Are We Artists? Or Fundraisers?

by Christopher Hirschmann Brandt

Since I began working with Medicine Show Theatre, and ever more since the deaths of the company’s two founders in 2003 and 2015, the job that has brought me the greatest amount of tzuris is writing grant applications. I can’t say that’s taken the most time, since building sets, maintaining the theatre, sewing costumes, taking and teaching workshops, rehearsing and performing add up to much more time. But grantwriting – any sort of fundraising – is the most stressful and unpleasant.

This was not always so. The Open Theater, which was in a way our progenitor, since we were founded by a cohort of Open Theater actors who wanted to move in a new direction, did not look first for grants. In 1961-62 about a dozen actors decided to make their own theatre when their teacher, Nola Chilton, left the country. They invited others to join them in a new company dedicated to developing new acting techniques for the new experimental writing that was emerging in response to the world’s rapid social and political changes.

Did the Open Theater first secure government and foundation grant money so they would be guaranteed a solid base for their work? No they did not, according to one of its founding members, Barbara Vann (who along with other Open alums was one of the founders of Medicine Show.) They pooled their money (about $3-5 each per week) and rented a decrepit loft on 14th Street near 6th Avenue. They cleaned the place, made a studio out of it, and started working. They worked privately, without an audience, for a couple of years, each contributing to the rent and to the work. When they were satisfied that their discoveries were worthy they began inviting friends – mostly painters, artists, sculptors, composers and poets – to watch, comment, and suggest new possibilities. When they had a small repertory of pieces, they began performing them for the public. Then Walter Kerr, the Times’ chief theatre critic, came and saw The Serpent and wrote a rave review for the front page of the Sunday Arts section. But the point of all this work was neither to glean Kerr’s approval nor to make money, it was to find a new way to make art in the theatre.

Money came later, and money is very helpful to an artist or an arts organization, but it was not the goal. Actually, money can be extremely ruinous to one’s attempts to make something new. A good example, not from the arts community: in the eighties and early nineties there was a brilliant job training program for “at risk” (i.e. black and brown) youth. A woman in East Harlem saw that there were three enormous problems in the barrio – tenement buildings either burned out or abandoned, homeless families, and youths with no job skills. She was not the first to notice, but she was the one who combined the three negatives to make a positive. With a small amount of seed money and support from the community she set up a program for youth to get a GED while learning construction skills by renovating abandoned buildings, into which homeless families could move. Her idea was replicated in other New York neighborhoods, in Boston, Atlanta, Cleveland and other cities.

Brilliant. And it worked. I taught both GED and construction skills in New York City’s Lower East Side iteration; many of the students had been inside and had to do the program as a condition of their paroles, and most did not think much of the program when they began. But perhaps half of them, or even more, completely turned their lives around—an amazing batting average.

What happened next is the lesson: the federal government, in the form of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, saw the program’s success and decided to help by throwing lots of money at it. Of course, with the money came mission statements, program descriptions, application forms, benchmarks, monthly and quarterly reports, annual reports, budget projections, etc., etc. Less than half a decade later, the program was dead. No more jobs for teachers, construction workers, program administrators or counselors. No more job training for youths who needed it. No more newly renovated homes for families in need. Over and done.

As Clement Petitjean writes in a Jacobin article:

Most [non-profit organizations]… rely on philanthropic foundations and private donors for resources and organizational survival…. Applying for grants, obeying the specific dictates of each grant, and reporting on how the grant was spent are all significant aspects of [non-profit administrators’] work today. [They must] …deal with money and fundraising, whether it’s writing grants, managing grant portfolios, or meeting with funders and donors.

With foundation grants come injunctions to goal-setting, quantification, measurable outcomes, and individual performance…. — all these are questions that are always in the back of organizers’ minds.

These are important benchmarks for any collective project, of course. But as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor emphasizes in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, foundations change the way [organizations] go about their work, as well as the issues they choose to organize around.

Sad, but true – for an arts organization there is always the temptation to choose projects by how likely they are to get funded, rather than how likely they are to break new artistic ground, to put their own survival above their artistic purpose. This is completely understandable. We do have to think about a project’s budget, but that should never be the primary consideration. If it is, we cannot take a chance on a project failing. But if you never take that chance, indeed if you never fail, then you are not doing the work. Picasso once told Gertrude Stein that those who make things for the first time must make them both ugly and beautiful, for no one yet knows the difference. Then after the new way has been created, they and others can get rid of the ugly and keep the beautiful. Just compare the early cubist experiments by Picasso, Gris and Braque with cubist paintings they made in the twenties. But when they began in 1907, there were no guarantees, and they were often tempted to give up. According to Petitjean, “In the 1960s, the ‘slow and respectful’ organizing efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the Mississippi Delta… were not framed in terms of whether or not the right to vote was ‘winnable,’ but in a broader commitment to [transformation of both individuals and society].” No guarantees.

So one question is, have we set up a method of arts funding that rewards timidity and punishes the bold? Have we done the same to movements for social justice? Imagine Occupy or Black Lives Matter applying for a major grant. “Who is your executive director?” “We don’t have one.” “What, you are leaderless?” “No, fools, we told you already – we’re leader-full.” “Well, how about an annual report?” “Annual report of what? How many Black youths have been murdered by cops?” “Sorry you’re so negative, but our guidelines do not allow us to fund blah blah blah.”

Another question is illustrated by a meeting we had with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs several years ago. DCA had defunded us, and Barbara Vann, our then Artistic Director, and I decided to challenge that. We met with our “liaison,” a twenty-something woman, and with the DCA’s head honcho. First, we pointed out that we had served New York City for over four decades on a very low budget by presenting a wide range of theatre, from performance art to “lost” Cole Porter musicals. We were told that no weight at all was given to the past, funding was strictly about the now. And the “process” was extremely competitive. OK, we said, so what are your criteria? 1) Administrative ability – check, since we’ve been doing it for over 40 years. 2) Fiscal responsibility – ditto. And number 3) Artistic quality – to which I asked how they had any idea whether we did quality work or not, since not a single person from the agency had been to see the work. It turned out that the applications were judged on how good the applications were. That obviously means that those groups who are good at grant applications, or have enough money to hire a pro, get the grants, and those groups, like Medicine Show, which care most about the art and see the finances only as a necessary evil, do not. Well, that time we did get the agency, a bit red in the face, to reinstate our funding. But it never should have been an issue.

The third question is, what are these funding agencies? Is their real purpose to fund art and civic action? Or perhaps we should ask, is that still their purpose? Perhaps they started out that way, but like all bureaucracies, they are filled with bureaucrats whose main purpose is to ensure the continuation of their own jobs. That’s just the nature of all bureaucracies, governmental and private. That twenty-something DCA “liaison” was surely paid at least $40,000 a year when benefits are included. The largest yearly grant we ever received from that agency was about a quarter of that. Cui bono?

There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we support the arts and civic actions in this country. Big news, I know, especially now. There’s something wrong about the way the government and private foundations use funding to control content (see more in the Jacobin article cited above). But perhaps there is also something wrong with the groups seeking the funding. Maybe we should rely more on our own resources than on sucking on, or up to, the funding tit. Let’s not forget what the great Margaret Mead said: “Never think that a small group of like-minded people cannot change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” And every single time, without a guarantee of state funding.