Artists at the Center: A New Doris Duke Initiative

Friday, December 21, 2012
By Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts, 
The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has supported artists in jazz, contemporary dance and theatre in creating, producing and touring new work for more than a decade. Nevertheless, we were painfully aware of the limitations to this kind of project support. What should we do about the other needs of artists between projects?
Recognizing that many artists never “retire,” how could they begin to create and secure income for their later years, when staff positions, grants, etc. might be even harder to obtain or keep? Does the relatively rigid structure of grant funds and project schedules disserve artists in ways we have yet to fully understand? How could artists be encouraged to develop new skills in which they might be interested, but for which little funding existed? With so much changing about the nature of the performing arts and the relationship of audiences to the arts, how could artists be encouraged and supported in new ways to interact with the larger public?
Indeed, in the wake of a conversation where one artist described his life as a “hamster wheel” of creating project after project, should there come a time when we invest differently in an artist who has repeatedly demonstrated her/his significance to their field?
These questions and more led us to create the Doris Duke Artist Awards, the first of three initiatives supported by a special allocation of $50 million above and beyond our annual ongoing Arts Program allocation. Through the Artist Awards, at least 100 artists will receive up to $275,000—funds that will be disbursed at their discretion over a three-to-five-year period.
The Award is a hybrid of sorts: up to $250,000 in unrestricted support will provide for the short- and long-term development of the artist’s “voice” and the creative and personal journey that they define, while an additional $25,000 in project support enables the artists to research, reach out to and interact with audiences in new ways.
As we structured this initiative, we were repeatedly impressed by the deep, transformative work with artists undertaken by the Creative Capital Foundation, which combines grant support with technical assistance, teaching artists about marketing, web technology, long term planning and more. We in fact invited Creative Capital to join us as partners in this initiative—and the results have already been extraordinary.
Artists cannot apply for the Awards. Instead, the first class of artists—21 grantees ranging in age from their 30s to their early 70s, announced in May 2012—was chosen by a peer panel who reviewed the portfolios of the more than 180 artists we had supported during the last decade who had also been supported through national grants, prizes or awards for at least three different projects during that same period. The panel identified the recipients as artists who have had—and are likely to continue having—pronounced impact on their respective fields.
The selected grantees then began their journey with a daylong orientation, learning not only about the mechanics of the program but meeting with financial planners, audience researchers and tax consultants—a day that, in the words of one artist, “changed my life and how I think about money.” Every artist completed a lengthy questionnaire which asked them to think about goals—financial, creative, personal, technological and more—as a prelude to creating a plan to maximize the use of our funds over time.
We are deeply inspired and gratified by the creative uses artists have defined for these funds. Some have chosen to use them over three years, maximizing their financial impact quickly, while others prefer the security of five years of support. Some are dedicating their funds to projects they were already working on when they learned about their grant. Others plan to travel to explore artistic traditions in other countries. Some will learn entirely new skills—how to play new instruments, direct work in other disciplines, or even how to paint. Some will begin to archive and document their work. But the constant theme we hear is that this grant has afforded them for the first time, in the words of one grantee, “psychic space—the ability to breathe a little easier and dream.”
We recognize that there is a vibrant world of artists who have yet to receive the same level of recognition or past grant support as the Doris Duke Artists Awards grantees, so we will launch a comparable program for at least 100 such artists in 2014. Those awards of up to $80,000 over two to three years will offer the same hybrid of largely unrestricted support combined with audience-oriented project support. And the final piece of the $50 million allocation I mentioned earlier is the Doris Duke Artists Residency Program, designed to support artists as they work with organizations in new ways to increase demand for the arts.
We look forward to sharing with colleagues what we learn from all of these programs, to the work inspired and created by artists through this support, and to healthier creative and personal lives for our grantees.
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