When the National Endowment for the Arts drastically reduced its funding to individual artists in 1996, “it revealed how thin [government] support for individual artists was,” said Ruby Lerner, the executive director of Creative Capital. “It wasn’t just about the money,” she added. “There was the psychic impact of being devalued.” Add to this the vulnerable state in which artists normally found themselves, often moving from project to project without time to think strategically about their careers. “That’s not a recipe for success,” Lerner explained. Not just the livelihood of individual artists but the production of noncommercial art — some of the most risky, interesting art being made — was threatened.
In collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation, Lerner aimed to create an intermediary funder that would help artists develop a sustainable practice, not just complete a project. A venture capital approach seemed to suit the goal nicely: make a long-term commitment, provide capacity-building support, take an interest in measurable outcomes, attract other support to grantees’ projects, and aim for a financial return on investment. The model they created remains much the same today. Grantees have access to a four-part system that supports the project, the person and the community of Creative Capital artists, and engages the public. The organization has also spun-off a professional development program to provide career services to other artists at workshops around the country.
“It’s not that we don’t ever fund people who are just doing cool projects,” Lerner said, “but we’re looking to be a catalyst”— by supporting a project that will advance an artist’s craft, for example, or funding a PR consultant at just the right time. She cited one grantee who, in short order and with Creative Capital’s support, “got a solo sculpture show, performed at Sundance, and was offered a major installation” at an important contemporary art space. “We create opportunities for people,” said Lerner. “Would there have been the same impact if we had just sent him a check? 99.9 percent chance, no! We’re concerned with creating a legacy.”
Creative Capital’s high-engagement approach does not work equally well for everyone. Those who benefit most are artists who are ready to engage with the full program. The organization’s support is less useful for artists with well- developed infrastructures or for early-stage artists without sufficient profes- sional experience to understand the value of Creative Capital’s help. Artists are required to give back a portion of income they make on a funded project, after recouping expenses. Even those who don’t turn a profit often pay back in other ways, such as by serving on selection panels.
Funding individuals is a key part of the “ecology” of the arts field, Lerner explained. “If you’re going to support a creative culture, you have to support the individuals who are creating — whether that’s in the arts or medicine or business. Then you have to make sure they can succeed in the ecology of these various fields. A brilliant individual artist needs an outlet, otherwise where’s the impact? It’s about filling the entire spectrum.”