Patrons of the arts are often characterized as cultural or political fat cats who support artists financially to improve their social standing, make more money, or insert other, nebulous, self-serving goals. But recently a new sort of art patron has popped up–artists who have taken it upon themselves to help their own. Rather than relying solely on funds from outside sources, these people are creating microgrants to help other local artists fund their projects.
The scale is small and the grants are modest. However, the gesture is evidence of a highly engaged, D.I.Y. art community. The act of giving away money is a practical way to assist fellow artists, who are often struggling financially, as well as a political gesture.
One example is SOUP. Led by University of Iowa graduate student Katie Hargrave, who is studying intermedia, and Public Space ONE directors Eric Asboe and John Engelbrecht, the fundraising and community-building event has been helping local artists for more than a year.
“The model is simple. The first Sunday of the month, people pay $10 for a meal, but they also pay for a vote on a grant proposal. Applicants discuss their projects, we ask questions, and then we vote,” Hargrave said. The person who cooks is reimbursed for the ingredients, and the surplus goes to the winning proposal.
SOUP, which was orginally based on the Sunday Soup project initiated by the Chicago-based group, InCUBATE, is also “a brainstorming forum, as often artists looking for a small amount of funding for their projects are looking for advice, comments and enthusiasm as well,” said Engelbrecht. “Even those who don’t receive part of the pot usually leave with a renewed energy towards their projects.”
Last month SOUP gave BS Gallery more than $200 to offset travel costs for their April artist, Jason Eisner, who is coming from New York. “It is less than the cost of a nice meal out with friends, and it is even better because we get to fund a local artist or project,” Hargrave said.
Hargrave’s previous funding project was Coffee Microgrant. She contributed the $2 she used to spend on coffee every day to an artist whose proposal won her over. Like many small consumer purchases, the coffee money was a small enough amount not to miss in her wallet, but once added up it, “funded four friends to the tune of somewhere between $42 and $62.” After she kicked the coffee habit, Hargrave discontinued the grant.
David Dunlap, UI associate professor of Art and Art History, also has a $2 per day grant that he calls Bubble-up Funding. Dunlap, who was inspired by endeavors that “bubble up” from art schools and communities as opposed to what comes down from above, said he plans to contribute to the fund for a full year before appointing a committee to select the best proposal, which, if all goes as planned, will be awarded the $730.
The precedent for artists helping their own is rich. From the New York City restaurant Food (opened by Tina Girouard, Carol Goodden and Gordon Matta-Clark in the 1970s) to Josh Greene’s “Service Works,” the form is varied, but the goal is consistently focused on artists helping artists. Food was at once an inexpensive restaurant, an employer of struggling artists, a performance and meeting space and a conceptual art project. Greene was a waiter at an upscale San Francisco restaurant who gave away one night’s tips every month–somewhere between $200-$400.
Emily Moran Barwick, executive administrator of the LapDance Scholarship and UI graduate student in sculpture, is also involved in a service-funded microgrant, but it’s service of a different sort. In December 2010, Barwick and self-proclaimed “vaginally-funded experience artist,” Hailey Jude Minder, set out to make their own funding source. Moonlighting as a stripper twice a week, “Hailey is bringing funding for the arts into the trenches. She has funded her own art in this manner and now wishes to help her fellow artists achieve their goals,” Barwick said.
LapDance scholarships will be awarded on a continual rolling basis, the amount and frequency subject to Hailey’s earnings, which are subject to lap dance traffic. “Hailey is excited about creating a new, possibly controversial, yet undeniably interesting, channel of fine arts funding” Barwick said. This project in particular begs the question: Is the real project the act of fundraising?
“It could be ‘If Your Story is More Important than Your Object Grant.’ It could be “If Your Story is More Important than Your Object then Your Story is Your Object Grant,’” Dunlap said.
In addition to bubbling, Dunlap is also involved in selling his personal collection of artworks by the late outsider artist, Alva Gene Dexhimer. With the proceeds he funds
other artists, in order to make a hard life “better by their fellow traveler Alva Gene Dexhimer.”
“I think artists have become dependent on a steadily shrinking pool of money, and we have become trick ponies to get that dough. It can be simpler. Microgranting projects don’t require paperwork, 1099s, etc,” Hargrave said.
Arts funding is often viewed as an expendable line item in state and federal government budgets, so artists have long been in the practice of attempting to fend for themselves. Private buyers in Iowa City seem to offer swell support for makers of pretty objects–enough to support several galleries and arts festivals–but institutional funding for less consumer-oriented art is limited to two main sources: The University of Iowa and the Iowa Arts Council.
“I think it is important to find and make alternative sources of funding. Plus, this university does little to monetarily support artists through materials fellowships.” Hargrave says that local artists are trying to “fill the gap” by identifying surpluses in their own budgets.
Financial surpluses, here, are relative; none of those involved in microgrants locally are what one would traditionally think of when imagining a benefactor. However, the ability to donate a portion of one’s disposable income does in fact illustrate the surplus with which many Americans, even those who consider themselves low-income, really have. Graduate students are notoriously dissatisfied with their teaching stipends, yet both Hargrave and Barwick are willing and able to contribute to the financial well-being of another artist.
“In some ways, SOUP was and is a direct response to typical top-down arts funding in which the eligible artists have no say in how the money is distributed and, in a broader sense, how the arts are funded in non-transparent, non-equal ways,” said Asboe. “In a more powerful way, SOUP creates an economy of its own where people are willing to share work, share food, share time without all or, necessarily, any of them receiving any monetary reward.”
Even though these projects are small, they have a big impact. “I don’t really think it’s about the money, directly. I think it’s more about the fact that people get together and listen to one another,” BS Gallery’s Chris Reno says. SOUP impels people to “spend two hours thinking about what others are doing in the community and that starts the snowball down the hill, hopefully picking up speed and mass as it progresses.”
Iowa City microgrants have financed postcards for an artist group, props for a performance, a hotel room at the College Art Association conference, material supplies for numerous artists and mapping software, just to name a few.
Reno adds, “The more that people participate, the greater the financial support and the stronger the community.”
In return for the support SOUP has provided the BS Gallery, the BS Gallery is hosting SOUP in early May. For information on how you can get involved, please visit Public Space One.