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Should grants be awarded to artists who don't need the money?

For The Stranger, Jen Graves writes about a $50,000 grant specifically earmarked for artists in need that was given to David Shields, a writer and tenured professor who makes $200,000 per year. The knowledge that Shields makes such a considerable salary came as surprise to the grant body made of Artist Trust and Frye Art Museum, who structured the grant application as income blind. (Apparently grant applicants were intended to self-designate as “in need.”)

This brings up some questions: Should we award grants to artists who are not in need? How do we determine what “in need” means? What is the threshold? How would artists prove that they are in need? Personally, I’ve never applied for a grant in which I’ve had to reveal my tax return or salary information, but I guess they’re out there.

Read an excerpt of Graves’s article below, or the full version on The Stranger.

In December, Artist Trust and the Frye Art Museum announced jointly the 2015 winner of the largest award they give to an artist. It’s the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award for $50,000, and it went to writer David Shields.

The announcement brought on a spell of cognitive dissonance, which I’ll explain.

The $50,000 originates from an unusual source: a five-year gift of $1.1 million from the local Raynier Institute & Foundation to be given to artists through the Frye and Artist Trust (who organize the selection process).

The reason it’s unusual is that the Raynier Foundation is a social-services supporter whose founder cared about poverty and homelessness in addition to art and culture. His name was James W. Ray, and the foundation’s executor, Ed Gardner, said the creation of the Raynier Artist Awards would have pleased Ray because it was based in “the concept of supporting artists to meet their basic needs in life.”

The person who really thought up the concept for the awards was Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, the director of the Frye Art Museum. When the awards were announced in 2013, she said,

“We have spectacular artists living and working in the city who are struggling, who are very concerned with the day-to-day issues of life and at the same time maybe performing in New York or being flown to Sweden or being recognized in Iceland,” [Birnie Danzker] said.

“I said there needed to be an integrated approach to how we support artists, to provide artists with enough funds so that they don’t have to worry for at least a year about how they’re going to pay the rent and meet their most basic needs—so that they could do their work. Another thing I found was that the grants available to artists are very modest. You get down to whether you’re going to pay an artist 100 dollars or 200 dollars in order to perform—and this is not how it should be. In a city of our wealth and advantages, how could we set up a structure so that exceptional artists can advance their work?”
The theme of addressing economic inequity through the awards was at the top of Birnie Danzker and Artist Trust Executive Director Shannon Halberstadt’s joint statement in last month’s announcement of the winners.

“Especially in these times of growing income inequity, artists need the support of their communities,” their statement read. “We hope these awards will have a positive impact on the careers of these artists and the communities of which they are a part.”

I asked Halberstadt and Birnie Danzker to talk by phone after that, and both of them willingly complied. When Halberstadt got on the phone, I laid out the problem as succinctly as I knew how.

“Shannon, did you know that [award winner] David Shields is in a movie with James Franco bragging about making $200,000 a year?”

“Oh, no, you’re kidding,” Halberstadt said. “Oh, that’s not good.”

*Image above of David Shields, center, and James Franco, right via

Grants are supposedly based on excellence and bursaries on need, no? It is always tempting to award based on need, but that is not the intention of grants, as I understand them. I’m thinking linguistically, mind you. Usually the criteria for awarding a grant are quite clearly laid out, so if need is mentioned then by all means include need.


The distinction between grants and bursaries is very helpful here, I hadn’t thought of it those terms. I do think it’s a little tragic that most grants are awarded to the cream-of-the-crop who have already achieved financial success. I would personally love to see more merit-based grants that are earmarked for emerging artists and writers.

There are many grants for emerging artists and writers, only as far as I can see they are only called by the name ‘emerging’ in the USA. And the grants are mostly outside of the USA. I find the label ‘emerging’ kind of patronizing and not very useful. When I was Director of Printed Matter, I applied a couple of times for grants to show ‘emerging’ artists, only to have them suddenly become ‘hot’ artists before the grant was even adjudicated. Which meant that my application was then discarded.

Good intentions going awry to such an extent is not very edifying. I guess they had better checked the applicants’ needs, though I don’t know if that’s realizable on a large scale.

I fail to see the dissonance in the results. While the Raynier Foundation may have needs-based concerns in some areas, the guidelines for the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award do not mention need. Indeed, on the website of the Foundation, where these awards are discussed, need is not:

In any case, in questions of class, one of the main reasons that artists coming from upper classes have an advantage is not in direct cash flow, it’s in the familial safety net that allows for more risk-taking … if there is a catastrophic failure, the family can step in and bail the artist out. So, to really address need, do granting agencies have to audit not only the individual’s finances, but familial background as well? It’s not so easy …

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