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San Diego Foundation changes focus from institutions to artists in new program

by San Diego Union-Tribune

Do you have any friends or neighbors who are artists? Artists in the broadest sense of the word, whether musicians or painters, actors or writers?

Chances are, your answer is no.

“You go to the theater, you get all dressed up, the curtains go up and the lights go down, and when it’s over, you have no idea that person who delivered that wonderful performance might live in your neighborhood,” said Felicia Shaw, director of arts and culture at the San Diego Foundation. “They shop at Albertsons. They are real people. They are our heroes and we need to know their names.”

The foundation, one of the region’s primary funders of nonprofit institutions, is turning the traditional arts support model upside down with its new Innovation Through the Arts initiative. One of its primary components, the Creative Catalyst Fund, places the emphasis on supporting individual artists rather than arts institutions.

“Foundations typically support the organizations and hope the funding will trickle down to the artists,” Shaw said.

“We are shifting away from that business model.”

Whether the National Endowment for the Arts or large private foundations like the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, arts funders have been loath to directly underwrite individual artists. The NEA, after giving grants to several controversial artists in the 1980s, was forbidden by Congress to support individuals.

“There have been few notable additions to the funding landscape since then,” said Ben Cameron, director for the arts at Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (which, by the terms of Doris Duke’s will, only gives money to nonprofit organizations).

“But so many things are being reinvented. There’s some emerging discussion that the funding system may have forced artists in the past to incorporate as nonprofit organizations, which may not have been in their best interest or the best interest of the field.”

The San Diego Foundation’s groundbreaking program still requires that each artist have a nonprofit sponsoring organization, which will receive a nominal fee for providing technical support and a venue, but the program aims to put project grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 directly into the hands of the artists.

And by increasing the amount of income an artist, who typically works several part-time jobs, can make from his art, the foundation hopes to encourage more artists to live in San Diego.

“This effort reminds us that the artist is the central agent to the work we’re all trying to do,” Cameron said. “And we should be open to different ways of getting support to the field. So I applaud them. I hope it gains momentum.”

In developing the initiative, the foundation assessed how many artists are in San Diego County and the kind of work they do. The results (from an Internet-based survey released for the first time today): 10,330 artists. That’s only 0.33 percent of the county’s population of roughly 3 million people. But their significance extends far beyond their numbers, said Shaw, based both on their direct involvement in multiple projects and on their indirect impact on the communities where they live.

The foundation invited artists to submit a preliminary application for a Creative Catalyst Fund fellowship and to choose three potential sponsors from a list of 19 San Diego cultural organizations who agreed to participate.

As a result, 175 professional artists applied, ranging from unknowns to some “heavy hitters,” Shaw said. Now, each of the 19 organizations is in the process of selecting one artist. Those 19 artists, who should be identified by early September, will then submit formal applications for projects that would start next year. The foundation’s goal, said Shaw, is to underwrite all the projects, but with a relatively modest first-year budget of approximately $250,000, it may not be able to fund everyone.

“With the sponsoring organizations, we are giving them a lot of the infrastructure an individual doesn’t normally have on their own to realize a project,” Shaw said. “What we get for the community is the ability to look in on that creative process. We are going to make the process very visible.”

The four-year Innovation Through the Arts program also includes a training element (for young arts leaders) and an educational component, aimed at bolstering arts education at a time when budget cuts and testing priorities are challenging many in-school arts programs.

The educational component, Creativity in the Classroom, is still in development, but has the lofty goal of enlisting a minimum of 42 schools in a program that would involve the arts in teaching some of the core subjects.

“Our children need to have creative thinking as part of their education so they can be competitive when they are getting jobs,” Shaw said. “Employers are asking them to be outside-the-box thinkers and critical thinkers. We know those are the skills that this global economy is looking for, and those are the skills the arts provide.”

Not only in San Diego, but nationally, there’s a lot of talk in arts circles about innovation and creativity. At the national Americans for the Arts conference in San Diego in June, one of the panels focused on institutions moving from “cultural” endeavors to “creative” endeavors. While “cultural” implies something elite, rarefied, and of little apparent concern to a large segment of the population, “creative” signifies something open, dynamic, and of interest to just about anybody.

Rather than insisting that art is good for you — so you’d better attend a concert or visit a museum — the new emphasis on creativity makes the case that artists, and the way they approach challenges, have implications beyond a painting or a performance.

“There is a real synergy between the arts and science and engineering,” said Randy Cohen, vice president for research and policy at the Americans for the Arts. “It’s about creative, innovative people. And the arts really help drive that. You see companies (like Boeing) bringing in artists to be part of creative teams because creativity is what fuels innovation, and innovation in our economy is the way to prosperity.”

With its goal of encouraging more artists to stay in San Diego, Shaw sees the foundation’s program as directly related to the region’s prosperity.

“Maybe those artists who graduate with those MFAs from UCSD, they would feel that they don’t need to go to Los Angeles or New York for careers,” Shaw said. “They would keep their talent here. And if we kept the talent here, then it would appear in our schools, on our stages, in our symphonies, and in our community. Who knows what would happen after that?”

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