Eight Steps to Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding
A few years after I first started working in theatre I AD’ed under a director who used this phrase that I love. When he was trying to uncover something about a moment, get at what the character was doing, he would say something like, “So what’s actually actually happening is…”
I love this turn of phrase, actually actually, because I think it speaks to the layers of honesty with which we communicate. There’s a way in which we might say we’re doing something but actually actually we’re kind of doing something else. Like when I say that I’m working all day on a grant but actually actually I’m equal parts answering grant questions and distracting myself with games on my phone or reading emails that I don’t really need to look at. It’s not malicious, this uncovering of my real activities but it does show the ways in which we label our actions in ways that aren’t always inclusive of all the forces working on us.
Actually actually is a manifestation of our actions in the most literal and concrete sense. It strips them of their highfalutin’ intentions and gets down to the nitty-gritty of their real intents and their actual (actual) effects. It shows that our motives are often more complex and human than their purest descriptions.
Sometimes I wish I could ask arts funders to tell me what they actually actually want.
In my anecdotal experience, when people give away large amounts of money there’s what they say they want in their beautifully crafted guidelines and then there are the means by which these funds are dispersed. And a lot of the time, what funders say they want isn’t actually actually best engendered by the processes through which their funds are dispersed.
I don’t, truly, honestly, think this is malice, but I know there are times it can actually feel that way. That said, I think it’s useful for us to remind ourselves of the difference between what is said and what we feel like we actually actually hear. It keeps you sane. It keeps things in perspective. It allows you not to get caught up in rage when you feel like you are held to a standard that’s not always what is shown on the surface.
This isn’t true across all my experience, and it certainly exists at a lot of different levels. The one that most gets me though, the one I find the most often frustrating, is the call for “innovative” art. Innovation is a tricky work. It is grounded deeply in risk. It requires, by definition, newness and the encountering of the unknown. It is something encountered for the first time. All of which is very hard to explain in a clear and delineated narrative six months, a year, two years before the innovative thing is going to take place, before its component pieces are thoroughly explored and identified, before its map has been charted, before experiments have been conducted to test hypotheses. By the time these kinds of things are known, the actual innovation is already over.
One can ask an artist to articulate the questions they use to court the unknown, or one can ask them to provide a steadfast plan that is carried out without alteration. One can encourage them to scientifically journey into unfamiliar experimentation or one can seek out practiced and previously defined skills. These are both interesting and potentially worthy things. But in actual actuality they are a nonoverlapping Venn diagram.
I understand the desire to know things, I do. But you can’t have it both ways, my darlings. Or rather, you can, in a way, if you pretend it’s possible and leave it to those actually executing the thing to try their damnedest to pull those two circles toward a tiny space of intersection. It’s a lot of work, that pulling, work that I’d say is better served elsewhere, like actually actually implementing some innovation.
Actually actually is a manifestation of our actions in the most literal and concrete sense. It shows that our motives are often more complex and human than their purest descriptions.
My guess is things won’t change soon. But if someone else’s giant pile of money were up to me, here’s how I’d actually actually propose to get there:
Adrienne’s List of Funding Processes for Actual Actual Innovation in the Arts
1. Give $5,000 to the first 30 people under the age of 30 that ask for it. No questions asked.
WHY: First off, in the grand scheme of foundations who give larger grants, 30 $5K grants is nothing. Plus, if they ask first they’re likely the most shit-together folks of this age set. Take the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, for example, who offers a max of $60,000 to single artists and $300,000 to organizational applications. For reference, my very first show, The Ballad of Joe Hill, was made with $1,500 and it launched my career into an entirely new orbit. Think about what 30 upstart artists could do with 5K. It might transform a city for the cost of half the asking price of a max level organizational applicant.
2. Rent a rehearsal studio space for a year and give away 20 hours of time to anyone that asks for it.
WHY: Space is one of the first things that start costing creators money fast and it’s especially hard when they are at that total blank canvas stage. When budgets are tight it can feel decadent and wasteful sitting in a paid for room without a plan leading to product. But what happens in that time, in the cracks and spaces between “real” rehearsal, is often the most important research. Such investigative work is where real innovation can happen and if that’s what you want, this is a way to incentivize it.
3. You funders want fancy video work samples for grants? Hire a staff videographer and pay for them to shoot and edit the work of people in the arts community.
WHY: The cost of a staff person like this is likely akin to one big grant to a large organization. Pay for this instead and you will get better work samples. You won’t have to keep telling artists they’re not spending enough on videographers. You won’t have us waste our time developing the skill set of videography and editing when we could be making stuff.
4. Democratize the grant-writing process. Hire a foundation staff writing team that crafts the language submitted to the panel or board for every applicant. If you need to offset this cost, have them work on a commission basis commensurate with an applicant’s budget size.
WHY: It is true that an individual artist might have a project as worthy of funding as a huge nonprofit. But the chances that a solo creator has a whole paid staff of grantwriters is nil. So in essence, a huge part of what you’re actually measuring in the grant process is the monetary reach of the applicant and not the actual artistic ability. This is campaign finance reform 101. If everyone has the same writer, then the projects will actually be presented in a fair and equal way.
5. Fund an entirely “research”-based phase with no required showings or products other than to document what happened and share that with the artistic community.
WHY: This is the thing that the academic weight of science has over the arts. People believe that research for research sake is valuable whether or not it becomes a viable product. Scientists know this. They know negative results aren’t failures. I think artists know this but they get so beaten down about it that they forget. What if we have to go and sit in on rehearsals for each other or read papers about the questions other companies are asking and the methods they use to do so? What if we had a peer to peer exchange system the way that the scientific world does? I bet we’d all be a lot artistically richer for it.
6. No project grants. For five years. Only operating support.
Seriously. You all know. I don’t even need to explain this one.
And while I’m at it:
7. Stop dictating how to spend the money. No required areas. No explaining if you have to shift money from one place to another.
WHY: Do you know about these folks: GiveDirectly? Their aim is to benefit the extremely poor across the globe. There are lots of other charities that decide how exactly poor people across the globe ought to make their lives better and allow people to give them a cow or build a school, or whatever. The funder is telling the person who is to receive the funds what would be the best way to improve their own life. Sound familiar? The GiveDirectly folks thought to themselves, “Hey. Who knows better than the actual person how they to make their life better.” In other words, they assumed that person was as intelligent and capable as they were, just in need of the funding. I think we need to start imagining a world where artists get to use money for their art in the way that they see works best for making their art. Because if we believe they are smart and capable creators, why would we assume they don’t know where the resources toward their work ought to be best used?
8. For one year, forget about trying to define “excellence” and just give all the money out by random lottery.
WHY: It was a real lesson in what a little bit of status can do when my recent War of the Worlds collaboration was picked up as the mayor’s selection into the Bloomberg Public Art Challenge. The difference between the way people talked about the project with me and my collaborators before and after someone decided it might be worth a million dollars showed that so much of the perception of “value” and “quality” is intensely subjective. If we could just try democratizing this for a year, we might end up with people that would never ever seem like they would deserve that money, but absolutely blow us away with what they are capable of.
I’d even propose that if we took one major funder’s pool and did this instead of what they currently do, we wouldn’t even need more money. But I bet we’d have a whole lot more actual innovation.