Forerunner: Behind an Early Prize Honoring "Artist-Activists"

Long before the "artist as activist" was the cool kid on the philanthropy block, before leviathans like the Ford Foundation pivoted towards fighting inequality, before Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement, there was Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize.

Established through the will of actress Lillian Gish in 1994—a far simpler time when England's Oasis ruled the airwaves and Forrest Gump dominated the box office—the award recognizes artists working in the United States who "push the boundaries of their art form and contribute to social change," proving that everything old is new again.

After all, the "artist as activist" movement is one of the top trends in arts philanthropy today. Grantmakers that have established grants that recognize artists as drivers of social change include, but are certainly not limited to, Robert Rauschenberg FoundationA Blade of Grass, Surdna Foundation, and the Shelly and Donald Rubin Foundation.

What's more, foundations have gone so far as to tweak the verbiage of existing grant solicitations to bend towards the concept of social activism. One example comes to us from Creative Capital. After announcing its 2015 awardees, the press release didn't mention things like "activism," "social change," or "inequality." However, by the following year, Executive Director Ruby Lerner lauded that year's winning artists who produce projects that act as a "vehicle for conversation" about current events and "culture at large" when announcing its class of 2016 winners.

To which the folks at the Gish Prize Trust are probably saying, "What took you guys so long?"

Lillian passed in 1993, and in the following year, speaking through her will, she sad, "It is my desire, by establishing this prize, to give recipients of the prize the recognition they deserve, to bring attention to their contributions to society and encourage others to follow in their path."

Previous winners include Bob Dylan (1997), Merce Cunningham (2000), Ornette Coleman (2004), and Spike Lee (2013). Joining this esteemed class is this year's winner, Elizabeth LeCompte, the experimental theater pioneer and founding member and director of the Wooster Group. She will receive $300,000.

The selection committee for the Gish prize consisted of trumpeter and composer Amir ElSaffar; Steven D. Lavine, president of the California Institute of the Arts; Janet L. Sarbaugh, vice president of creativity and senior program director for arts and culture at the Heinz Endowments; and visual artist Carrie Mae Weems. It was chaired by author A. M. Homes. JPMorgan Chase Bank administers the prize.

Now, if you'll excuse me I have to go binge-watch season one of Friends.