"Everyone Is Welcome." A Funder Backs Arts Writing for the People

 Photo:  BrAt82/Shutterstock

Photo:  BrAt82/Shutterstock

Given the highly charged political climate and President Trump’s plans to reduce public funding for the arts, cultural organizations are ramping up efforts to make the case for the arts to the larger populace. The field of arts writing is one area where funders can move the dial, especially since national outlets continue to cut coverage.

As previously noted, this field is surprisingly robust thanks to the contemporary art boom, the proliferation of digital media, and funders like the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation, which recently awarded a total of $400,000 to eight writers—$50,000 each—as part of its Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.

When I first looked at the prize back in April, I quoted Rabkin Foundation board member Edgar Allen Beem, who noted that "the audience for art writing is far smaller than the audience for art and the material rewards are minimal." That may have been true then, but the narrative is changing, thanks in no small part to the Rabkin Prize.

The Rabkin Prize focuses on writers who write for general audiences, rather than academic readers. Anyone who dabbles in mediums like reviews, blogs and narrative videos is eligible for the prize, regardless of whether he or she has full-time employment or has a book or new initiative in the works. 

It's an important and democratizing concept. Simply consider how Rabkin's eligibility criteria fit into the larger arts philanthropy climate.

I recently spoke with VIA Art Fund President Bridgitt Evans on the state of arts philanthropy, and she cited the need to shift public opinion around the arts as a huge challenge moving forward: "I am not just talking about attracting philanthropists and communicating the value or impact. I am thinking on a more grass-roots level. Culture is under attack, it is seen as a privilege of coastal elites, not as a shared value and priority as a nation," she says.

While we may be reluctant to inject the dreaded "c" word—that'd be "class"—into an innocuous piece on arts writing, Evans has a point. Many Americans view "highbrow" art forms as privileges of a supposed cognitive elite. David Brooks, recently summarizing some of the takeaways from Richard Reeves' new book Dream Hoardersfurther expounds on this idea:

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

By focusing on writers—some of whom don't have full-time work or a CV with 30 years of experience—that appeal to general audiences, Rabkin's prize makes "the arts" more accessible and less class-driven.

Don't just take my word for it. Look no further than Rabkin Prize recipient Carolina Miranda. During her tenure at the Los Angeles Times, Miranda has specialized in covering culture "both high and low," including stories featuring a "lowrider piñata," the controversy surrounding Sam Durant's "Scaffold" sculpture, and "the last porn theaters in Los Angeles."

As for the second component of Beem's quote—the part about "minimal" financial rewards for writers—the Rabkin Prize has that one covered. The grant matches the highest awards given by the Creative Capital | Andy Warhol Foundation Grant Program, which range from $15,000 to $50,000.

Meanwhile, I recently came across a noteworthy new initiative courtesy of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Like most large museums, SFMOMA has serious space constraints. It can only show a mere 5 percent of its work at any given time. And so the museum devised an elegant solution: Send Me SFMOMA, a text messaging service that sends images of artworks in response to personal interests.

The service is a great example of a museum using technology to reach new audiences, and in the process, change the prevailing optics across the arts world. A modern art museum in San Francisco—the home of Nancy Pelosi, no less!—needn't be the cloistered playground of the "coastal elites." Can't tell the difference between a Picasso and Pico de Gallo? Not a problem. Send them a text anyway.

The same idea suffuses the Rabkin Prize. By rewarding arts writers that dabble in "high and low cultures," the Dorothea and Leo Rabkin Foundation is doing its part to re-shape the narrative so that "everyone," to paraphrase David Brooks, "is welcome."