Second Act: A Funder's Initiative to Provide Unrestricted Artist Support

photo: Sasa Dzambic Photography/shutterstock

photo: Sasa Dzambic Photography/shutterstock

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation wound down its Artist Awards in 2017, only to bring it back in a modified form as a core component of its mission moving forward. It just announced the seven winners of its 2018 class, and in doing so, addressed two of the big trends in arts philanthropy right now.

First, as government agencies cut back, Duke's $1.925 million payout underscores the growing role of private arts funders, especially in fields like dance, jazz and theater. Second, amid an ever-expanding and increasingly competitive demand for arts funding, more patrons seem to be realizing that they could be doing more to support individual artists. Duke's awards provide a critical, no-strings-attached lifeline to this surprisingly overlooked demographic.

I'll drill a bit deeper on these trends in a moment. But first, let's turn our attention to the awards program and its intriguing backstory.

Duke initially conceived the Doris Duke Artists Awards as an initiative to support artists working in jazz, contemporary dance and theater. The initiative officially ended in 2017, but its success convinced Duke to resurrect the awards, with no expiration in sight. Going forward, the foundation will continue to award up to seven Doris Duke Artist Awards on an annual basis. 

The new awardees include Dee Dee Bridgewater, Regina Carter and Stefon Harris for their continuing contributions to jazz; Michelle Dorrance and Okwui Okpokwasili for contemporary dance; and Muriel Miguel and Rosalba Rolón for theater. Each receives $250,000 in flexible funding, along with up to an additional $25,000 to encourage contributions to retirement savings.

Duke's announcement came around the same time that the Shubert Foundation awarded $30 million—up from $26.8 million last year—to over 500 performing arts organizations across the U.S. And while Schubert's payout focuses on organizations, both foundations provide critical unrestricted support to historically underfunded areas like jazz, dance and theater.

Commenting on this year's class of Doris Duke Artist Awards winners, CEO Edward P. Henry said, "For us, it’s pretty simple: Like our programs in medical research, child well-being and the environment, we recognize that the arts also are critically important to our communities. And at the heart of the arts is the individual artist. This award frees artists to be artists by providing them with the financial security to take risks and to make great work."

Two funders that agree with Henry's assessment are United States Artists and the MacArthur Foundation. The former provides an unrestricted $50,000 Fellowship Award. It awarded 45 fellowships in 2018. Five fellows hailed from the dance field while six were active in "theater and performance.” Nine were musicians or composers.

Meanwhile, MacArthur's Fellows Program is a $625,000, no-strings-attached award to "extraordinarily talented and creative individuals as an investment in their potential." It selected 24 fellows in 2017. One fellow, Annie Baker, was a playwright. Two were musicians or composers.

Other prominent funders providing direct support to artists include the Herb Alpert Foundation, Creative Capital, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

And while all these grantmakers constitute a pretty impressive funding pool, corroborating evidence suggests a growing number of funders realize that individual artists could use more help.

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." The idea that individual artists are "overlooked" in the city exploding with arts philanthropy may sound strange, but there you have it.

Similarly, upon announcing the Foundation for Contemporary Arts' new Roy Lichtenstein Award, Jack Cowart, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation's executive director, said, "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." 

Which brings me to the other important element of Duke's Artist Awards. The initiative aims to empower winners "through the freedom of unrestricted support to take creative risks, explore new ideas, and pay for important professional and personal needs not typically funded by the project-related grants."

The keyword here is "unrestricted." All too often, gifts, whether to organizations or artists, come with strings attached. Some funders may not be particularly keen on recipients using their payout to, say, take a Hawaiian vacation or put a down payment on a condo. Duke, however, is fine with this.

Program director Maurine Knighton explained to NPR that unrestricted support can heighten impact by "allowing artists to pursue the sort of life goals that the rest of us have, whether that's sending a child to college, or owning a home, or engaging in exploration or travel. We want to recognize that artists are like everyone else and they deserve to be supported."

At the end of the day, the most compelling evidence pertaining to the vitality of unrestricted artist support across underfunded fields comes from Duke itself. The funder could easily have wrapped up the initiative, content in the fact that it awarded $29.625 million to 108 noteworthy artists through the Doris Duke Artist Awards since May 2012. 

But to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, there are second acts in arts philanthropy. And sometimes the second act looks slightly different than the first.

"We're keeping it going despite the fact that it means we need to find the resources within our regular annual budget," Knighton said. "We were providing 20 awards every year for five years, but we knew we couldn't absorb that level of funding. It meant we had to scale back to up to six or seven a year, and it might be as few in a given year as three."

Duke also chose to stop using a third-party administrator for the Artist Awards, bringing the day-to-day of the program in-house. Another change involves the search process itself. Previously, candidates were identified through what Knighton called an "internal formula for eligibility." Moving forward, the process will involve nominators, reflecting a need "to open up our aperture in terms of who should be considered."

2018 award recipient Regina Carter spoke of the importance of Duke's continuing support for individual artists.

"If they didn't have the help of this award," she said, "maybe a given piece wouldn't have been heard, or they wouldn't have been able to take it on the road and really develop it. Or maybe they can afford to take a gig that they couldn't take before, a gig that's important to do, or a big help to someone else.

"So the Artist Award doesn't just help that particular artist. It helps many people."