations will see our support and step up.”
The foundation’s role here is important, since highly complex projects often don’t fall within arts funders’ traditional grantmaking frameworks. “The more forward-thinking the art project, the more difficult it is for artists to find partners,” Delvalle said. “That’s a very critical moment where we step in. Because many of the projects we support are so ambitious, they require new business models, and different kinds of connections to experts who can help them realize their goals—often these experts will be outside the arts field. For Creative Capital, how we support artists changes case-by-case, and we see this as a creative process as much as the creation of the work itself.”
Peer-to-Peer Skills Building
I asked Delvalle to reflect on how Creative Capital’s career support services has changed over the years and what type of support is especially critical for artists navigating the analog and digital worlds.
“From the beginning, Creative Capital has acted as a conduit to pass along practical knowledge from one generation of artists to the next—skills like strategic planning, marketing, community engagement, verbal communications, and grant writing. In the early 2000s (and still, really) these learned skills were often overlooked in art schools, and of course completely unavailable to artists that don’t go through MFA programs.”
Delvalle’s comments here echo that of the Clark Hulings Fund’s Editorial Director Sofia Perez, who argues that society’s traditional perception of the “artist” implies that “we should applaud you, the creative person, just for finding your way to the meeting, for tying your shoes and not tripping over yourself, and for getting yourself dressed and fed, because the only thing you’re good at is staying in your studio and creating something in a vacuum.”
Both Delvalle and Perez understand that while art has always been a business, now, more than ever, the artist has to worry about a lot more than just making art.
“It’s up to us to be mindful of how skills are changing, and to figure out what artists need,” Delvalle said. “For instance, we offered social media training for artists to build their audiences online when that was a new area of growth after 2012. Now, in 2019, the youngest artists in our community are the ones that are most skilled at digital communications—in fact, we’re looking to them to show us how to cultivate audiences, and often it’s part of their innate practice to do this. The artist who is great at digital media may need help with fundraising, and an artist who is great at writing grants may wish they were better at posting work on Instagram. Creative Capital’s role is to connect these people.”
Grantees also participate in Creative Capital Artist Retreats in which artists can share best practices. “What we hear from awardees is that, although they appreciate the project funding, the connections and collaborations that come from our community are even more valuable,” Delvalle said. “This kind of peer-to-peer skills building is still rare in the arts community, where often artists have to learn on their own, and individuality is prized above community.”
Art as “More Than Just Decoration”
We next pivoted to what is perhaps the hottest trend in arts philanthropy—funder interest in supporting arts-related activities that drive meaningful social change. “Undoubtedly, art addressing social justice is really standing out in the field at the moment, and that’s just the nature of how artists adapt to what’s needed,” Delvalle said.
She noted that Creative Capital has had several important artist projects premiere this year working on criminal justice and that its support for socially-focused projects dates back to as early as 2001, when it awarded Dread Scott’s project Lockdown. “At that time, very few organizations were supporting that kind of cutting-edge, multidisciplinary work looking at systemic racism and mass incarceration,” Dalvelle said.
Since then, we’ve seen funders like the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Agnes Gund look to the arts as means to address mass incarceration. All of this work has had the cumulative effect of reshaping perceptions across the general public.
“People outside the arts are starting to come around to the idea that art can function as more than just decoration,” Delvalle said. “It can actually do something to push the issues that our political institutions are not doing enough to address: climate change, mass incarceration, poverty, identity, and racial equity, to name a few. The arts provide a space of meeting and dialogue; they bring together people with disparate views, and help us move forward on issues where we may not see eye to eye.”
Arts organizations may be heartened to know that younger donors poised to collectively inherit billions from their baby boomer parents are particularly drawn to this line of thinking.
That being said, Delvalle cautions, “I think it’s also important to note that we are careful to not only fund art concerned with social justice. One of the benefits of offering awards on an annual basis is that we can also support artists that are making work that pushes boundaries in different ways: for instance, film that makes us rethink what cinema can be, technology projects that push our ideas of contemporary society, and in general, projects that inspire conversations about the nature of art. We’re excited by that, too, and it’s equally important to support those projects.”
We then turned out attention to the news that Creative Capital will be expanding to an annual cycle of awards and retreats. What prompted this decision?
“When I began working at Creative Capital,” Delvalle said, “my first goal was to reach out to our awardees, and gather input on what worked well and how we could better address current needs. What we realized was that the unique method of supporting artists that Creative Capital has developed over the last twenty years—through a holistic program including project funding, connections, and long-term career development services—is still innovative and very much needed.”
Yet it soon became clear that the funding cycle created an obstacle for artists. In some cases, artists were ready to begin their projects, but wouldn’t be eligible to apply for another year or two—either because there was no award cycle that year, or it was constrained to other genres—so they would have to find support elsewhere.
“These parameters,” Delvalle said, “became a barrier especially to artists who were making bold, risky, adventurous work that other organizations may not fund. We want to be an organization that is always there for artists when they need us, and we thought one very important way to do that was by establishing an annual cycle of awards and retreats.”
I also asked Delvalle what prompted Creative Capital’s decision to create and subsequently continue a new practice of accepting all applications without regard to discipline.
“Originally, Creative Capital Awards were given to artists depending on their discipline. The idea was to group artists working in their field, so that when we brought them together, they could help each other in their work. However, we started to notice that the cross-pollination between genres at gatherings like the Artist Retreat was very exciting, and so much work challenges traditional definitions of artistic practices. It was a rare chance for artists across disciplines to come together and share what they have learned, and for them to meet and possibly even collaborate with each other.”
An Interdisciplinary Philosophy
Creative Capital’s cross-disciplinary approach fits into a larger narrative in which the lines between “the arts” and different sectors are becoming increasingly blurred. For example, the MacArthur Foundation recently revamped its cultural grantmaking in Chicago to include organizations whose work is centered on racial equity and/or that are focused on other traditionally underfunded identities like people with disabilities. We’re also seeing non-arts funders integrate the arts into their grantmaking. In Philadelphia, the newly formed Independence Public Media awarded grants to cultural organizations like the African American Museum of Philadelphia.
Creative Capital also transitioned from genre-specific selection panels to a single panel composed of an interdisciplinary group of artists and art professionals. The idea here is to bring together people from a range of diverse fields to shed new light on a project.
“The first interdisciplinary panel review in 2018 was an experiment,” Delvalle said, “and we found that panelists had some concerns about the new process coming into it. However, by the end they were generally convinced that it was a productive and innovative, and even an exciting way to review artist projects. Also, just as we have seen that artists often collaborate after major gatherings, possible collaborations among these arts professionals have been sparked through the interdisciplinary panel review. There’s no telling how this will affect the landscape a decade on—I’m excited for the possibilities!”
As far as the present-day landscape is concerned, many of philanthropy’s leading institutional funders have been exploring ways to make grantmaking more inclusive across the past 24 months. Some are revisiting their policy of unsolicited grant proposals or embracing a more democratic participatory grantmaking model. Others are dipping their toes into the waters of general operating support, while arts funders, as noted, are imploring their counterparts to commit direct support to individual artists.
All of this is old news to Creative Capital, where since 1999, the artists themselves have been steering the ship. “What art looked like ten years ago is vastly different, but what it does is the same—artists have the capacity to change minds, drive conversations, and ultimately to change lives through their work,” Delvalle said. “So, as an organization that supports radical artists, we have to trust their radical visions.”