the dreaminess of unrestricted grants

Unrestricted grants sound dreamy. St. Louis, MO has just announce that its Regional Arts Commission will disperse ten unrestricted grants of $20,000 each to individual artists.

The grants will come with no strings attached, said Jill McGuire, executive director. A visual artist need not stage an exhibit at the end of the fellowship….

The grants come in response to the Artists Count study, conducted last year. The study’s chief finding is that about one-third of artists work multiple jobs. It also found 46 percent earn less than $25,000 annually.

“Artists say their No. 1 need is time,” McGuire said. “For them, time is money. So by giving them money, we give them the freedom to maybe work one less job and have that time to create.”

This is a big deal. As I’ve found in my own experience, it’s much easier to get funding for art education projects than for art:

Not many public arts agencies give money directly to artists. After conservatives threatened to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s, the NEA and many state and local arts commissions focused on funding programs that reached the underserved — classical concerts in inner-city parks, dance workshops for rural students, writing programs for prisoners.

Recently, however, some arts commissions have started to offer artist fellowships.

Not surprisingly, arts commissions in Minnesota, Chicago, Portland and Seattle all offer large grants.

But so does Cleveland — 20 grants of $20,000 annually….

“When we started there weren’t a lot of models for funding individual artists,” said Cleveland program manager Susan dePasquale.

“After the culture wars at the National Endowment of the Arts, a lot of those grants stopped, but slowly they’ve been picking up. Most of those grants are smaller. But after looking at other programs and hearing directly from the artists themselves, we settled on a very generous and forward-thinking program that really is an investment in our artists. We have a very vibrant, creative community here, and we wanted to support that.”

What would I do with an unrestricted grant? The same thing that I’d hope to do with my applications to residency and project opportunities—make more ambitious art and develop exhibitions—only in my own city, my own studio, and with all my tools at hand. I could get a bigger studio, have more space for bigger projects and  comfortable studio visits, and spend more focused time in my local world-class exhibitions and research institutions. I could let ideas marinate a little more, to block off time for advancing my skills with the reference books I’ve accumulated and the classes that I haven’t yet made time for. It would be a residency of my own making: time and space to focus.


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