The Story Behind the NEFA Recent Round of Public Art Grants

The New England Foundation for the Arts has awarded close to $60,000 in grants ranging from $5,000-$20,000 to five Boston-area nonprofits to support local public art projects.

It's always helpful when a foundation gives arts organizations a heads up about what kinds of projects they are looking to fund. Of course, most applications spell this out pretty explicitly. However, sometimes the application language can be vague. Foundations are looking for projects that "innovate" or "engage the community" or "raise awareness." Of course, there's nothing wrong with these concepts in the abstract, but we can forgive arts organizations for feeling slightly frustrated. After all, what do these concepts actually mean? How are they manifested in the real world? How are they reflected in winning projects, and how can they speak to the foundation's decision-making process?

Fortunately, foundations sometimes open up after the funding phase to provide additional context for their decisions, and when that happens, it's a must-read for nonprofit programming directors, executive directors, and grant writers. Such is this case regarding the news that the New England Foundation for the Arts awarded $59,000 in grants to five Boston-area nonprofits to support local arts projects. These projects "feature new work, actively engage and have a lasting impact on diverse communities," and "address an environmental, social, or civic need."

But here's where it gets interesting: Sarah Hutt, the NEFA's public art program consultant, spoke with local online magazine BostInno to discuss what, specifically, sets the five winning projects apart. Hutt noted that the NEFA was looking less for a "project" and more of a "catalyst" that would "go into the neighborhood and bring people out." To this end, they awarded a grant to the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA) to support the annual Public Art Residency. Liz Nofziger will be the BCA’s 2014 Public Art Residency artist, and will create an interactive installation on the plaza that includes three conjoined, regulation-size ping pong tables to form an oversized "community" pingpong court.

To paraphrase "Bull Durham," if you build pingpong tables, people will come.

Another grant, meanwhile, went to the Grove Hall Neighborhood Development Corporation to create a phone app tour guide for the Cultural History Trail. The goal is to make the area's rich cultural history come alive and to use emerging technology to make it happen. Better yet, the app's photos will come from local artists. As Nofziger noted, "Rather than just use clip art pictures, Grove Hall is bringing artists in to actually make a portrait of the neighborhood and the area."

The bottom line? Nonprofits need to look past the abstract language in grant guidelines and go the extra mile, either by proposing "catalysts" or projects that embrace new technologies, to win the hearts of foundations.