If You're an "Artist-Activist," You're Living at the Right Moment

Would John Singer Sargent win an arts grant if he were alive today? Let's consider the evidence.

Sargent was considered the leading portrait painter of his generation for his representations of Edwardian era luxury. He was also a genius of technical facility, especially when it came to drawing with a brush. And from what we could determine, like many painters of his time, he rarely used his work as a platform to expound on the pressing social issues of the day. John Singer Sargent was no activist.

Now, this isn't to say that his incredible technical proficiency wouldn't net him a grant in today's philanthropic climate, but after a while, he'd probably consider dipping his toes in more activist waters, given the mountains of cash going to artists who produce projects that act as a "vehicle for conversation" about current events and culture at large.

The above quote came from Ruby Lerner, the executive director of Creative Capital, announcing the organization's 2016 awardees. After considering over 2,500 proposals, Creative Capital funded 46 projects in the fields of Literature, Performing Arts, and Emerging Fields. Many of these projects reflect Creative Capital's commitment to "artist-activists" who are engaging some of the "most significant and hotly debated issues of our time."

Projects receiving funding span a wide range of genres and forms, including an exhibition and book on the histories of transgender communities, an adaptation of Euripides' Medea as a Latin American variety show, and an opera examining America's relationship with guns.   

Recipients are a fortunate lot. As we've previously noted, Creative Capital's investment in artists includes more than just money. Artist grantees also receive multi-year financial and advisory support to ensure that their projects are successful and their careers carry forward well into the future. 

The 2016 Creative Capital awardees represent 63 artists at all stages of their careers with an age range of 28 to 65 years old. More than half are women; and more than half identify as people of color. Each funded project will receive up to $50,000 in direct funding and additional resources and the aforementioned advisory services such as financial consulting and communications support valued at $45,000, making the organization's total 2016 investment more than $4,370,000. 

Which brings us back to the "artist as activist" component. Approximately a year ago, we here at IP engaged in a similar exercise when Creative Capital announced the winners of its 2015 grant cycle. And while the accompanying press release talked about the winning artists' commitment to innovation and experimentation, the "artist as activist" component was missing. In fact, the word "activism" and its variants didn't appear at all.

This isn't to say the "artist as activist" concept wasn't important to Creative Capital a year ago. Nor does comparing back-to-back press releases constitute a scientific experiment. But philanthropy, like everything else in life, is contextual. And we can't help but juxtapose Creative Capital's language with the glut of other "artists as activists" grants that have flooded the landscape within the last 12 to 18 months. Examples include grants and awards courtesy of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, A Blade of Grass, Surdna Foundation, and the Shelly and Donald Rubin Foundation, who just announced the winners of its inaugural Art and Social Justice Grants.

If you're an artist with a predisposition for social activism, you're in luck. It's a good time to be alive.

And if you happen to be John Singer Sargent, toiling away on your most recent landscape painting? Well, it probably doesn't make much difference, since you entered the great "studio in the sky" in 1925.