"Indispensable." Who are the Funders Backing Writing on the Arts?

Funders of arts writing programs might be the first to tell you that it isn't the sexiest of areas.

Its audience is relatively limited and employment opportunities are scarce—a problem further exacerbated by the proliferation of social media and dwindling print outlets. Relatively speaking, we don't see much money flowing to this area. 

And given recent news, one could reasonably conclude that this challenge will get worse before it gets better.

Last year, WQXR devoted a show to cost-conscious newspapers that are devoting less space to "serious" criticism. And earlier this year, Wall Street Journal Editor-in-Chief Gerard Baker announced that the publication will reduce its coverage of the arts and culture.

Then, there's the Trump Administration, whose policies aim to diminish, rather than expand, access to the arts. It all seems hopeless, doesn't it? Not so fast.

As we've seen across various segments of the philanthropy world—most notably in the field of journalism—funders have stepped up to counter the administration's more draconian impulses. Don't be surprised to see this phenomenon manifest itself in the arts writing field, especially given the form's ability to "help increase access to the arts"—to quote the National Award for Arts Writing (more on this award later).

But political parlor games notwithstanding, Inside Philanthropy coverage over the past six months points to a growing sector buoyed by the "artist as activist" phenomenon and the contemporary art boom. It's also a diverse group. Each funder acknowledges the importance of arts writing, but the reasons why tend to differ. In addition, each foundation supports arts writers across different mediums. 

So let's start with two of the largest institutional funders in the space, the Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital.

Both funders are contrarian in nature. Unlike, say, the Walton Family Foundation, Warhol and Creative Capital gravitate toward experimental and under-the-radar artists. And why wouldn't they? After all, everyone is destined to be famous for at least 15 minutes—even art writers!

Its Arts Writers Grant Program supports writers whose work "addresses contemporary visual art" through project-based grants. Eligible fields of publication include articles, blogs, books, new and alternative media, and short-term writing.

Last December, the program awarded $695,000 to 20 writers in amounts ranging from $15,000 to $50,000. As I noted at the time, the total funding represented a 12 percent increase over its 2013 cycle. That's an encouraging trend.

So why does the Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital consider it so important to fund arts writers? Simple. Writers provide an "indispensable contribution to the vital artistic culture." A vibrant arts culture is the sum of its parts, and when one input struggles, the larger ecosystem is worse off. 

Of course, the term "vital artistic culture" is a relative one. Its definition is in the eye of the beholder. Take a closer look at some recent Arts Writers Grant Program winners and the Warhol/Creative Capital vision of a "vital artist culture" begins to crystallize. 

The vision, not surprisingly, is inextricably linked to the "artist as activist" mentality permeating the arts philanthropy sector. Let me first provide the backdrop. 

Foundations are stepping up support of artists whose work seeks to drives meaningful social change. Other foundations—like, not coincidentally, Creative Capital—are subtly tweaking existing programs to bend toward this goal. Impact investors are giving money to "social entrepreneurs" at an accelerated rate. And established legacy institutions are panicked—momentum is shifting toward a less passive, more immersive and socially conscious art experience.

This trend is seeping into the most recent Arts Writers Grant Program grant cycle. One winner, Tatiana Flores, will Tatiana Flores will examine art and visual culture in the country under Hugo Chávez, an era especially critical as Venezuelans struggle with hyperinflation and starvation after his death. Another, Taylor Aldridge, writes short form articles that provide a fuller context of Detroit, a city unfairly depicted as a dystopian failed state. Laura A. L. Wellen, meanwhile, focuses on the plight of artists in Guatemala City.

The takeaway? This program isn't interested in say, a post-impressionist analysis of Matisse's use of color. (Not that there's anything wrong with it.) Rather, it is drawn to writing and commentary that is timely, vibrant, and socially conscious.

While this dynamic is conceptual in nature, there's another, more market-driven development buttressing the art writing field—the contemporary art boom. The Inside Philanthropy Visual Arts vertical is riven with stories of museums, both large and small, scrambling to acquire traditionally under-leveraged work.

There's unprecedented demand for the stuff, thus creating more opportunity for arts writers.

Which brings me to another funder and its own unique guiding principle regarding the craft. The Portland, Maine-based Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation believes that not only are arts writers good for the culture, they're also good for the artist.

The logic goes like this. In the cutthroat modern art world, writers generally have no financial skin in the game. They're not sellers, buyers or competitors. They're not related to the artist. They can provide the artist with a valuable service by viewing his work fairly and honestly. 

Leo Rabkin would know: He was an abstract artist and folk art collector based in New York City until his passing in 2015.

This sentiment lies at the heart of the Rabkin Award for art critics and journalists who write about art in the public media (as opposed to the academic press). This fall, the foundation will award eight art writers $50,000 each. "If done right, the Rabkin Award could be a great boon to an often overlooked part of the art world," said Rabkin Foundation board member Edgar Allen Beem.

It's worth noting this is a new program—another encouraging sign.

Then there's the Marfield Prize. Also known as the National Award for Arts Writing, it is given annually by the Arts Club of Washington to "nonfiction books about the arts written for a broad audience." The prize celebrates prose that is "lucid, luminous, clear and inspiring—writing that creates a strong connection with arts and artists."

The prize of $10,000—the only one of its kind in the country—honors nonfiction books first published in the U.S. by a single author who is living at the time of the book’s nomination.

Books may be about any artistic discipline (visual, literary, performing, or media arts, as well as cross-disciplinary works). Art history and criticism, biographies and memoirs, and essays are eligible; anthologies, creative works of fiction or poetry, books for children, exhibition catalogs, and self-published books are not.

In late March, the club announced the winner of the 11th annual prize: Rachel Corbett, for her book You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.

To summarize, unlike the Arts Writers Grant Program, which considers books as well as shorter-form media like blogs and articles, or the Rabkin Award for Art Writing, which rewards "journalists and critics" working in the public media, the Marfield Prize prefers good, old-fashioned books.

Funders like the Santa Fe-based Thoma Foundation, meanwhile, go a step further. It prefers broadening its horizons beyond the human race. Its Arts Writing Awards in Digital Art recognize writers discussing art produced by "...semi-automated machine-generated operations."

This grant suggests that though the applicant pool and audience may be limited, the arts writing field continues to expand into unchartered territory. One could even call it a sub-niche—and yet another healthy development for the sector as a whole.

Last but not least, we have funders potentially unwilling to commit to expensive annual prizes, which have been experimenting instead with more pragmatic funding approaches.

Back in November, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, put up money to help pay the salary of the Boston Globe music critic Zoë Madonna for 10 months.

Alluding to the initiative's inherent scalability, Stephen Rubin, the founder of the criticism institute, said, "I hope the Globe’s willingness to partner with us will be a model for other newspapers across the land." It's a low-risk approach, which should appeal to other foundations interested in promoting arts writing.

All of which brings me back to the inherent unsexiness of the craft.

Rabkin Foundation board member Edgar Allen Beem echoes my earlier hypothesis, noting that "the audience for art writing is far smaller than the audience for art and the material rewards are minimal." 

Beem is correct—up to a point.

Arts writers currently work in a field ruled by dichotomous forces. In one corner, there are government agencies and private enterprises intent on cutting back on access to the arts. In another, there's the prospect of surging demand thanks to the exploding interest in contemporary and socially conscious art, a diverse pool of donors, and the steady uptick in funding from reliable institutional players like Warhol and Creative Capital.

Beem's perspective may be accurate when viewed through the lens of traditional arts writing. Widen the lens, and the prognosis suddenly looks more encouraging.