Eight Steps to Actual Actual Innovation in Arts Funding

an actor standing in hallway
Swim Pony’s The Ballad of Joe Hill at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, 2013. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

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?

And lastly:

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.

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Love much of this - but can I say as an old coot that it's not just people under 30 who need support, and in fact the fetish for "emerging" artists leaves many folks abandoned while bolstering the assumption that only the young can "innovate".

"Early-career artist" does not necessarily mean someone under 30, yet defining it as such discourages those in their 30s, 40s or even beyond from transitioning away from for-profit work to careers in the arts. Entering the arts field when you are not a fresh-faced 23-year-old is intimidating enough as it is, yet both society and the arts could benefit greatly from mature early-career artists who bring institutional knowledge from other industries and world experience that the under-30 set do not bring to the table. Both groups have much to learn from each other. Adrienne's idea could very easily be modified to define an "early-career artist" in a way that is not dependent on age. (Also, the grant writing on commission idea - pretty much a guarantee for lower-than-minimum-wage pay when you do the math -- and therefore very few writers willing to do the work. Otherwise I think there are some great ideas here.)

Did you know the small foundation, The LIT Fund, is doing many of these things right now? ! We are currently giving away five $1,000 grants by pulling names out of a hat. The money is earmarked for artists pay strictly because the participants in the lottery told us that is what they needed and wanted. We believe in radical transparency in our process and we trust our artists and recipients. Would love to talk more about this. More info on this and our other funding on the website www.litfund.org

I think funding young, new, upcoming, emerging, whatever you want to call it, artists is fundamental to the theatre communities relevancy. To fund 'under 30's' is not to stop funding to anyone outside those age brackets. It would be to include new voices, identities, and ideas. Most funding is aimed at the established artists. What I love about funding younger artists is that it's about expanding inclusion and conversation between generations. Perhaps, leading towards the old apprenticeship style of learning how to make theatre.

As an upcominyoungermingermak3r artist, this type of funding would read to the young makers that the current generation of established artists not only care for it's younger self but want the inclusion of different voices to the community.

Love those ideas. I would be one of those under 30's asking. And most traditional funding sources wouldn't give because I'm too multidisciplinary to be a safe bet. Others do precisely for the same reason: the want innovative people. Thing is, it wasn't enough. I'm quite in a desperate situation by now. So I decided to step forward and ask directly, precisely, via GoFundMe. Please teke a look to it if you fancy. If you want to put all that into practice. It would be wonderful if you could give (anything, even pocket cash), share or tweet, whatever. Thank you very much!


All great ideas for program funding... yet we need more innovative ideas and sharing around individual giving.

Interesting. From the stories I've heard I think the Canadian funding structure was a lot like #1 in the 80s. Not a lot of questions - you have an idea, here is some money. Go explore. A lot of cool work and companies grew out of those days. It's a fanciful idea that I kind of dig (though gotta make sure it doesn't seem like a lottery, which I will speak to directly below). Only catch: I don't agree with limiting to those under 30. Artists over 30 still don't necessarily have connections to money. Name recognition? Maybe, but private backers? Not so much.

I really like #2 and can get behind #3 and #5 (as it does kind of speak to the glory days of Canadian Theatre before funding shrunk and companies quadrupled but could get out of hand as per my comments around #8).

#4 seems like an odd choice - screams for similarity, homogenization of artist impulse. Part of the process of grant writing is the ability to articulate what on earth you are trying to do, why you are doing it and what kind of impact you will have on an audience. If you can't articulate these things I don't think you are ready for funding - at least maybe then you need to work with this hired gun to help make sense of your idea - like a dramaturg for your application. Maybe we need in an increase in seminars or classes that focus less on filling in the application and more on better articulation of your project and how it can make an impact on the jury. So, sure... let's have someone on staff whose sole job is not to write grants but is to work as a sounding board who can help you articulate or steer you in the direction of being able to articulate how you will make an impact with the work... but hiring someone to write it completely? a) it takes away all originality of your own voice and b) there could still be something missed in the communication between artist and random grants writer. I don't think any larger organization should have people writing grants for them either thought. I believe ADs and GMs need to be able to articulate what it is we're trying to do rather than have a staff member do it...

#6 Not a bad thought but what are all the project based artists expected to do for five years? Where will the projects be for operating companies to take on and develop further. #5 and #6 seem to be at odds, on one hand we should invest in investigation and research and on the other hand we should just throw money at institutions... What I'd like to see is actually institutions eventually reach a stage where they no longer receive funding. To me that is actual reforming the system. Why on earth are companies who have been around 20, 30 years still needing major injections of money? Shouldn't they, theoretically, have developed a key audience base/sponsorship support that should be able to sustain itself? If the answer is no, I think we need to ask "why not?" I would rather see larger established organizations write smaller "project-based" grants for specific shows or initiatives. Projects that lose $80,000 but make an impact on an audience or community...or fund really interesting education initiatives that stretch beyond creating regular education guides and "how-to" workshops that should already be integrated in regular educational programming. But I think at some point, operating companies need to be truly scaled back, to allow the new growth to flourish. We need to determine how established companies can become more self-sustaining - by that I mean shift the investment from public support to private investment. If that means you can't program as much, so be it. That opens the door to more collaborations. For example, arts organization with a venue can actually only afford to produce two shows so program three other pieces that are on public funding and then maybe you get a subsidy directly because you are creating this kind of opportunity. And for the love, don't charge them rent, take a larger percentage of box office or have their "rent" directly reflect the costs associated with having the space open, so only cover the costs of FOH, technicians and special events...

#7 you need some kind of container. If you just left it wide open there would be chaos and you wouldn't know how to evaluate. There is a good system in place. Yes, it hurts when we don't get the money but there is usually a practical reason which is why #8 is my runner up to least favourite option. A lottery? Yikes. Trying to get work done feels enough like chance so often, please don't take away an opportunity we actually have to speak to a group, convince them to invest in the work. I know the system can be frustrating but a lottery system is just whack. It's exciting for the Fringe Festivals but ultimately leaves you with such an empty feeling.

I think the perception in this piece is that funding is only going to those who have a track record. In my experience working on juries the experience factors in but it isn't the main reason you get money. You get money if you have a great idea, can get us excited about that idea, and can somehow prove you can actualize that idea AND that people will want to engage with it. It doesn't have to sell out but explain why it should sell out. We need to keep focussing on how to articulate the work we're doing, not make it easier to do something "we have no idea why we're doing it, but maybe the moment will strike... or it won't"... to me, that's not what public funding should be used for... there simply isn't enough funding to do that and besides, I really can do that on my own without anyone paying me to do it.

I totally agree with the heart of this argument: to give artists a chance to blow us away with the innovative ideas they are capable of but might never have a chance to share with us. But leaving it to chance or automatically giving you money because you are 30 or hiring people to try and distill your work into a standardized form with 30 key words is, I don't think, the right way to go about it...

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts and creating this dialogue.



Why recommend that a grant writer work on commission? You don't encourage the videographer to work on commission - if you get the grant he/she gets paid - so why the grant writer? That's far from 'democratizing' the process. I appreciate what you're saying, but that's not a tenable or fair solution.

I totally understand re: 30 cut off. I'm over 30 myself and definitely believe I still need to innovate with funding. That said, I have a lot more contacts because of my years int he biz and I find that a lot of early career folks have very little access to unrestricted funding or company structures that are more likely to be present in the other numbers.

You're right. Sadly many artists and arts organization would oppose many of these more fervently than the funders. It's always surprising to me that the arts are so resistant to change. In fact, I'd make the case that the reduction of funding is directly related to the arts embracing the status quo, because it's safe and comfortable. The argument that funders should "give us money to do the things we are doing," isn't really an argument that seems to sell to them or, frankly, audiences. It's an oversimplification, but where the arts thrive the most in the world seems to be in the places where art isn't an extra thing but is part of and relates directly to the very fiber of a place or population. You ideas are great. I think we're a long way from looking for new ways to approach the work. Hopefully we'll get there before the whole system collapses. Our argument for keeping arts in schools is that the arts teach us to be creative problem solvers and have imaginative solutions to challenges. If only we walked the walk a little better, our institutions would have a brighter future.

All excellent ideas. As a money seeker and sometime foundation board member, I sure hope these get listened to.