Making the Case Against "Income-Blind" Grant Applications in the Arts

Arts organizations and artists in rapidly gentrifying cities are being squeezed by dual forces. To the former group, a lack of affordable spaces. To the latter, insufficient income to pay for the expenses associated with living in a rapidly-gentfying city.

Groups like San Francisco's Community Arts Stabilization Trust (CAST), which owes its existence, in part, to $5 million in seed funding from the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, are tackling the former challenge. CAST buys property from owners looking to sell and rents it out to the arts organization for seven to ten years while it raises the money needed to buy the building at its original sale price. 

Yet, preventing cash-strapped artists from fleeing cities like San Francisco or New York is a far more complicated undertaking. Part of the problem is that many foundations give cash to arts organizations, but not the artists themselves. Others, however, do cut checks to artists. But, as we see in Seattle, this model comes with its own set of pitfalls. 

Seattle's Artist Trust and the Frye Art Museum recently announced the winner of its 2015 James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award. The $50,000 award comes from a larger five-year, $1.1 million gift from the Raynier Institute and Foundation. In announcing the award a few years back, the museum's director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker (who will reportedly be leaving in October 2016), said that there needs to be an "integrated approach to how we support artists, to provide artists with enough funds so that they don't have to worry for at least a year about how they're going to pay the rent and meet their most basic needs—so that they could do their work." It's hard to argue with this logic, especially in a quickly-gentrifying city like Seattle.

There's just one twist to the story. The winner of the award, writer David Shields, makes approximately $200,000 a year. (We know this because the Stranger, which first brought this story to light, found footage of Shields talking about his income in a movie with James Franco.)

The author of the Stranger piece, Jen Graves, rang up Artist Trust Executive Director Shannon Halberstadt and asked her if she knew about Shields' bank account. Her reply? "Oh, no, you're kidding. Oh, that's not good." Apparently neither Halberstadt or Danzker knew how much money Shields made.

The application process was "income-blind" and asking an applicant's income was considered an invasion of privacy. Which brings us to the big Pandora's Box-like question: Should arts fellowship awards consider an artist's income when awarding cash prizes? The answer, conceptually speaking, should be yes. After all, foundations generally ask about an applicant's race and gender; should income be off-limits, even when one of the main goals of arts awards is to make poor artists less poor?

One can convincingly argue that awarding $50,000 to someone who makes $200,000 is bad optics. If Artist Trust had known that Shield was pulling in six-figures, would her foundation politely pass and take a closer look at other applicants? We don't know. But we imagine other struggling Seattle-based artists probably spit out mouthfuls of Ramen upon hearing the news.

Ultimately, all this speaks to an even broader question that's been with us since the dawn of philanthropy itself: Should foundations give money to artists or other individual grantees who don't need it? We've toyed with that question two years in a row in regard to the MacArthur "genuis" fellowships, which often go to people who are already well-established and financially successful.

Related: Your Reaction to Those “Genius” Awards Says a Lot About Your Views on Philanthropy

The question also comes up in regard to other fellowships we write about, where the focus on a pure merit may also trump financial need. Such a focus clearly makes sense when a funder is aiming to achieve a particular outcome. For example, if you're funding fellowships for scientists because you want to cure cancer, you'll want to give them to those applicants with the most promising ideas. 

Yet the arts feels different. Yes, funders often aim to advance a particular kind of work, but because creative people are in such crisis right now, economically, propping up artists in need should be a major priority—and certainly one factor that guides how grantmakers judge applications for fellowship awards. 

It's worth noting that even science funders are indeed thinking about the financial situation of fellowship applications. A number of foundations are focusing on supporting younger researchers in part because these are the people who are often scrimping by and may leave key areas of research without more support. Funders may not use income to screen applications, but they're attuned to this issue in a broader way. 

The assumption behind many arts fellowships seems to be that, of course, everyone who applies desperately needs the money. In fact, though, that's not always the case and so funders need to make sure they have a way to surface this issue.