A Closer Look at Surdna Foundation's Artists Engaged in Social Change Grants

The concept of an artist as a catalyst for social change isn't a new one, but it's one that seems to be gaining momentum across the philanthropic arts world as of late.

You may recall that we recently looked at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's new grant program, Artist as Activist, which offers two-year fellowship programs as well as small, ongoing grants for travel and research to artists and designers whose practices focus on social issues. Meanwhile, New York's Blade of Grass recently accepted letters of interest for its Fellowship for Engaged Art.

And now comes word that the Surdna Foundation announced the recipients of its Artists Engaged in Social Change grant awards. The grants, which fall under the foundation's Thriving Cultures program, are designed to support individual artists, culture bearers, and nonprofits whose work is "embedded in community and helps to inform, engage, or challenge people around specific social issues."

Fifteen project grants were awarded from more than 1,000 applications received in response to a national request for proposals. Projects receiving funds were selected for the quality of the artistic practice, the dedication to exploring critical themes that arise from or impact a community, and for the project’s capacity to enable social change.

The two-year awards, ranging from $57,000 to $157,000, and totaling $1,345,000, support artists and culture bearers working in places including Haines, Alaska; Brooklyn, New York; LaConner, Washington; and Long Beach, California.

And what, precisely, does "social change" look like? Well, as previously noted, each project addresses a specific social issue. And winning projects address issues including incarceration, cultural heritage, and immigration. For example, visual artist Titus Kaphar’s "Jerome Project" highlights the need for reform in the U.S. criminal justice system by engaging with currently and previously incarcerated individuals—all named Jerome—to create a series of paintings, sculpture, an experimental documentary, and community convenings.

Surdna Foundation President Phil Henderson said, "In an era of accelerated and often dramatic social and demographic change, artists and culture bearers play critical roles within our communities helping us understand and challenge pressing issues. Their visions, communicated through film, performance, text, spoken word and other forms can help communities achieve a sense of connectedness and common purpose."