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Philanthropy in Nearly Each Sector Is Transferring Towards Unrestricted Funding—Besides within the Arts. Why Is It So Arduous to Belief Artists?

Joanna Haigood, Love, A State of Grace (2022). Performance at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. Pictured: Saharla Vetsch. Photo by Walter Kitundu.

In art and beyond, money is fundamentally based on trust. Our economic system works on the basis of society’s trust and enables cooperation and exchange. However, if we trust money itself, why is art philanthropy so largely lacking in trust in artists? The limited nature of many forms of grantmaking—such as project-based support—implies that we lack confidence in an artist’s ability to direct how they allocate funds to support their practice.

Enter trust-based philanthropy – a style of support characterized by reciprocity, transparency and unconditional funding. This is a model that has gained popularity throughout the philanthropic sector, but has not yet caught on in art. However, it offers a promising solution to artist trust and offers a model for deeper, more meaningful support.

Artists have been asking sponsors this question of trust for years, a dialogue that has significantly shaped the development the Rainin Scholarship– an annual program we created with United States Artists to honor four anchor artists in the San Francisco Bay Area with $100,000 in unrestricted grants and additional support. The Fellows can spend the money on anything they see fit. This approach recognizes that artists’ individual needs are different and they are the best experts on how to improve their practices. Whether they choose to spend the money on housing, healthcare, or future projects, our approach emphasizes autonomy and real impact, values ​​consistent with the trust-based philanthropy model.

The Rainin Fellowship embodies trust-based philanthropy and is rooted in the work of Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, A Five-year peer-to-peer funding initiative and platform addressing the inherent power imbalances between foundations and nonprofits. At the heart of this model is listening and learning. In establishing the Rainin Fellowship in the Bay Area, we worked with both national and local partners to better understand the needs of artists in our communities.

Portrait of Ted Russell, director of arts strategy and enterprise at the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. Copyright: Mitch Tobias. Courtesy of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation.

Our research partners at Helicon– a consultancy that works with artists, cultural leaders, philanthropists and other sectors to help mobilize the power of culture and creativity for an equitable and sustainable future— found that the top four concerns expressed by artists in the region across all disciplines and age groups were housing costs and displacement; the rising cost of living; a brain drain as artists move out of the region in greater numbers; and structural difficulties faced by artist-run organizations that struggle to recruit and retain staff.

Given longstanding issues relevant to the Bay Area’s arts ecosystem, the program was designed to address the changing needs of artists. Working across generations, practices, spaces and communities, each of our artist groups has different needs. Trusting them, communicating their experiences, breaking down funding barriers and giving them the space to offer new perspectives is crucial.

While this artist-centric approach emerged organically in our conversations with anchor artists in that particular region, we’ve found it resonates with larger conversations and shifts in the philanthropic landscape. Through the lens of trust-based philanthropy, we have discovered ways of emphasizing reciprocity and the redistribution of power in our relationships with artists, reimagining the traditional patron-artist dichotomy and transforming it into a partnership and amplifying values, which are noticeably absent from our current social framework.

These values ​​emerge at all levels of our community, beginning with the selection process. Through community nominations and peer and field review panels, decision-making for the community is decentralized and collaborative, harmonizing both local and national perspectives. United States Artists, which administers the program, provides applicants with detailed feedback and constructive criticism from the reader and panel reviews, allowing for transparency around the process itself. Finally, by providing unrestricted funding as well as complementary, tailored support – such as partnerships with web designers, videographers, financial planners, mentors, PR and communications experts, and archivists – the grant opens up an infinite realm of generative possibilities for further artists’ practices and furthers artists’ careers.

Joanna Haigood, Invisible Wings (1998). Performed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Massachusetts. Pictured left to right: Paul Benney, Robert Henry Johnson, Amara Tabor-Smith and Ralph Rotondo. Photo by Christian Duggan.

This year’s Rainin Fellows explore the region’s history, amplify diasporic narratives, highlight systemic injustices, and honor and advance the Bay Area’s activist legacy. Through our close partnership with them, we have learned more about their process-centric work and see further evidence why project-based funding is not the only answer to artists’ structural challenges.

For example, the work of Public Space Fellow Related Tacticsan artistic collaboration founded in 2015 between artists and creators Michele Carlson, Weston Teruya and Nathan Watson—foreground transdisciplinary exchange and collective art-making, which has led to the group’s projects and conversations taking place across multiple timelines. Theater grantee Sean San José is also committed to the organic processes of collaboration and longstanding creative partnerships across Magic Theater that don’t necessarily follow a linear timeline. Similarly, film grantee Mohammad Gorjestani and dance grantee Joanna Haigood develop projects that are site-specific, iterative and engage members of their community. Whether collaborating with the Public Defender’s Office or with aspiring dancers at Zaccho Dance Theatre, the continuous and multifaceted nature of their practices requires flexible schedules.

Confidence in the artists’ unique processes, the methods they choose, and the longevity of their collaboration is a central pillar of the Rainin Fellowship. Through unlimited funding and additional support, we recognize that their impact lies not only in the individual projects they exhibit and execute, but also in the enduring legacy of their pioneering creative frameworks.

The very architecture of our grantmaking process is deeply rooted in what we have learned from artists and the cultural field in general – lessons about emotional intelligence, empathy and the tremendous impact that holistic support can have on artists’ lives. We believe the bursary’s trust-based model could serve as a blueprint for other cultural funders, demonstrating how meaningful support of individual artists can strengthen our local and regional arts networks as a whole.

If society’s relationship to money is one of trust, it is imperative for us as art patrons to also base our support of artists on trust. We challenge other funders in this space to reconsider how we can fuel creative innovation and enable artists to truly thrive by trusting artists—not only with unrestricted funding, but also by allowing them to share how we do can best support them.

Ted Russel is Director, Arts Strategy and Ventures for the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. He leads the Foundation for the Arts’ strategic direction, supporting diverse, visionary artists and working with artists, partners and funders to foster an equitable ecosystem.

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