Examining America’s Commitment to Supporting Individual Artists

Jules White | September 2000

For the artist considering whether or not to apply for a grant, and which grant to apply for, the plethora of grants listed in various directories and on the Internet is rather intimidating. But it is also intimidating to note how few grants and opportunities exist for today’s artists. With this in mind, I have conducted a nationwide survey of grants for individual artists. By looking at how this money is distributed, we can ascertain some trends in the awarding of these grants by the state arts councils, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and certain regional associations such as the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. My intent is to heighten our awareness of the opportunities for artists in many disciplines-writers, filmmakers, dancers, visual artists, and other artists, as well as arts administrators.(1)

Monetary Support for Artists

The support that state arts agencies provide individual artists is both extensive and in the process of change.In 1998, 3,031 individuals nationwide received grants exceeding $7,500,000. This number represents a varying one to two percent drop in funding-probably a reaction to controversies that the NEA confronted. Besides NEA grants for artists, the large majority of our states award grants to individuals. As Randall Rosenblum, Executive Director of the Rhode Island Council on the Arts, notes:Individual artists form the foundation of any arts community. While state agencies, corporations, and foundations see major portions of their funds going to arts organizations-because of their size, need, and the service they provide to their community-it is important to note that these organizations employ artists. We have recently expanded our fellowship programs, and I would like to see them grow more. I see a significant need for agencies like ours to provide more direct services to artists, from exhibition space and catalogs (online and off) to technical assistance on ways to better market their work and take advantage of opportunities in our state and beyond.

A quite different opinion is held by Ricardo Hernandez of the Texas Commission on the Arts: "The Texas Commission on the Arts was created with the intent of supporting nonprofit entities. We have never nor do we have plans to give grants directly to individuals." Missouri, Vermont, and Alaska also do not give direct grants to individuals. Flora Maria Garcia of the Missouri Arts Council writes that while she personally supports giving grants to individual artists, "The Missouri Arts Council does not give grants to individuals by law. This is a more conservative community and fellowships-even if they were legal-could become problematic and have the potential to endanger funds to the agency from the legislature."

In 1998, more grants to individuals were awarded to urban artists (2,162) than to rural artists (659). The median amount awarded was $4,000 for individual fellowships. California gave 146 grants, totaling $1,003,898, and the Virgin Islands awarded 14 grants totaling $13,000. The number of fellowships varies from state to state, but current information indicates that fellowships are increasing in the amount of money awarded per artist. For example, according to the Maryland report, New Hampshire awarded 14 fellowships totaling $16,500 in 1998 and has announced it is giving six awards totaling $30,000 in 2000. In 1998, Tennessee awarded eight fellowships totaling $15,500. In 2000, it estimates that each new fellowship will total $5,000. Tay Haines of the Utah Arts Council states:

Our monetary support for individual artists is pretty minimal: two $5,000 Visual Arts Fellowships, a literary writing competition with prizes from $200–$1,000, and $1,000 Artist Grants totaling $24,000/year. We are in the midst of an endowment campaign to triple our grants/fellowships for individual artists.

Haines adds an interesting comment:

Nine tenths of arts grants dollars go to arts organizations, where the money trickles down to primarily interpretive artists who comprise only 1/6 of the artist population. This leaves the originating artists (5/6 of the artist population) underfunded. Our arts council budget reflects the same percentage: 9/10’s to arts organizations, 1/10 to individuals. The NEA cuts have further eroded grants available. This inequity is historical, and it is time we recognized individual artists as the foundation of the arts business pyramid. Assigning a percentage seems like an exercise. Any increases will be felt ten times over.

The state of Alabama, which has a particularly active arts council, has also increased its fellowship grants. Its literature program is allied with the Alabama Writers Forum, established by poet Jeannie Thompson, and directly affects most writers in the state.

Varying Levels of Funding

Fellowships for artists come in a variety of forms. The "individual artist fellowship" has been the traditional larger grant awarded to individual artists. This grant, along with other smaller types of grants, such as the "career opportunity grant" awarded by Alaska, make up the two major types of grants to individual artists. There is, of course, a major movement in many agencies toward project grants, residencies, and grants where artists mentor younger artists. Collaboration grants involve more people, usually include the public, and can help avoid the controversy of funding an individual artist. Dennis Holub, Director of the South Dakota Arts Council, writes that:

From our perspective in South Dakota, the major trend in giving grants to individual artists is that we want to know what the artist will do with the funding, so our funding is now more "project" oriented rather than "fellowship" based, where funds are given to an artist based on their previous work. We’re also now interested in artist funding for mentorships, collaborations, and apprenticeships.

Artists may not realize the difficulty of awarding grants to dancers, choreographers, performing musicians and composers, actors, visual artists, filmmakers, photographers, writers, puppeteers, architects, cloggers, mimes, storytellers, bagpipers, translators, circus artists, and art therapists. The diversity of awards encourages artists to apply in a number of categories, yet it presents many problems to the arts council designing criteria for evaluating applications. The Montana Arts Council, for example, has changed its policy so that awards in 2000 will only be made to visual artists.

The Delaware State Arts Council has created three categories for its fellowships. These categories would help solve some problems in evaluating fellowship applications. They are: Emerging Professional fellowships ($2,000), available to artists not yet established; Established Professional fellowships ($5,000), available to artists with significant achievements; Masters fellowships ($10,000) for further recognition in one’s field, available on a rotating basis to those who have already been awarded an Established Professional fellowship. Eligibility for the awards typically excludes anyone from receiving a grant two years in a row. This limit varies, and Oregon, Mississippi, Florida, and South Dakota require an artist to wait five years.

Artistic Excellence & Grant Management

Most councils state that a major part of the evaluation of the application will be based on the quality of the work submitted-on its "artistic excellence." Kris Tucker of the Washington State Arts Council (WSAC) points out that "artistic merit/quality is a problematic area in decision making. How do we support and encourage artistic excellence without establishing elite standards? How can arts funders best support and honor the work and aesthetics of small communities, traditional artists, and (the) 'underserved'?"

In an interview with poet Edwin Honig-a recipient of NEA grants and two Guggenheim Fellowships-I discussed the use of the term "artistic merit" for evaluation and asked him to define the term. He responded: "I really don’t know what it is. Artistic merit judged by artists is different from artistic merit judged by academics." Various grants have affected Honig’s career. "They supported me outside the university where I was making a living," he said. "They gave me free time to try things I wouldn’t ordinarily pursue."

Other evaluation criteria include professional activity and demonstration of commitment to the field, fiscal responsibility, and the impact of the grant on the artist’s career. Panelists judging the work are usually made up of peers from within the state, but some councils use out-of-state evaluators as well. In fact, IIllinois and Pennsylvania select only out-of-state art professionals on the basis of their professional achievements and broad knowledge of the arts.

James B. Borders, Executive Director of the Louisiana Division of the Arts, writes of other problems in the decision-making process:

Our biggest challenge is to increase the amount of funding for these (grants to artists) programs. However, there are other small issues that need to be addressed as well. Our mini-grant applications, for example, are adjudicated by our agency’s program staff because we try (to) render decisions on the mini-grants two weeks after the application deadline. But since we have the same people reviewing each time, I am concerned that the same biases and tastes and knowledge gaps are influencing the adjudication process to the detriment of some applicants. In the near future, perhaps, artists will submit their applications and samples of work electronically, and we can engage reviewers from outside our office without unduly increasing the administrative burden on our agency or sacrificing the turn-around time to applicants.Another small challenge for us will be to devise a multidisciplinary category for those artists who truly cannot be categorized as primarily belonging to one discipline or the other. In the larger scheme of things, however, we feel privileged to even be able to make grants to individual artists in (our current) socio-political climate. For now, holding the line is a measure of progress.

Arlynn Fishbaugh, Executive Director of the Montana Arts Council (MAC), who strongly supports giving to individuals, points out other difficulties in awarding the grants:

The MAC awards small fellowships to individual artists each year. Because of the Arts Council’s small appropriation and extremely limited budget, we can give only nine fellowships of $2,000 each year. The Council is committed to supporting the artists in the state even if the official recognition is the most valuable aspect of the award.

As with all state arts agencies, the main criteria for selecting fellowship winners is artistic excellence. A small panel of experienced artists with broad viewpoints and experience are charged with making recommendations to the Arts Council members who have the final authority in granting the awards. Again, because of budget limitations, we must select panelists from inside the state. We can invite only one panel member from outside Montana.Some of the difficulties we have encountered have had more to do with perception than with process. Visual artists, in particular, become very disturbed when the Arts Council’s decisions do not agree entirely with the recommendations of the panelists. There is also an inherent tension in choosing between those art works which have found a market and those which are more "cutting edge" and may not be currently able to withstand market forces.Another perception problem we encounter is the belief that the Council will only support "contemporary" or "abstract" art. There are a large number of successful western, wildlife, and landscape artists in Montana. This has been an ongoing complaint since the fellowship program was instituted. While the fellowship program is open to all individual artists over the age of 21, few western or "representational" artists apply because of this perception, and this means there are actually fewer fellowships awarded in this genre.Montana is also home to seven Indian reservations and 11 different tribes. The MAC wishes to support and honor the traditional arts of these tribes and the immigrant peoples of the state. Panelists selected to judge painting, sculpture, crafts, photography, and media arts may not have the confidence or expertise to make judgments about traditional or folk arts. They often cannot fit the criteria of "originality" or "creativity" to which other works are held. The Arts Council has opened the fellowship process to all these artists as well, but this difficulty has kept them from being selected. The Folklife program of the Council hopes to support these artists through master/apprentice awards which have the added benefit of helping to continue a traditional artistic practice.Unlike some state arts agencies, MAC fellowships are open to performers as well as composers or choreographers. There are some states in which only the "creative" artists in those fields are honored.

While fellowships are widely available, they also are very competitive. In 1999 the New Jersey Council on the Arts had 360 applicants for fellowships and awarded 30. In Massachusetts, 980 artists applied for fellowships and smaller grants, of which 44 each received a $7,500 award. The Supporting Individual Artists report indicates the competitiveness of the grants in 1998. Pennsylvania had 700–800 applications in most categories; California had 300–500, Hawaii had 250–350. While the numbers were lower in certain states (Mississippi, 20–30; Arkansas 12–50), the number of artists in those less populous states is also fewer. Tay Haines, from Utah, makes an important point: "Artists need to realize that by applying for grants they are providing evidence of the need for grant dollars, which is convincing data for increased funding. Artists need to stay active in the process-apply for grants."

Students, including graduate students, are not eligible for grants. In an interview, Don Palmer of the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) said that "students are not funded because they already have other resources available."

Project-Oriented Funding

The NYSCA funds only individuals who have a nonprofit sponsor. The NYSCA also prefers to fund projects that show new growth. Typically, public involvement in some way is required. The trend to have "project-oriented" funding for an artist has become common to almost all the art councils. The Ohio Arts Council sponsors a comprehensive group of fellowships, projects, residencies, and other kinds of grants. Their grants include

  • Fellowships-for creative artists in recognition of the excellence of their work;
  • Residencies-for artists to work in educational, arts, and community settings;
  • Professional development-to help artists pay for activities that help them develop new skills;
  • Apprenticeships-for master traditional artists to pass on their skills;
  • Project support-for artists in all disciplines creating new work that will involve the general public;
  • Touring-for performing artists to present their work in cooperation with Ohio presenters;
  • Services-for all artists, available through the program staff.

An example of a mentor grant is the "master artist and apprentice" grant offered by the Alaska State Council for the Arts. The grant requires that the apprentice receive travel and supply funding at the outset of the grant, while the master artist is paid at the completion of the grant period.

The typical smaller grants awarded to individuals by state arts councils help to fund travel to special events or help with the purchasing of needed supplies. The Indiana Arts grant program for individual artists, for example, is designed to support individual artists in all disciplines for specific project-related costs. Applicants may apply for up to $1,000. In 1999, 58 artists were awarded a total of $56,535.

Several states provide grants offering unique cultural enrichment to artists. Alaska, for example, offers a "native arts program" and a "Silver Hand" program to support and protect the works of native artists. It also supports an "Alaska Contemporary Art Bank," where 568 portable works of art by Alaskan artists are available for display. Ohio offers a Traditional Arts Apprenticeship program to promote "shared cultural heritage." These arts include Polish paper cutting, blues music, stone carving, Appalachian fiddling, and embroidery. Another example of an enrichment grant is the La Napoule Art Foundation Residence offered in North Carolina. The selected artists spend two months in a château near Cannes in Southern France. Artists are paid for transportation, meals, and are given a $1,000 stipend.

Other grant activities help artists with creating portfolios, with creating artistic exhibition spaces in buildings and on the Web, and with publicity. The development of the Internet and of innumerable websites has added additional activities for art councils. The publication of the proceedings of the 21 area meetings held by the WSAC is a wise use of the Internet. Everyone has access to these published notes, which present fascinating details about the problems and issues that people who support the arts face. These discussions include the uses of the library, creating places to display outdoor sculptures, working with parades, fundraising for arts in the schools, teaching the arts to teachers, and helping parents learn to appreciate art.

Future Trends in Grant Giving

Future trends in art activities by the councils can be seen in the words of Daniel Salazar of the Colorado Council for the Arts (CCA): "Support for individual artists helps differentiate State Art Agency support from the NEA or most other foundations. It demonstrates an understanding that artists are the basic unit of artistic expression, an essential part of the cultural environment."

There is no question that state art councils give both invaluable material benefits and psychological support to our artists. A survey of the materials of the councils reveals much original thinking about how to support more artists in more ways than ever before. The arts councils show the care that the public sector has for the artistic culture of our country. The grant offerings by the councils also send an individual artist one loud message: apply for grants, we’re here for you.


Jules White .em>co-edits The American Center for Artists website at http://www.americanartists.org and is Chief Software Architect for The Software Teacher, Inc., at http://www.softwareteacher.net.


  1. In conducting my research, I contacted all 50 state arts agencies and examined print and electronic information that they have published. Recent research carried out by Carla Dunlap of the Maryland State Arts Council and Y. Kelly Liu and Kelly J. Barsdate, both of the National Association of States Arts Agencies (NASAA), was particularly helpful. Their report, "Supporting Individual Artists: A Profile of Current State Arts Agency Grants and Services," includes helpful information. Another useful research source is the proceedings of a series of 21 meetings in various locations held by the Washington State Arts Commission (WSAC). These proceedings, introduced to me by Kris Tucker of the WSAC, address current problems in promoting art and awarding grants.

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