Should Artists Be Agents for Social Change? The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Thinks So

British writer George Orwell had a long and complicated friendship with his American counterpart Henry Miller. The two men were literary soul mates, yet had strong philosophical differences on the role of the artist in society.

Orwell, who among other things fought along side the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, was a political animal. He saw art as a mechanism to inspire change and his most famous novels had a bold political bent.
Miller, on the other hand, did not seek to change the world. The artist's job, Miller argued, was to live the life one wished free of political obligations. It was this philosophical chasm that helped create an irreparable schism in their friendship.

We bring up this anecdote in the context of recent news that the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation has launched a new grant program that supports artist activism. Titled "Artist as Activist," the program will offer two-year fellowship programs as well as small ongoing grants for travel and research to artists and designers whose practice focuses on social issues. The foundation website announced an open call for proposals through October 13. A second open call, which will support efforts to address climate change, will launch November 10, with others to follow over the next six months.

Selected applicants will receive up to $100,000, with travel and research grants being offered from anywhere between $2,500 and $10,000. According to the press release, the program’s “central goal is to ensure such artists have the kind of flexible support required to execute ambitious creative projects intended to move the needle on the critical issues of our times.”

Foundation philanthropy director Rise Wilson notes, "Art driven by a desire to make a direct impact in movements for change is not new." However, the foundation is nonetheless responding to the fact that more artists seem to be gravitating toward activism-based models and approaches. Wilson again: "There is a recent swell in the aspirations to work this way, which we recognize does not fit neatly into a box and can easily fall through the cracks of conventional funding mechanisms.”

At the end of the day, the foundation is looking to support artists who are actively driving meaningful social change. We imagine Orwell would approve.