Artists Define "Engagement" On Their Own Terms—And a Major Funder Approves

Here's some food for thought: If United States Artists is the Traveling Wilburys of the the philanthropic art world, then the MAP Fund is Crosby, Stills and Nash.

Why? Simple. While the former is funded by a supergroup of five heavy hitters in the philanthropic art world, the latter exists thanks to its association with three. Primarily supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and additional funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, MAP is an affiliate program of Creative Capital.

(And yes, we realize we're extending that whole "supergroup" analogy to the point of meaninglessness. We'll table it for a while.)

The MAP Fund recently announced the selection of 36 new works—out of 790 proposals—in contemporary performing arts that will receive a total of $1.1 million in direct support for project development and premiere. Grants range from $10,000 to $40,000, and additional funds for general operating expenses.

Check out the full list of winners here.

Now, let's step back for a second. Established in 1989, MAP is among the longest-running grant programs in arts philanthropy, having supported over 1,120 new works of performance with a total of $28 million. MAP contends it invests in artistic production "as the critical foundation of imagining and—ultimately—creating a more equitable and vibrant society."

To achieve this goal, MAP hires peer artists and administrators who work independently, in communities, and in institutions across the United States. This cohort is tasked with "identifying as many different notions of experimentation as the applicant pool provides," ultimately selecting proposals that "capture their imaginations and convey a sense of great social urgency."

"A more equitable society." "Social urgency." Those two phrases struck us as philanthropic dog whistles. The MAP Fund, in other words, seems to fit neatly into—or at least seems to be transitioning towards—the ubiquitous "artist as activist" trope that's currently permeating the arts space.

The takeaway? If you're an artist, it seems increasingly important that your work isn't an end in and of itself, but rather a means to an end.

To further drive home this point, panelist Thomas F. DeFrantz, reflecting upon themes that surfaced among the applicant pool, provided an intriguing summation of this year's class of winners, noting:

White privilege, as something that needs to be scrutinized and dismantled, seemed to bubble through many of the proposals. There were many unusual collaborations or 'workings alongside each other' that seemed urgent to imagine new circumstances for creativity; this seems timely as we figure out how to share a more-resource-poor planet as best we can.

Rather than expound on this somewhat politically tinged piece of commentary, we'll instead direct you to additional—and, in our opinion, more illuminating—feedback from another panelist, Risa Shoup, on her takeaways gleaned from the selection process. Most applicably, Ms. Shoup noted:

There was a great attention to form and a lot of place-based work present in the applications. Artists were really trying to define engagement for themselves, which I loved to see. 

This is telling, because as we've repeatedly noticed at IP, foundations are increasingly drawn to place-based grantmaking while at the same time, the idea of "engagement," while incredibly hyped, seems inherently ambiguous and shape-shifting—oftentimes to the detriment of the recipient organization and the communities they seek to serve. Shoup is saying, "Hey artists, define engagement on your own terms. There's no wrong way to do it."

This, quite naturally, can be a liberating thing. Shoup continues:

We need to stop defining what we think social engagement is and we need to have artists define it for us in relation to their work. When that conversation doesn't happen, you get projects that tokenize, fetishize, parachute in, etc.: all things that are so destructive to communities. Engagement is inherent in dance. You have to engage with people to do the art.

And so we wonder if in the future, certain funders will throw away the spreadsheets and checklists and simply let the recipients themselves define engagement relatively—"in relation to their work," to quote Shoup—rather than jump through various benchmarking hoops.

Needless to say, the brains behind the MAP Fund seem to think the benefits of a relative, artist-define approach outweigh the costs.