How the William H. Johnson Foundation Prize Reduces Barriers to Entry for African-American Artists

Strategic planners are intimately familiar with the term "barriers to entry." The term describes the things that keep a business from establishing a foothold in a given area. The logic most certainly applies to nonprofit arts organizations, but also to individual artists, playwrights, musicians, etc.

After all, individual artists must balance their creative endeavors with the less-than-glamorous realities of paying the bills. They must navigate the commercial aspects of the art world, whether its maintaining a website, working with an agent, or dealing with curators. And all the while they must continually hone their craft, develop their technique, and become a better artist, sculptor, painter, etc.

These challenges can be even more acute for artists within specific communities, which is why a recent invitation for RFPs from the William H. Johnson Foundation is so important. The foundation, which was established in 2001 in honor of William H. Johnson, an American artist known for his compelling depictions of African-American life, is now accepting applications for the 2014 William H. Johnson Prize.

The prize will be awarded to an "early career" — more on that in a minute — African-American artist working in the fields of painting, photography, sculpture, printmaking installation, and/or "new genres." The winner will be chosen in December 2014 and will receive $25,000. The deadline is September 15, 2014. You can check out the RFP here.

This brings us back to the foundation's concept of "early career" and how it helps to minimize barriers to entry for emerging African-American artists. Grant guidelines take a somewhat liberal view of the term "early career," noting that it applies to artists who have "finished their academic work within a dozen years of the year the prize is awarded." Furthermore, there are no age restrictions and artists who have not earned BFAs for MFAs are still eligible to apply, as long as they have not been working as an artist for more than twelve years.

In other words, the award is for artists who are relatively new to the creative life, which, after all, makes a good deal of sense. An artist who's been plying his trade for 30 years will most likely have an edge over someone who is in their mid-20s. And winners will receive perhaps the two most important things to help break down barriers to entry in the art world: money and exposure.

(On a similar note, check out IP's take on the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, which awards $10,000 to an African-American author with an exceptional book of fiction published the previous year.)