Jun 252004

Arts grants are our culture's R&D.I wrote an opinion piece for eye last week on arts grants. Feel free to add your comments at the end.

That’s what arts grants are, right? Free money. You know this guy who used his grant as a down payment on an SUV. Heard of this other woman who used hers to make grapefruits talk to each other and someone else who made lesbian porn with public money. Taxpayer money! Your money and my money!

All of this makes for a great bitch session at the bar after a hard week taking the boss’ shit and doing real work while the artists get up at noon for an hour’s scribbling in a notebook. Or making a potato sculpture. Or whatever it is they do between their afternoon absinthe binges and picking up their grant cheques. It also provides easy fodder for devastating dismissals of spoon-fed artists in print, as Bert Archer demonstrated in a sideswipe at the end of his appreciation of James Joyce in this space last week.

It’s fun to lampoon artists, even though I am one myself. And given the kind of unpleasant and undignified things people have to do to pay the rent, it’s understandable that those of us who get to do what we are passionate about take a certain amount of flak. Especially when even the artists I’ve talked to are a little vague on why grants are important.

Because arts grants aren’t just a good thing. They aren’t a form of charity for the fey and sensitive and suffering souls. A touchy-feely impression that they’re nice is not going to stand up to the winds of change. There needs to be a well-rounded analysis of their social value.

On my trips to the dystopia to the south, I hang out with my American counterparts in the indie-press community. They’re struggling, and they’ll always be struggling. Even if they develop an audience of thousands of people they’ll still have to supplement their incomes by teaching or doing something else. No access to grants makes their lives harder: pretty much all of them have full-time jobs, and the idea that I don’t is as amazing to them as our healthcare system. (Since 9/11, I’ve also had five or six people confess that they’ve checked out the Canadian immigration website.) When I explain that the two grants I’ve received over the last eight years gave me the opportunity to work on projects that didn’t have to make money, they’re confused.

I explain it this way: arts grants fund the R&D wing of our cultural operations. Just like research and development in the scientific community, this allows for new methodologies and new strategies to be investigated without having to turn a profit. But in science, experimentation is a valued part of the process. When an artist is called “experimental,” it’s often derogatory. There’s this idea that if it’s not understandable to a mass audience or a layperson, it’s fraudulent.

But mass culture doesn’t spring from a vacuum. The arts and the sciences are both communal activities — everyone’s building on and reacting to the stuff around them. So that neat camerawork in a blockbuster summer movie was inspired by some more obscure film the director saw, which in turn was inspired by an underground photo exhibit, which in turn was inspired by something else… but only the person at the end of the chain of inspiration gets paid — the guy at the head of the line is the only one who isn’t invisible.

Grants address this blind spot of pure market capitalism. As much as economists like to present it as a force of nature, capitalism is a construct we made, a robot that can’t tell the difference between things that we feel are priceless and things that are valueless unless we step in. Clean air, for instance, has less inherent market value than a can of Coke. Grants are a little like speculation. By supporting projects and propagating ideas that are currently too far ahead of the curve to make money, we’re investing in an artistic legacy that we all benefit from.

Maybe it’ll happen anyway. If we just tell the people who germinate new ideas how priceless their contribution is, maybe they’ll still make stuff and get it out there. View it as a kind of filter. Starve ’em all and let god sort them out, as Archer would have it. But even overlooking the ethics of that, only the artists with considerable drive and ambition will manage to get it out there, and that will undoubtedly have an effect on the kind of art that’s produced, and that we eventually consume. Being an artist with a fair amount of drive, and knowing plenty of more gifted people paralyzed by self-doubt, I know that talent and drive are two different and only occasionally coinciding things.

There are some problems with the grants system — people can get dependent on public money and make passionless art for a committee rather than for an audience. But hell, people get hooked on private money, too, and make derivative art trying to please an imagined demographic. Pitting the grant-funded artist against the market-funded entertainer usually ignores the fact that the people who do R&D and the people who find applications for it are both working towards our cultural enrichment. Whether it’s a corporation or a council paying for it has an effect on both the artist and the art, naturally, but at least a diversity of sources in Canada means that the artist needn’t feel beholden to just one of them. Private sources are varied, but all of them have to toe the bottom line — I’m happy that when I get sick of hustling for private cash there’s the option of navigating the public bureaucracy for funds, boring as this is.

Giving people more freedom in this respect makes for better art. And, yeah, some of it will be self-indulgent crap. But I’d rather feed a few frauds if it means not starving our geniuses.

  23 Responses to “Free Money”

  1. Well, having completed my first grant-driven artwork (see it here: http://www.flickharrison.com ), I’m not sure what to think. I want more money. But I hate giving the bastards a stick to beat me with, as they say, and by this I mean giving the darn conservatives something to whine about, i.e. their taxes paying me to make anti-corporate art.

    Also, when neocons cut programs, it’s hard to demand arts funding while welfare mothers are being thrown into the street. Uuurgh.

    But I think this grant-driven R&D approach should be expanded, in fact, to things like software. Imagine a Canada Council for Open Source Arts, from which coders could get free money to create specific freeware or open-source projects that benefit everyone. Or even cooks, say. Har har. The Canada Council for Cuisine. Imagine how much Canadian food would improve if you could get a $60,000 grant to develop a new Canadian Bacon.

  2. weirdly, i’ve been on both sides of the arts grant table. a few years ago, my project partner & i won a toronto arts council grant to help us publish our combined book of poetry. basically, the grant was enough that we could stop doing freelance work for a month to work on editing & polishing, and still have some cash for working dinners, a couple of late night taxis home, and other random expenses. it truly improved the finished product.

    a year or so later, i was invited to sit on the arts council jury who were giving out writing grants. books and books of submisisons – and such a wide variety of writing quality and styles. yes when it came down to the wire, the choices were mostly obvious. and i was thrilled that about a third of the entrants received grants. i found that percentage to be quite high.

    one of the people i spoke with said something to the effect of “well geez, the grant is only $1500. what could anyone possibly do with that?” i explained to her that some people could live off that for 3 months while they wrote their novel. her jaw fell open. “oh. really? i guess with kids and a mortgage, i never realized”
    yeah. you didn’t.

  3. We as a country have made a lot of ground toward defining ourselves against the shadow of the American mono-culture exported around the globe and it has much to do with government funding of the arts.

    In addition to cutting arts funding, the Conservatives have plans to privatise our public broadcaster, the CBC. Here’s what Harper said about the CBC on May 18th:

    “And I think when you look at things like main English-language television and probably to a lesser degree Radio Two, you could look there at putting those on a commercial basis.”
    (go here: http://www.supportcbc.ca/petition/cbc/index.php?page=partypositions#cons to read the whole quote)

    But it won’t happen without a fight. Head here: http://www.supportcbc.ca/petition/cbc/index.php
    to send a message to all the party leaders telling them to keep their hands off public broadcasters and arts programs.

    To spread the word, visit:
    http://www.liamodonnell.com and put an “I Support a Stronger CBC” web badge on your site or blog.

    Let’s keep the arts funded and the CBC in public hands.

  4. That woman Cyn describes who can’t fathom people living and creating on an income below the poverty line are the very people who vote conservative. People whose privilege has paid for their ignorance and lack of social consciousness. They’re the same ones who favour tax cuts over social programs. Thankfully their lack of social awareness is part of their general lack of imagination and that’s why these people are not likely to produce anything resembling art. It’s just too bad that Martha Stewart got caught stealing… she was keeping them from writing novels.

  5. it seems to me that there are many artists that compete for few grants. and the truth is not many of those grants, in terms of cash value, really mean that artists are living the high life. it seems to me that to be an artist — grants or no grants — is still a difficult road to travel. and i think most artists would state that they do it not because its a cakewalk but because they feel compelled to create. the value of art cannot be measured. its the bravery to create something unique from nothing, to push boundrais, to challenge and comment on the state of the world. some art will be more successful at this then others. but its all a valiant effort. and there remains many a talented artist that may never get a grant for competition is steep. as a working artist i would have to say artists have suffered enought while historically pushing forth new cultural ideas. they deserve a little break every once and a while.

  6. This is a good piece. I’d like to get a grant, wish I had been more aggresive pursuing some when I first started writing my books. Between working a job and taking care of my family and writing, I truly did not have the mental energy to figure out how to get a grant. It all seemed so vague and energy-sapping to me, like a job in itself just to fill out the forms or whatever. Now I have more time and physical and mental energy I’m going to look into it.

  7. I think arts grants are a great idea, but for furthering work that a majority of people might care about somewhere down the line.

    The arts granting process is problematic. I’ve seen arts granting bodies give money out to the people or organizations they know, rather than the quality of the work itself. It is a highly political process dependant on favouritism, which obscures the point of “R and D.” I think that’s why many oridinary Canadians are against art grants. They feel that money is being given to people for favours — or to further some arcane intellectual point (ie. a pissing contest) — rather than producing art that is in sych with the common man or woman.

    Personally, I would love to see more money given to pulp fiction writers, for finding Lucy Maude Montgomeries of the 21st century — for finding artists and writers that people are going to care about here and abroad. (Did you know Anne of Green Gables is the bestselling Canadian book of all time? It’s true.) People need to see the ROI from arts grants, and if you’re doing way far out there experimental work, you’re just not going to get any visibility worth writing home about. That just causes a downward spiral that puts artists out of touch with humanity and ‘what the people want.’ When that happens, art truly becomes irrelevant.

  8. Working in theatre, I’ve filled out grants for other people’s projects. Are they tricky to fill out? Not overly. Are they time consuming? Yes. Is it worth the time? Very much so.

  9. While some artists need money to eat and others have rich parents, others need to blow hundreds or thousands of dollars to hit their heads on a brick wall and realize themselves.

  10. Cool piece. Thanks, Jim. I think of grants as R&D too. And *cheap* R&D, compared to the other industries that use R&D funding. I’ve been a Grants Officer for the Toronto Arts Council, and I’m now an artist; I’ve been on arts council juries, I’ve been a grant recipient, and I’ve been turned down for grants more often than not, too. One thing; it’s pretty much impossible as an individual artist to become dependent on grant money. Most of the decisions are made by panels of artists, never the same group of people for any deadline. With that kind of variety, and with art being a subjective thing, each jury makes different choices. I see that as a healthy thing. It means that a wide variety of approaches to art get support over the long term. Yet it does mean that there’s no way of telling if the jury will want to support your project or not from one year to the next. There are even juries for grants to individual artists that are “blind,” meaning that the jury doesn’t know who the applicants are.

  11. One more thing: there are many arts grants available in the U.S. through arts councils and foundations.

  12. I agree that people can’t actually become dependent on grants: it’s not steady enough for most lifestyles. I do think that the block grants, where established magazines and publishers qualify for a continuing subsidy, foster this dependence a little more. But they also give people the peace of mind to make innovative art–security affects people in different ways.

    Nalo also uses her extensive granting expertise to keep people apprised of the grants in the US and elsewhere via the Support for Writers e-mail list:

    There are lots of grants in the US–my “no access to grants” blanket statement was pretty anecdotal and derived from seeing how my American counterparts perceive the situation.

  13. First I’d like to say I fully support your take on R&D for the arts. In my dream world, there would be more money for subsistence, for more artists.

    I can’t say that I know very many artists that don’t have at least one full time job, outside of their practice, myself included. On top of that, I am also a mother.

    If you’re going to be ambiguous as to whether I’m one of the “frauds” you don’t mind supporting or one of the “geniuses” that make it worth the while,
    it would have been nice if you used my name so I could at least get the google hits. ;o)

    someone buy me a beer. I’m broke after paying the taxes on my grants.

  14. Thanks Jim for an insightful arguement in favour of grants for artists. I have received and been denied my fair share and believe it is a great resource for artists. Many artist friends of mine don’t even bother to apply for grants for any number of reasons, but none of them being a lack of need for money. The task does seem daunting, gathering documentation (often at a considerable cost), writing a concise proposal, just managing to articulate a still germinating idea is enough to give artists the grant writing blues. I always argue to these friends that the grants are there for US, not just any shmo can get a grant. A post secondary arts education, experience exhibiting the work and critical recognition are credentials most artists need to receive a grant. As has been said previously the grants are not a steady income for most and there is real, honest work involved in applying and maintianing a practice worthy of repeat funding. Iam not trying to say that artists are in a postion of privilage and should have a free ride, just that their creative and econimic contribution to society be recognized as a legitimate job. As Myfanwy says..artists pay taxes to!

  15. i need to find out how to get these grants

  16. sir, i am a poet, i have wrote several titles of poems. i need a grant to enhance my artistic accomplishments.thanks

  17. I’ll take any grant I can get. The ultimate goal is to be free of the need for anybody’s hand up — but I gotta get there first. My horse is still a colt. He’ll need feeding until he can run on his own. But when he can — we’re going full gallop.

  18. I feel very strongly that artists provide a service for our culture, the artists of Canada are providing a service for the cultural growth and social cohesion of Canada and its citizens. I do not believe that artists should be expected to make a living purely from the sale of thier service for two reasons.
    1. It effects negatively what artists create: it causes them to make work to please instead of urging rigourous cultural exploration within thier practice (i.e. They give the people what they want instead of what they need). This does not promote, and instead hinders, the development of the contemporary artists service.
    2. Since the artist is providing a progressive and often difficult service to its province, its city, and its country it seems only natural that the artist should be assisted financially in this endeavour by a system of arts grants within each structure where availability to assistance is based on the quality, ingenuity, and social impact of thier contributions.

  19. Wow,you people should get out of Canada and see how art is funded in Europe. It’s kind of shocking to hear artists talking about being “dependent” on grants. Is the bureaucrat making $50,000 a year to process your grant application “dependent” on his/her salary? Sure. We’re all dependent on money. How about the millions of grants that corporations get that sometimes do not see any result? I’m sure those for-profit corporations are dependent on that money to keep running and to pay people. Questioning whether artists should be funded is just internalizing that neo-con propoganda. And it’s giving the government permission to keep cutting arts funding every year. There are reasons why art in Europe is so amazing — the artists get paid to do it. Money does not make artists complacent. It makes them feel valued and gives them the hope needed to continue. A pat on the back is one thing. Being paid for your work is another. I think it’s time that Canadian artists quit buying into the self-hatred that the neo-cons are promoting. They need to stop being so grateful for the crumbs that they are getting and get socially aware.

  20. In my situation of being an aspiring Writer/Author. I’ve found that there are no grants in which I am able to obtain. I’ve been searching for years now.
    Is there any grants out there for people like me who are trying their best to become what they passionately want to become and devote hours, days, months, and even years on their craft?
    I’ve noticed as well that some of the sites that offer grants to individuals offer a book to sell. If I were in the market for a book, I would go to Barns and Nobel down the street to purchase a book. If I had the kind of money to purchase a book, I certainly wouldn’t purchase any books, when there are bills to pay.
    I am only in need of grant money to help with research for my books, and living expenses, but have been unsuccessful at finding anything close to grants. I’ve contacted my Government and they all told me that there is no such thing as grants. Then where are others obtaining grants to help with living expenses?
    I feel those who are obtaining grants should post on the Internet the sites were they obtain grants to help others in their field to obtain these grants as well.
    I only need a few grants to use on living expenses for a few months until two of my novels are finally published and sold in stores now that I have a new publisher.
    If any one can help me I would very much appreciate it. Please send to me websites or foundation names were I too would be able to apply for some grants for writing.

  21. do you know whats funny to me. is all this bull shit about free money the god damn government in the united state don,t gave away nothing free you studip fuck,in idiot so quti trying to sale your lie,s over the internet

  22. im from ireland. you guys whinge alot. artists dont need so much money…pick a medium and work with it. creative thinking and doing can be done with a grape and a scape of paper. experiment!! whingers!

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