An Arts Foundation Pivots Towards a Single Social Issue

Since its pilot in 2012, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation's Artist as Activist program has invested nearly $1.6 million in 35 artists, collectives, and organizations working at the intersection of art and activism.

When we looked at last year's winners, we discovered a diverse mix of artists spanning mediums and addressing various topics including local business creation, sexual violence in India, and the 1973 Chilean coup. 

The foundation just announced the latest round of Artist as Activists, and while the winners, as in previous years, all devise "artistic strategies that go beyond awareness-building to spur action," this year provides an intriguing conceptual framework: The 10 recipients, who will receive support ranging from $50,000 to $100,000 over two years, will develop projects that "address the intersections between race, class, and mass incarceration."

"Persistent, systemic challenges like mass incarceration require more than temporary policy fixes, but also a transformation of our values and cultural practices, which is the terrain of artists," noted Risë Wilson, director of philanthropy for the Rauschenberg Foundation. "Artists also have much to add to the process of practical problem solving—bringing creative lenses that expand our sense of possible approaches and solutions—and yet they are under-tapped resources in the 'business' of creativity."

We've devoted a lot of energy to the proliferation of "artist as activist" grant programs over the past 24 months, and many of these initiatives cast wide—and sometimes vague—conceptual nets.

Creative Capital, for example, funds artists who are engaging some of the "most significant and hotly debated issues of our time." Surdna Foundation's Artists Engaged in Social Change grants support artists and nonprofits whose work  is "embedded in community and helps to inform, engage, or challenge people around specific social issues."

And, as previously noted, as recently as last year, the Rauschenberg Foundation funded artists whose specific areas for social change were all over the map. But that was then. Some sort of figurative tipping point seems to have been reached. As the foundation notes:

With 2.2 million people currently in U.S. prisons or jails, the growth rates of this industry combined with the disproportionate number of people of color locked up—58% of inmates are African American or Hispanic despite only representing one quarter of the U.S. population—make mass incarceration is one of the most pressing issues of our time.

Then again, due to the breadth of the mass incarceration challenge, Rauschenberg's pivot shouldn't come as a complete surprise. After all, when Koch Industries teams up with the ACLU to end the United States' "40-year addiction to incarceration," anything is possible. (Although, as this eye-opening New Yorker piece suggests, the Kochs' initial foray into criminal justice reform primarily focused on easing Draconian penalties for white-collar criminals. But we digress.)

Bottom line here? In a space where the term "artist as activist" sounds a bit ephemeral, the Rauschenberg Foundation is putting meat on the bones, first by coalescing this year's class of winners around a single issue, and second, by providing an infrastructure to enable honest-to-goodness change.

To the latter point, the foundation will convene the 2016 Artist as Activist Fellows on their residency campus in Captiva, Florida, providing a venue for the artists to exchange strategies and connect to leadership in the fields of art and justice, expanding their network of allies and partners. 

Click here for more information on the Rauschenberg Foundation's Artist as Activist fellowship.