Students of arts philanthropy know that the while money is important, so are semantics. Buzzwords abound, but foundations rarely agree on what they actually mean. And so it's necessary to cleave these disparate definitions, especially when there's serious funding at stake.
Take the word "activism." As previously noted, the whole "artist as activist" trope is all the rage in the arts philanthropy world nowadays. And understandably so—foundations are mirroring the political and social zeitgeist of these uncertain times.
But how, precisely, do foundations define "activism?" Or, in the case of A Blade of Grass, the New York-based funder, what do they mean by "socially engaged art?" We now have an answer to the latter question.
When the grantmaker began accepting letters of interest for its Fellowship for Engaged Art, it sought projects that promoted art as a "catalyst for social change," featured artists in leadership roles, emphasized "active and sustainable partnerships with communities," and engaged "community members as equal partners on locally relevant issues."
A Blade of Grass recently announced its 2016 fellowship recipients. The five artists and three collectives that were selected will receive $20,000 in funds and have access to the grantmaker's resources. In other words, we can now attach some concrete details to their thematic goal of "socially engaged art."
Here's one example:
The collective Rebecca Mwase and Ron Ragin will receive a joint fellowship in criminal justice from A Blade of Grass and the David Rockefeller Fund for their project titled Freedom Chamber, for which they will create sound sculptures that are inspired by the experiences of incarcerated people, their families, and local communities in New Orleans.
Brooklyn-based artist, designer, poet, and educator Joseph Cuillier will use his fellowship to support the Black School, an experimental art school drawing on the legacy of the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement to educate Bedford-Stuyvesant students in becoming radical agents of social change through art making workshops, classes in radical Black political theory, and public projects.
These fellowships don't exist in a vacuum. According to A Blade of Grass's website, the program will amass 50 case studies to serve a "larger discourse about the value of socially engaged art—how it works, what it looks like, and what can be accomplished."
This is important, because the program seeks approaches with the greatest impact, both in terms of tangibly fomenting social change and engaging audiences. These findings will also prove illuminating within the context of the "artist as activist" trend sweeping through the arts vector. Here's hoping the relevant grantmakers will do some serious sharing of best practices.
It's also worth noting that A Blade of Grass receives vital funding from the David Rockefeller Fund.