"The Value of Artists' Labor." An Influential Funder Makes the Case for More Direct Support

  sainthorant daniel/shutterstock

 sainthorant daniel/shutterstock

In a post earlier this summer, I noted that working artists in the country's most expensive housing market were the big winners in the Kenneth Rainin Foundation's two-year strategic review.

At the time, Shelley Trott, director, arts strategy and ventures, alluded to changes in Rainin's New & Experimental Works (NEW) and Open Spaces programs to "elevate the artist’s role and vision in supported projects." Less than two weeks later, arts program officer Adriana Griñó penned a separate blog post laying out the changes in greater detail.

Given the relative dearth of direct support for individual artists and the Bay Area's outsized role in the national arts conversation, Rainin's calibration warrants a closer look. Let's start with changes to the NEW program.

Beginning in 2019, the program will require that two-thirds of grant funds be designated to artists and their direct expenses. The remaining one-third of the funds will be unrestricted for the applicant organization to direct toward project expenses, general operating needs, etc.

This may seem like a minor tweak, but I'd argue it's pretty significant.

"This decision was informed by the reality that many of our grantees’ projects are underfunded, which is often met with a reduction of artists fees," wrote Griñó. It's safe to say this fact of life isn't limited to Rainin's grantees. When a sponsoring arts organization needs to tighten the purse strings, artists fees are often the low-hanging fruit.

This reality is particularly acute for artists working in the Bay Area, where, as of June 2018, average apartment rent within 10 miles of San Francisco, California, was $3,697.

By reframing artists fees as a fixed cost rather than a flexible line item, Rainin's change to its NEW program provides regional artists with a much-needed financial boost. Of course, this means less money for the applicant organization, a point Griñó acknowledged when she wrote:

Our intention with this shift is not to make it more difficult to produce work in an already challenging environment, but rather to reinforce the value of artists’ labor, without which our work is irrelevant. As a community, we need to respond to the reality that artists cannot continue to live, let alone thrive in the Bay Area if they are not compensated for their work.

The good news? The remaining money for organizations, as noted, will be unrestricted. This, too, is important. Despite funders' theoretical penchant for organizational "flexibility," unrestricted funding remains a pretty rare commodity in arts philanthropy—as is the case across the funding world. 

Rainin, however, has no such reservations about cutting blank checks. "We trust that organizations are as committed to these projects as the artists executing them are," Griñó wrote. "We hope that this unrestricted funding plays a small role in allowing organizations to be agile in the face of an uncertain funding landscape."

Rainin's takeaways from its modified NEW program informed its decision to restrict one-third of grant funds to its Open Spaces program, which leverages public art as a means to address pressing local issues like gentrification and poverty. 

Throw in Rainin's support for the Community Arts Stabilization Trust, an initiative that seeks to keep organizations and artists from fleeing the Bay Area for more affordable pastures, and the regional—and, I would argue—national ramifications of its revamped strategy become clear. 

Much has been made about the fate of the arts in the Bay Area. It's not a pretty picture. Rents keep rising. The region's affluent tech demographic remains ambivalent toward the arts. And as the case study of the San Francisco-based Irvine Foundation suggests, the arts can get placed on the back burner when funders pivot toward social equity issues.

But rather than fold up their tents, the Bay Area's institutional arts funders are battening down the hatches. We've seen some pretty impressive and affirming gifts over the past six months, and changes at Rainin suggest that it's in it for the long haul, but also attuned to the specific pain points afflicting the region's artists and organizations.

Then again, given the state of the Bay Area housing market and the litany of challenges facing the region's artists and organizations, one could view Rainin's changes as a local issue relegated to an anomalous region of the country. This, I would argue, would be a mistake. 

Bay Area rents—and to perhaps a lesser extent, those in New York City—are certainly outrageous, but when viewed through the lens of scale, the prognosis isn't much better for artists operating in other U.S. cities. 

Over two years ago, the Portland Mercury published a piece titled "Can Portland Artists Survive the City’s New Gilded Age?" Around the same time, Chicago Magazine reported that rising rents were pushing galleries out of the city's West Loop. And earlier this year, art galleries in East Austin were being pushed out due to the exact same problem

The takeaway, here, is hopefully evident. Artists are being squeezed all over the country. In an arts philanthropy landscape that finds funders embracing best practices, practical solutions to keep artists and organizations in increasingly expensive cities are in high demand.

And so the mechanics behind Rainin's work, even though it's taking place in the crucible that is the Bay Area, can be replicated elsewhere. After all, what's stopping other regional funders from treating artist fees as a fixed cost? (That was a rhetorical question.)

Just as importantly, the underlying philosophy that informs Rainin's work is also exportable.

Funders unanimously agree on the artist's integral role in American life. Indeed, this sentiment infuses one of the biggest trends in modern arts philanthropy right now—the idea that the artist can be a vehicle for meaningful social change.

But as previously noted, sometimes, the numbers don't match the rhetoric. Recall how Rainin's Griñó alluded to the fact that artists fees are often the first thing on the financial chopping block. This reality stems from the larger perception that in the grand scheme of things, artists are expendable. They're the archetypal "charity case." They should be grateful for the few crumbs they get.

Rainin is clearly trying to change the narrative, here. Fortunately, they're not alone.

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. 

Commenting on this year's 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."

As for changes to Rainin's grantmaking, its increased support for working artists represents a clarion call for funders and the general public to discard the tired trope of the artist as indentured servant.

"Artists need to be compensated for the significant investment of their time and skills that this complex work requires," Griñó wrote. "We acknowledge that these changes may pose a challenge, but we believe working toward more adequately compensating artists for their work is one worth trying to meet. 

"The arts sector can no longer continue to persist on the unpaid labor of the workforce that is core to its existence."