Conversation: Doris Duke Charitable Foundation to Grant $50 Million to Artists

BY Jeffrey Brown  November 1, 2011 at 2:41 PM EDT

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Last month, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation announced a major new program to assist artists. The Doris Duke Performing Artists Initiative will provide $50 million in grants to 200 artists in jazz, theater and contemporary dance — the largest allocation of cash grants ever given to individuals in these fields.

The grants will be awarded to established artists, up-and-coming artists and for artists in residence, with awards varying from $275,000 to $75,000. The money is intended to help artists not only create work, but to help plan for retirement, purchase healthcare and invest in their future.

I talked to Ben Cameron, program director for the arts, on the phone last week:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome again to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. Joining me today on the phone is Ben Cameron. He is the program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Foundation, which recently announced a major new initiative. It’s the Doris Duke Performing Artists Initiative, intended to help artists in the performing arts. And welcome to you, Ben.

BEN CAMERON: Thank you and I’m glad to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us, first, the idea behind this. Define the problem that you are trying to address.

BEN CAMERON: There are a couple of problems that we are trying to address in this. Number one, as I’m sure you know, artists in this country have such an unpredictable existence and are so deeply under-supported in so many ways. We had a conversation a number of years ago with a group of artists who said, You know, our lives now are about generating projects simply to attract more money. How is it that we can make ends meet on an ongoing basis? How do we find the resources to do the study or the exploration or God forbid we start to work on a project and decide we don’t want to produce it? How is that we patch together a life not of opulence but just of sheer economic dignity? And certainly part of what we know is artists in this country are deeply under-compensated. The vast majority of them work multiple jobs just to make their ends meet. Way too many of them lack healthcare benefits. They have almost nothing to retire on. And if you just saw the labor statistics this last week, you know that employment of performing artists is now at its lowest level since 1990.

JEFFREY BROWN: These are age-old problems, but is the feeling, the sense, that it’s gotten worse and that there aren’t other resources, NEA, etc., to step in and help individual artists?

BEN CAMERON: Well, certainly, as you probably know, that with the controversy surrounding the NEA in the early 1990s, Congress passed an injunction prohibiting the NEA from investing in individual artists at all, with a couple of notable exceptions, including jazz artists, for example. But for the most part, beginning in the early 1990s, the NEA was unable to invest in individual artists again, and we know that for so many performing artists, especially, those grants have been deeply meaningful and vital to their careers. Many state arts agencies will not fund individuals directly. And when we did our national survey we found that while there were a lot of programs out there for artists, actually 75 percent of those grants offered less than $10,000 a year and the median grant level was less than $2,500. So even artists who were getting grants were getting them at such nominal, and yet important support, that patching together this kind of larger-life-meeting-real-life needs or being able to dream or work on a larger scale was simply beyond the realm of the possible for so many.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So some of the details here, as I’m reading it, 200 individuals, this is for jazz, theater and contemporary dance, and they would be getting multi-year awards up to about $275,000?

BEN CAMERON: Yes. We’ve come up with a sort of three-part strategy to help the artists. And, as you know, I think, Doris Duke’s will specifically ties us to artists who work in jazz, contemporary dance and theater. The biggest grants are grants of $275,000. These go to artists who have already demonstrated through national competitions that they are artistically vital to the fields, that they’re committed to working in a nonprofit context. And we’ve seen that because they’ve had at least three different projects supported over the last decade. Those artists will receive $225,000 that they can choose, according to their needs, to draw down in three years, four years or five years. There’s an additional $25,000 to help them connect more meaningfully to audiences and there’s a final $25,000, which they can match kind of like a 401K, to help them with their retirement should they choose to do so, making those grants up to $275,000. There’s a second level of fellowship, though, that we also said, You know, there are probably some great artists out there who have yet to receive that kind of recognition. They haven’t been supported for three different projects over the last decade, but they might be the most impactful in their fields going forward in the future, they may be young, they’re just simply not as well known yet. Those artists will get grants of $60,000, unrestricted, that they can choose to draw down in two or three years, an additional $10,000 to help them with their audiences and an additional $10,000 for them, also, to be able to plan for their retirement and put aside for retirement years. And then there’s a third and final complementary piece, which are residency grants to have artists in residence in organizations around the country. Those grants are $150,000 per grant. Half of that money goes directly to the artists, half of it goes to the host organization.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one of the things that jumps out here — this is not something that people can apply for, right? They are nominated. Why did you decide to go that route?

BEN CAMERON: Part of what we were interested in was really, How do we harvest the best of what we’ve already done with these leading artists? And sometimes what we hear from artists is there are so many hoops you have to go through, and the application process itself is so onerous that really we were inspired by groups like the MacArthur Foundation, for example, that’s come up with a system that can sort of glean some of the most exciting work out there without encumbering artists with yet another set of guidelines, another set of applications, another set of rejection letters if they don’t get it etc., etc. So we are really trying to challenge ourselves to come up with something that was bureaucratically nimble and not onerous for the artists while still having the reach and the impact that we hope it would have.

JEFFREY BROWN: For individuals, this is sort of a mysterious process, but what is it for you? You’re going to have panels of advisers?

BEN CAMERON: All of our grant programs, including our commissioning programs that many of these artists will qualify through, are adjudicated by peer panel review. So my job is never to sit in judgment of a particular dance company or a choreographer. Our ongoing practice is to get money to a panel who will choose the best and the most vital work they see in their field to support for future funding.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have money to spend, you have many ways you could do it. Take us through a little bit of the thinking that led you to this one?

BEN CAMERON: Especially in this kind of economy, I have to begin by saying this is a real statement of support for the arts from our board of directors and our president, Ed Henry, because quite frankly this $50 million dollars we’re committing is above and beyond our arts annual budget. We’re not doing this instead of what we were doing; we’re doing this in addition to. And this really means we are digging into our investments in a way that we didn’t need to otherwise, so this is an extraordinary statement of support. I think they were really inspired in part by the example of Doris Duke herself, who supported artists in her own lifetime. And next year is her 100th birthday, so coincidentally we’ll be announcing our first round of grantees in the centennial year of Doris Duke herself and I think that’s resonant for us. But this began by our president asking the board whether they would consider an additional allocation to the arts program above and beyond the budget to support the arts in a meaningful way. And the board signaled they’d be willing to have the discussion. We went through about a year together where we looked at the issues facing the arts community, the issues facing artists in particular and the challenges around audiences, around changing demographics, around technology, all of which are going to guide artists and organizations into the future. And the board really very quickly came to a sense that they recognized the irreplaceable central value of the artist at the center of the work that we do and the paucity of meaningful systems that would support them in their work.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so, finally, when you conceive and put together something like this, is there an end result, a goal, that you feel you must meet and how will you measure success? Because if I’m reading this right, recipients, for example, don’t have to produce something as an end result.

BEN CAMERON: The money is unrestricted.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, so how do you as a foundation measure success?

BEN CAMERON: There are two ways we’re going to measure success in this. Number one, every artist at the outset of their grant, through an orientation process, will sit down with an expert and do a very rigorous self-assessment, sort saying, Where am I in my own life and my own career around these various skill sets? And they may say, When it comes to the internet, for example, I feel that my command of technology and internet logic is very low. And at the end of five years they may say, I want it to be very high. Or they might say, You know, I don’t care about this at all, I don’t want to budget, I’m happy to delegate that to someone else. But we’re beginning the process by asking them to assess where they are and where they would like to be at the end of their grant period. Part of the success of the initiative will be gauged by individually they have or have not been able to fulfill their own self-directed inquiry. On the second level, though, we hope that this whole process of investing in artists about their retirement years, which is a field we have not done, and this whole inquiry process about how, rather than launching a new program, can we as a grant-making field think about investing more deeply in people who already have proven their worth through past investments. If we can stimulate a large conversation in the grant-making field that will lead other foundations to either think more meaningfully about deepening commitments to artists rather than launching new initiatives and to be more thoughtful about helping artists around basic art life needs, including but not limited to retirement, healthcare and ongoing financial needs. If that conversation is stimulated going forward, then we will have succeeded in a different way. I think finally for us the jury is out in terms of what this means for our own grant-making at the end of this period. We may say, This has been so successful to us and we love it so much, we want to do another round of this. We may say, We want to continue but incorporate it into our ongoing grant-making at a lower scale. We may say, You know, it didn’t fulfill what we hoped and we’re going to try something different. But all that will remain to be seen and so we’ll be evaluating in an ongoing way as the program unfolds.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The new Doris Duke Performing Artists Initiative. Ben Cameron is the program director for the arts there. Thanks so much.

BEN CAMERON: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.