Artists know how to see beyond the familiar fence line and disrupt complacencies and habitual strategies…they set a high bar for shaping and sharing their ideas…which do not spring from the blinding malleability of American exceptionalism or entitlement, but from a persistent and deeply lived awareness of what is that can be put into service for what could be.¹
—Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director
UCLA Center for the Art of Performance
In 2020 Mellon’s Arts and Culture (AC) program (formerly Arts and Cultural Heritage) launched its vision for an artist-centered society grounded in equity and justice. As Kristy Edmunds so eloquently shares above, the artists are at the vanguard of the change we seek for society. Under the leadership of Program Director Emil Kang, AC focused its grantmaking in support of the heroic artists and surrounding organizations innovating the field through a year of pandemic and social unrest, twin crises that accelerated long-needed institutional reform and recognition for artists, arts workers, and leaders of color.
In mid-2020, Kang and Program Officer Susan Feder, who has long guided AC’s work in the performing arts, welcomed new Program Officer Deborah Cullen-Morales, an accomplished curator and scholar who most recently led the Bronx Museum. Together with program staff, AC leadership took a multipronged response to the pandemic, issuing one-time urgent response grants and modifying its grantmaking cycles. First, it addressed the immediate needs of grantees by converting nearly $10 million in restricted funds to be eligible for general operating costs and increasing its zero-interest loan fund. Next, AC established or collaborated with philanthropic partners on a series of vital initiatives that supported artists and small-to-midsize organizations deeply connected to their communities. Among these were the Artist Relief Fund, administered by United States Artists, which awarded $5,000 grants to more than 3,900 individual artists across disciplines and demographics. In New York City, Mellon joined other local funders in the NYC COVID-19 Response and Impact Fund, which brought economic relief to nearly 400 small-to-midsize arts and cultural organizations across the five boroughs.
Across the US, major regranting initiatives centered the expertise of local organizations, often bringing Mellon funds to communities and organizations for the first time, a vital element of AC’s equity strategy. In a jointly conceived program with the six United States Regional Arts organizations, the US Regional Arts Resilience Fund deployed flexible funding to more than 200 arts organizations serving underresourced populations, communities, and/or art forms—86 percent of recipients were new to the Foundation. The five partners of the Mellon-funded Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) used their deeply personal nuanced knowledge of community-based artists, culture bearers, and cultural organizations to establish the Crisis Relief Grants program. Vicky Holt Takamine, executive director of ILI partner organization PA’I Foundation, says the grants would allow communities to “continue to hold and practice our cultural traditions in the face of adversity that gives us collective strength and a very unique perspective.”² The Foundation also provided key collaborative support to response initiatives in the cities of Los Angeles and Philadelphia as well as in the state of New Jersey.
Distanced by the pandemic, artists turned to digital platforms to continue their work and stay connected with their communities in 2020. Through frequent conversations with individual artists, AC staff learned that while artists embraced the shift to the virtual studio, digital platforms had limitations. “We need to be together; our well-being depends on it,” explains Alice Sheppard, artistic director of Kinetic Light, a disability arts ensemble. “Our dance style is highly physical, deeply personal, and dependent on intimate knowledge of each other’s bodies.” In response, AC launched a “bubble” residency initiative, allowing more than 350 dance artists and collaborators across nine companies and two presenting organizations to gather in person for multiweek creative residencies that followed medically supervised safety protocols. The companies, eight of which were first-time Mellon grantees, included Alonzo King LINES Ballet, A.I.M by Kyle Abraham, and Camille A. Brown & Dancers.
In addition to launching such innovative models and shifting investments to historically underfunded artists, communities and organizations, Mellon also supported work and collections previously neglected by philanthropy. With grants to Kenkeleba House and Howard University’s Gallery of Art, AC launched Critical Collections, a multiyear capacity-building effort to bolster collections featuring African American, Caribbean, and Latinx artists that aims to broaden the public’s understanding of American art and amplify stories that more fully reflect our diverse nation. Through the Art Museums Futures Fund (AMFF), AC prioritized museums with distinctive collections, such as the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art, dedicated to LGBTQ+ art and to the artists who center the queer experience, and the Nevada Museum of Art, cofounded by a climate scientist, which maintains a scholarly focus on art and the environment. AMFF provided nearly $27 million to 26 small-to-midsize museums, 62 percent of which were first-time grantees, with many located in smaller metropolitan areas. All AMFF grantees maintain deep ties to their local communities, demonstrating a commitment that continues to be central to AC’s grantmaking across sectors. In the performing arts, Penumbra Theater Company in Minneapolis is an exemplar of this. Under Artistic Director Sarah Bellamy, Penumbra reoriented its mission and programs to create an artist-centered Center for Racial Healing. The evolution prompted company member T. Mychael Rambo to reflect, and made him feel “purpose-filled, useful, and validated,” especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.³ In Los Angeles, Self-Help Graphics & Arts (SHG) led by Betty Avila, has long been dedicated to its Boyle Heights community. Founded by Chicano/a artists and printmakers and shaped by political uprisings of the 1970s, SHG continues to serve as a locus for Chicano/a and Latinx art, exhibitions, and training, as well as a gathering space for art and activism, providing a model to be studied and scaled.
If artists are to lead from the center of thriving communities, large-scale investment in new leadership is critical to driving institutional transformation. A grant to the Kennedy Center will support its Vice President for Social Impact Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the renowned spoken word artist, as he probes how the “nation’s performing arts center” can commit to his conviction that “if racism is structural, then anti-racism also must be structural.” AC also provided leadership funding for the Black Seed to build a capacious and national network of Black theaters working collaboratively toward future thrivability. Billie Holiday Theatre Executive Director and project lead Dr. Indira Etwaroo describes Black Seed as an “optimistic enterprise developed by everyday leaders who serve on the front lines of leading Black institutions for Black artists and Black communities.” In the museum field, AC awarded a grant to Arizona State University (ASU) in support of Readying the Museum, a two-year national effort to address inequities plaguing the field. Led by ASU Museum Director Miki Garcia and interdisciplinary artist Xaviera Simmons, the initiative invites a coalition of museum practitioners and artists to facilitated workshops to produce tools for “advocating for a transformation and redistribution of resources through rigorous and deep structural change,” says Simmons.
Shifting resources to individual artists is core to many of AC’s investments. In 2020, the program provided major capacity-building support to field leader Sean Dorsey and his company Fresh Meat Productions, the first dance company dedicated to trans art and justice. AC also renewed funding for the National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP), providing fourteen playwrights at thirteen theaters across the US with three years of salary and benefits, access to research and development funds, and opportunities for convening and documentation. While grants to Fresh Meat and NPRP better resource artists within existing arts infrastructures, Mellon funded Alaska Native Heritage Center’s development of a new social enterprise model that financially empowers and amplifies the work of Alaska Native artists. Such asset ownership and governance authority are core to financial freedom for artists, notes Angie Kim, president and CEO of the Center for Cultural Innovation (CCI). To that end, AC provided support to CCI to research and test business models that will further alternative economies for independent artists. Investments in bold infrastructure experiments such as these are foundational to the long-term livelihoods of artists as they lead us toward a more representative and inclusive future.Dustin, Alaska Native Heritage Center's former cultural programs manager, building a qayaq. Photo: Mike Conti/Alaska Native Heritage Center
Top photo: i'm yours: Encounters with Art in Our Times, a recent exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, which received an Art Museum Futures Fund grant. Photo: Mel Taing.
1. Kristy Edmunds, “Public Care is Our Most Durable Good,” KCET, July 29, 2020, https://www.kcet.org/shows/southland-sessions/kristy-edmunds-public-care-is-our-most-durable-good.
2. Vicky Holt Takamine, quoted in “Crisis Relief Grants for Arts & Culture Leaders,” Intercultural Leadership Institute, August 27, 2020, http://www.weareili.org/voices/ili-partners-announce-5-million-crisis-relief-grants-for-arts-culture-leaders.
3. Rohan Preston, “St. Paul’s Penumbra gets a new name and a new mission: Promoting ‘arts, racial equity and wellness,’” Star Tribune, August 6, 2020, https://www.startribune.com/st-paul-s-penumbra-gets-a-new-name-and-a-new-mission/572021402/.