Meet the Winners of an Award That Protects the "Exact Moment" of Artistic Creation

Arts donors are like your children. You love them all equally—except sometimes, you love one more than the other.

We cannot tell a lie. We definitely have a soft spot for Herb Alpert and his foundation. For starters, we're huge fans of his music. How can you not love "A Taste of Honey?" 

Secondly, and most importantly, Alpert's foundation, by channeling its namesake's intuitive, "what feels right" approach to the arts, is a refreshing anomaly in a world of rigorous performance measurement, metrics, and cultural data profiles.

"I'm intrigued by the mystery of art. I love the creative process," Alpert told Inside Philanthropy last year. "There's something about arts that resonates with me, that you can't put your finger on. What is that thing you feel when you look at a painting that moves you? What is that thing when I stand in front of a Jackson Pollack painting and get goosebumps. Why? I can't analyze what he did. I don't know how he did it."

This week, the Herb Alpert Foundation announced the winners of 2016's Herb Alpert Award in the Arts, an unrestricted prize of $75,000 given annually to five risk-taking, mid-career artists working in the fields of dance, film/video, music, theater, and the visual arts.

The five recipients are musician Dohee Lee, playwright Anne Washburn, artist Simone Leigh, choreographer Ishmael Houston-Jones, and filmmaker Cauleen Smith of UC San Diego.

The prize was initiated and funded by the Herb Alpert Foundation and has been administered by California Institute of the Arts since 1994. The Alpert Award honors and supports artists respected for their creativity, ingenuity, and bodies of work, at a moment in their lives when they are poised to propel their art in new and unpredictable directions. 

In fact, the foundation commissioned a very cool short film about the prize and the people it has touched over the past 22 years. Check it out here.

We're particularly intrigued by how the foundation defines the ethos of the award. Recipients, the foundation notes, are "curious, they wrestle with the given. From the beginning, the prize was viewed as a way to encourage artists to take risks." Alpert himself said, "The thing that’s beautiful about being an artist is that you get to be in the exact moment of your life when you are creating. How do we protect it?"

Last year, Alpert also described the winners of the awards to us this way:

They're not doing the cookie-cutter arts stuff. They're not in a particular genre. They're experimenters. They're people who are mid-career and they're pushing it as far its they can. And to be able to give them a little assistance to to push it further is something that really gives me pleasure.

And what do the past winning artists themselves think about what the grant means? Here are just a few telling quotes:

  • Musician Vijay Iyer said, "I took it as an urgent, timely directive to push myself further."
  • "I want to make work that makes people brave," noted collaborative theatre artist Lisa D'Amour.
  • "The greatest danger is believing that there is a right way to make a film," said filmmaker Ellen Bruno.

In related news, check out a refreshing case of "the grantmaker getting a grant," if you will, in the form of an $11.7 million gift from the David Dobrow Trust to establish an endowment that will ensure the Herb Alpert School of Music's long-term financial security. 

And one last thing. We were, of course, joking in our introduction. We love all funders equally, no exceptions. (Although it's also worth noting that Herb can really croon with the best of them.)

Related: Herb Alpert, a Veteran Arts Philanthropist, Is Drawn to What "Feels Right"