Direct Support: Why This New Grant is a Surprising Outlier in Arts Philanthropy

After coming across the Foundation for Contemporary Arts' (FCA) new annual Roy Lichtenstein Award, I couldn't help but read into a comment by Jack Cowart, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation's executive director.

"We especially hope this will challenge and inspire future named awards by other artists to support this notable program of direct grants to deserving artists," Cowart said, insinuating that artists don't receive as much direct financial support as they should. Cowart's essentially telling other grantmakers to get with the program, and you know what? He's on to something.

Consider corroborating evidence out of Los Angeles. If any city should have a vibrant philanthropic support network for individual artists, it would be L.A., right? Well, not exactly. Last year, the Davyd Whaley Foundation launched with the goal of filling an "overlooked gap in L.A.'s art philanthropy," namely the lack of support of a "certain population of individual artists working in Southern California."

At least the FCA is doing its part. Its Roy Lichtenstein Award, seeded by a $1 million endowment gift from the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, will be similar to other named prizes, like those for FCA founder John Cage, as well as Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly and Dorothea Tanning. These prizes make up part of the foundation's Grants to Artists program, with $40,000 in unrestricted funds earmarked for an artist to be selected by the FCA’s board.

Which brings me back to why we don't see more direct support for individual artists. Theories abound, but perhaps the most obvious culprit is the ever-expanding and increasingly diverse demand for arts funding. Grantmakers nowadays face a seemingly unlimited pool of viable candidates ranging from organizations supporting "positive social change" to "legacy" institutions building new wings. There simply isn't enough money to go around. 

Another more cynical theory suggests that donors like having, for a lack of a better term, "control," and there are more effective ways to advance a cause than cutting a check to a painter. We see donors' penchant for control (some would call it "micromanaging") most acutely in the area of organizational giving. According to a November 2014 Grantmakers for Effective Organizations study, only 25 percent of total funds allotted fell under the "no strings attached" rubric of general operating support. 

Of course, artists regularly receive indirect support through these middlemen—e.g., recipient arts organizations—that receive funding from grantmakers. The L.A.-based Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts supports projects at institutions spearheaded by individual artists. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts supports "cultural organizations that in turn, directly or indirectly, support artists and their work."

As a practical matter, it's easier for a foundation to support intermediaries that do the legwork of identifying artists and cutting checks than to take on that direct grantmaking itself. 

The FCA and the Davyd Whaley Foundation, meanwhile, join funders like the Herb Alpert Foundation, Creative Capital, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation—which has had a particularly large footprint in Southern California—in providing direct support for artists. Unfortunately, it's not enough to refute Jack Cowart's larger point. This kind of unfettered support isn't as common as you'd think.

Fortunately for artists, this dynamic is changing. As this recent post suggests, thanks to the internet, looming budget cuts, and a growing awareness of the importance of the arts, some digital age patrons, both individual and institutional, are increasingly providing artists with a "pathway to success and economic stability, providing living expenses, supplies, pep talks and more."

These "angel investors" may not resemble funders like the FCA in the traditional grantmaking sense, but if the end result—some kind of financial support for artists—is the same, why argue over semantics?