Artists Are Facing Unprecedented Hardship. To Help Them, Philanthropists Must Change the Way They Work—by Working Together

Our collaborative fellowship offers a model for the future of arts philanthropy.

Rainin fellow Amara Tabor-Smith's "House/Full of Blackwomen," episode: Black Women Dreaming (the closing ritual) (2019). Photo: Robbie Sweeny

As artistic communities shift to readapt to a post-COVID world, funders are presented with an interesting problem. How can we support artists across the country, keeping in mind that each community presents a unique set of circumstances? The answer is simple, yet often overlooked: we do it together. Because together, we can build things that are bigger than the sum of their parts. That’s why the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, an Oakland-based organization that champions the arts, promotes early childhood literacy, and supports research to cure chronic disease, has partnered with the national nonprofit United States Artists to create a new fellowship designed to support artists in the Bay Area.

But before we get into that, let’s take a look at that unique set of circumstances facing Bay artists. To say that living in the Bay is expensive is an understatement. The median home price in San Francisco is $1,378,300. That’s double the New York City average of $680,500. Once you’ve factored in food, transport, and other costs of living, it’s 30 percent cheaper to live in New York. 

This is a reality felt by everyone who lives and works in the Bay, but it’s particularly detrimental to artists, who are 3.6 times more likely to be self-employed. COVID took a tenuous situation and made it worse. According to a study undertaken last fall by Californians for the Arts, the state lost 175,000 creative economy jobs—a statewide decrease of 13 percent. These are not just jobs lost, but livelihoods put on hold or diverted. They’re communities fragmented, culture deflated.

Deana Haggag of United States Artists. Photo: Braxton Black

Deana Haggag of United States Artists. Photo: Braxton Black

That’s the problem. Here’s our solution. Working together over the last two years, we created the Rainin Fellowship—an annual program that provides artists with $100,000 each in unrestricted funds, as well as a variety of professional supports. By pairing the Rainin Foundation’s deep understanding of our local community with United States Artists’ national lens and expertise working directly with artists, the result is something both resource-rich and finely calibrated to the needs of a specific place. We built this fellowship to respond to the issues facing artists in the Bay, but the partnership model behind the program can and should be used in communities across the country.

Our field is rich with expertise and is ripe for bountiful partnerships. As we move through recovery, it will be critical that we center partnerships, form coalitions, and work together to elevate and support the arts. While the benefits of this are unprecedented, it will require a deep reassessment of who we are as funders, and how we work.

Large or small, each organization has an entrenched way of working. Because of how the field has always been structured, most organizations do not immediately think that they’re able to easily collaborate, when in fact they are. Herein lies the main issue: we must bring about a culture of collaboration. In our experience, collaborations like this rarely occur because organizations feel pressure to create their own programs to maintain full control. By owning our programs, we limit their success. In our view, the future of arts philanthropy will be deeply collaborative, shifting rapidly between partners to respond to the real time issues facing America’s artists.

Shelley Trott of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. Photo: Mitch Tobias.

To explain how our collaboration works, let’s start with the money. First off, $100,000 is a sizable amount. But life in the Bay is expensive. And second, the funds are unrestricted. Too often, support for artists comes with strings attached. Such-and-such grant can’t be used for operating costs, or needs to be matched—the restrictions go on and on. Unrestricted means that the fellows can spend the money on whatever they see fit—on housing, healthcare, or future projects. It comes from a place of trust and confidence in artists, it’s been proven to be more beneficial for lives and careers, and… it’s not industry standard. At least not yet.

Additionally, we’re providing supplemental support tailored to each fellow’s needs. Ranging from financial planning to marketing and legal services, this can be seen as professional development, and is again proven to amplify the benefits of receiving cash. Here’s where United States Artists’ expertise comes in. We’ve administered our fellowship since 2006. Over the years, we’ve asked a lot of questions and come away with a good understanding of what artists across the country need. We took that knowledge and compared it to the Rainin Foundation’s dedicated engagement with artists in the Bay Area. As you might expect, there was a lot of overlap, but in every case, truly supporting artists starts with four words. How can we help?

As to who received this fellowship, we looked to three disciplines that the Rainin Foundation was deeply familiar with (dance, film, theater) and to a fourth (public space), which specifically addressed the concerns facing the Bay Area. This year’s fellows were nominated by a diverse group of Bay Area artists and cultural leaders and selected through a two-part review process with the help of national reviewers and a panel of four local jurors. With this mix of local and national perspectives, we looked for anchor artists: those whose visionary work speaks to audiences across the country, but are first and foremost vital to their communities.

Still from 499 (2020), directed by Rodrigo Reyes. Photo: Alejandro Mejía (AMC)

Still from 499 (2020), directed by Rainin fellow Rodrigo Reyes. Photo: Alejandro Mejía (AMC)

The inaugural class embodies these traits to a tee. The Oakland-based filmmaker Rodrigo Reyes’ latest film, 499, won best feature at Tribeca, and he is a co-director at the Bay Area Video Coalition. Theater fellow Margo Hall is the first female artistic director of the Lorraine Hansberry Theater of San Francisco, one of the nation’s premier homes of Black theater. Dance fellow Amara Tabor-Smith’s project, “House/Full of BlackWomen,” is a five-year, site-specific performance project engaging the displacement and sex trafficking of Black women in Oakland. Channeling the legacy of the Black Panthers’ free breakfast program, People’s Kitchen Collective, our public space fellow, uses gathering for a meal as a means to create, heal, and organize communities around police violence and gentrification. Each artist’s work is grounded in Bay Area life, but not bound by it. The work transcends locality, embracing—as all great art does—the universal. 

internment and the ban on Muslim entry into the US, West Oakland, CA, People’s Kitchen Collective, Sana Javeri Kadri.

TABLE (2018), a 100-person community meal in West Oakland, CA. Organized by Rainin fellow People’s Kitchen Collective, Sana Javeri Kadri.

The success of this inaugural class can be replicated in two steps. Local funders need to know the artists in their communities, and they need to fund them. National funders need to work with trusted local partners to ensure their efforts are actually helping the people who live there. Preferably, funding should be unrestricted, as this allows the money to more easily circulate through communities. By providing major resources to anchor artists, we establish a direct chain of support stretching from neighborhood to nation, with every link being of equal importance. And by providing care services beyond the monetary support, we ensure artists are honored, both as makers and people.

A silver lining of the past year is the realization that life is lived on a local level. From emphasizing the safety of essential workers, to setting up mutual aid networks to protect marginalized communities, the hardships of COVID brought us together, and brought us home. Looking forward, let’s remember that.

Deana Haggag is the president and CEO of United States Artists. Shelley Trott is the chief program officer of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation. 

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