On the Development of the Emerging Artist Grant Program and Our Nomination Process

<p><small>Young Joan Mitchell with early work <em>Figure and the City</em>, circa 1950.</small></p>

Direct support to visual artists is central to the Foundation’s mission. When Joan Mitchell established the Foundation in her will, she was specific in her desire to have the organization aid visual artists. We are honored and fortunate to be able to prioritize unrestricted funding to artists, and in 2015, we are thrilled to be sharing our newest initiative, the Emerging Artist Grant Program.

In announcing this new program, we see an opportunity to share our internal thought processes and the conversations we continue to have with our staff and Board. Two questions in particular have guided the development of our programming. First, how do artists’ needs change over their lifetime? Second, given the Foundation’s values of inclusivity and cultural equity, how do we ensure that we are supporting a broad spectrum of artists and living our values?

Defining support for artists in the early stages of their careers is particularly complicated: When is an artist considered emerging? What marks a transition to the next phase of an artist’s career? What defines an artist starting out, versus an artist who is established?

The Foundation began serving emerging artists in 1997 through the MFA Grant Program, which provided grants to 191 artists over a span of sixteen years. The MFA Grant was envisioned to fund artists at the critical time of transition from the structure of a graduate program to working professionally as an artist. Recipients of the MFA Grant received not just a financial award, but were also given the opportunity to participate in a group exhibition with a catalogue, and more recently, provided opportunities for professional development.

In many measures, the program was a success: it made a valuable impact on the recipients, and certainly engaged a group of artists that could be defined as emerging. Our MFA Grant recipients have robust studio practices, and the grant enabled many to accelerate towards their goal of thriving solely on a career as a professional artist. However, we still questioned if this select group should be the sole target of these resources. Thousands of groundbreaking and distinguished artists began their careers by pursuing an MFA degree, and we stand by the talent and innovation of our past MFA Grant recipients. A number of us on staff at the Foundation hold this degree, and value our experiences greatly. Higher education in fine arts is an undeniable and important component of the arts landscape, yet we do not want to communicate through our programming that it is the only pathway available to artists to receive recognition.

To further investigate this idea, the Foundation began to explore new avenues of engaging an even broader, more heterogeneous group of artists, beyond the system of higher education. The MFA Grant program was placed on hold in 2012, and over the next two years we held a series of conversations with artists and individuals in the cultural community to determine how to serve a broader population of emerging artists. Our constituents confirmed our ideals in expanding the pool of artists, and advised us on how to best reach a wide community. Again and again, we received feedback on the importance of supporting artists early in their career not just through grants, but also through professional development programming that would provide opportunities for education, resource sharing, and community building.

In addition, the conversations, both internally and with the field, have confirmed our current commitment to using a nomination system as part of the application process for this program. This is also a process we get many questions about, and consequently wanted to share the key reasons behind this decision.

We recognize that a nomination process does not serve every single artist, and yet neither can an open call system, and so both must be represented in the philanthropic landscape. With an open call, a very small group of people are reviewing a great number of artists’ work. While there is the significant benefit that anyone can apply, as an arts organization committed to cultural and socioeconomic equity, we feel that an outcome determined by so few people is not a fit for an initiative such as this, which is targeting the expansive population of “emerging artists”. With a nominator system, a much broader and larger group of individuals endorses artists they already know to be showing potential in their work and in their communities, which generates a smaller pool of applicants, dense with quality and diversity. Resources that may have been spent on reviewing thousands of applications can instead be focused on directly supporting artists.

Our nominators provide us with knowledge, access, and grassroots-level outreach that we simply cannot achieve on our own. Our nomination system is based on an ongoing and thorough process of looking nationally for potential nominators who we know to be deeply committed to the artists in their communities at all levels. These people are artists, curators, organizers, and arts administrators, selected to represent all regions of the United States. We have been using and developing our nomination process since our inaugural Painters & Sculptors grant in 1994, and are confident that it generates laudable and diverse candidates. An essential part of this approach is the nominator’s anonymity; it allows them to share with us who they feel is most deserving, without feeling pressure from their peers. The pool of nominators is regularly evaluated and rotated to allow fresh perspective and voice into the process.

Like the Painters & Sculptors Grant, the Emerging Artist Grant will provide unrestricted funding. We intentionally do not base the awards on proposed projects, believing that artists deserve recognition for their ongoing practices and acknowledging that many artists do not create on a project basis. In turn, the application process is straightforward; we want the artists’ work to be the primary focus of the review.

We are committed to working deeply with artists and it is our intention to make a system that advocates, creates allies, and provides resources over an artist’s lifetime. As the Joan Mitchell Foundation evaluates the impact and overall success of our programming, we look forward to continuing to refine our ways of supporting artists and fostering an ongoing spirit of inquiry.

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