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This is a letter I recently sent to the folks at the Knight Foundation regarding the Knight Arts Challenge. If you agree with anything I’ve written here, or have thoughts of your own on how to improve the Knight Arts Challenge, please share a comment here, and let them know too!
An Open Letter to the Knight Arts Challenge
Why I Didn’t Apply This Year
March 31, 2011
Dear Folks at the Knight Arts Challenge,
First, thanks for all you have done for our community, both through the Knight Arts Challenge, as well as your other generous funding. I have personally benefited from this funding as an employee of the Broward County Libraries, teaching computer classes on a grant from the Knight Foundation throughout much of 2010. I know our students greatly benefited from these classes as well – they really made a difference to a lot of formerly computer-illiterate people! I also appreciate the funding the Knight Foundation provides in a multitude of communities throughout the US.
I was thrilled and interested when I first heard about the Knight Arts Challenge, attended several information sessions, and eagerly prepared and submitted my ideas for multiple arts projects. And I have submitted multiple ideas every round of funding, until the most recent round.
What happened? I got discouraged. Not one of my ideas ever even made it past the first round. This has been disappointing, but that’s not what really discouraged me. What discouraged me the most was observing that very few individual artists have received any funding whatsoever in the Knight Arts Challenge. I am not the only person who has noticed this imbalance, it’s something a number of applicants have brought up in conversation over the past several years.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and concluded that this imbalance could be a result of one or more of these factors:
1. A majority of applications are submitted by non-profits and few by artists (though I doubt this is the case).
2. Non-profits submit more polished applications, due to having paid staff and grant writers available to prepare applications.
3. An institutional bias may exist at Knight Arts Challenge favoring non-profits, based on a belief, conscious or sub-conscious, that non-profits are more credible.
4. Individual artists are not submitting good, credible ideas and applications (though I doubt this is the case).
5. An institutional bias may exist at Knight Arts Challenge favoring non-profits, based on Knight staff being more familiar with and having long-term working relationships with non-profits and their staff.
6. Other factors which I have not thought of yet.
I don’t know what the real reason is that you’re funding very few individual artists in the Knight Arts Challenge. You have gone out of your way to solicit applications from artists and encourage artists to apply. And I know many, many artists who have applied, with great enthusiasm. Whatever the reason, I appreciate the fact that you allow individual artists to apply – many grantors don’t – and I would like to see a more level playing field here, one that results in more grants to individual artists.
While you are clearly devoting a great deal of funding to the arts, it seems to me this funding tends to benefit arts audiences and organizations more than artists. While these things are not entirely separate, and developing greater appreciation for the arts among audiences, and building audiences for the arts does benefit artists, I encourage you to find ways to directly support and fund artists. Because without working artists, there will ultimately be no arts for audiences to appreciate.
To quote your application: “We are seeking projects that strive to create good, high quality art in our community.” Other priorities for your funding include arts that bring the community together and create a sense of community. Perhaps your focus on community has obscured the fact that artists, those who actually create the art that audiences and organizations are consuming and promoting, are one of the most important parts of that equation.
I’ve seen similar situations with a lot of arts funders, who often fund non-profit organizations but not individual artists. This creates an environment where artists are either pressured to turn themselves into non-profit organizations, even when this may not be the most appropriate business model for their work, or towards compromising their artistic integrity and vision for the sake of commercial viability. While some artists do find ways to achieve commercial success without that kind of compromise, more direct non-commercial funding for artists would make a difference in artists’ working environment, and allow more artists the time and resources to create great work.
So I would encourage you to ask yourselves why it is that so few individual artists are receiving funding from the Knight Arts Challenge? I suggest that you consider designating a certain amount of funding for organizations, and a certain amount for individual artists. Perhaps this has already occurred to you, as you do ask applicants to indicate whether we are applying as an individual or an organization.
Or if you discover any factors affecting grant decisions such as the ones suggested above, I strongly encourage you to work to remedy them, so that more individual artists can receive funding for their excellent projects.
I would be happy to discuss this issue with you, and to engage with you in a revision of Knight Arts Challenge procedures, in order to create a more level playing field for individual artists. I would also be happy to recommend other outstanding artists in our community who may be interested in assisting with this revision.
Again, thanks for all you do, and I hope this feedback will be meaningful and helpful to you in your work to enhance the arts in South Florida and other communities!
Laura Sue Wilansky
The Silver Nightingale
Creative Economy Committee – Broward County’s 2020 Cultural Plan
Vision Broward – Creative Industries Task Force