Return to Articles

JOHN O'BRIEN

THE EXPANDING
MEANING OF GRANTS


In mapping out the terrain that comprises the contemporary production of art that I am interested in, I often find myself writing about whatever is an alternative to the mainstream. Whether it is writing about figurative art at a time when abstract art is in vogue or writing about performance art when painting is the most acknowledged genre, I have endeavored to open up the bandwidth of what June Wayne has described as the "overall ecology of the art world.” My reasoning is that it is only by examining all of its streams, whether in favor or not, whether canonical or not, that the real consistency of art production can begin to be deciphered. Also, by writing these out, I am able to uncover some of the embedded mythologies concerning contemporary arts. Over time, it has become clear to me that this oppositional writing tact is not due to some polemical bone of mine which is perennially out of joint; but rather, it derives from the feeling that a collective occlusion keeps us (that is, those of us in the art world--or better yet in the art worlds) from recognizing the protean vastness of art production, beyond any classificatory status. Within specific art world factions self interest and creative context mitigate against adequately framing a basis for judging other contemporary art beyond unspoken boundaries. In a given sphere this can and does give rise to the dismissive fantasy that, indeed there is no other “art world” worthy of consideration.

But the entire sphere of contemporary art production is impossible to reduce to a singularity, given the huge numbers of academically accredited or auto didactic practitioners today who operate under that rubric. Nonetheless there are (even without drawing distinctions between sanctioned versions of art making and the numerous 'outsider' strains) certain overarching validating structures that are in place to codify and postulate significance about the production of art.

The late Italian art historian Cesare Brandi (1906-1988) in his wonderfully circumlocutious Teoria Generale della Critica (General Theory of Criticism) (1975) describes the difference between the mere appearance or sheer physical eruption of an art work into the world at large and the subsequent induction or establishment of it's significance within the order of "fine art" objects. He presents this process as being analogous to the relationship of recording daily chronicles to the overview afforded by a historical accounting. The first records the eternal progression of “nows” indiscriminately (as in an archive), while the other sums them up in a reasoned and streamlined progression by ordering them and discriminating between greater and lesser value (as in a summary). Each of these kinds of accounts is dependent upon the other, even as they exclude one another. Without going into the details of how Brandi uses language theory to resolve the reciprocal contradictions, I can say that the bifurcating solution he proposes elicits the same sentiment as that which comes from trying to decide whether the historical value of an artist's work should be ascertained 25 years after death or 50 years after. Which is to say, the model isn't heartening; but it does illuminate the discrepancies which arise when you move from the everyday aspects of continuously appearing art objects to a consideration of their more general worth over time. And it does little to explain why we manufacture a mythology to gloss this difference over.

The four primary mechanisms presently used for validating and giving significance to art works are: the individual self (the relatively autonomous identity to which artists/observers are most beholden), the art world institutions which house and display art works (whether commercial or not, mainstream or not, these are the clearing houses for value of different sorts), the published vehicles for art writing (specialized or not, it is the means through which significance and context is conferred in literary form); and the arts grants and awards (whether awarded through peer selection or superior selection, it is one way in which honor and opportunity is bestowed). I am struck by how art grants and artist awards have lately come to occupy a larger portion of the contemporary arts validation process than they used to.

This is not to say grants have supplanted any of the others parts of what makes a certain contemporary artist's work significant, but in concrete terms the opportunities that grants represent have superseded those of institutions. This increased relative importance is due, in part, to a diminished market that has taken away from the museums, and in particular the galleries and specialized clearing houses, a sizable portion of their power to confer significance on an object through acquisition. But it is also due to a shift in perception. With decreased commodification of the byproducts of their activity, artists naturally seek for a kind of validation that has roots outside of commerce, and for a kind of support that goes beyond momentary liquidity. The mythological search for contemporary artistic significance its has roots in something akin to the feudal system, where descending ranks of nobility confer status by virtue of proximity. The king/queen, dealer/curator has been the source of decisive power. The closer the artist is to this power, the more the artist reflects its choices and is thus validated. Grants circumvent this relationship in at least two ways (which explains why they are held in low esteem by those still yearning for the medieval): First, they draw upon more than one constituency for judgment about value (typically a grant/awards panel is newly appointed each year, and drawn from different parts of the art world); second, they are not allowed to be granted or awarded to the same recipient over and over again (the opposite of a traveling "art star" exhibition).

Grants come from multiple sources. It is important to distinguish between them in order to illuminate how they make their judgments and disburse their resources, as wells as to track how they interface with the recipients. Most grants and awards come from foundations or from not-for-profit organizations that function in a similar way. These organizations typically have a mandate and an administrative structure poised to ascertain how and where to distribute the resources necessary to meet their mandate. Foundations can be varied in their mandate, from those using funding to stimulate international exchanges, to those giving awards to artists for accomplishment, to those providing the means of placing artists in the general community. The most important distinction I found is between family foundations and those that are institutionally based. The reason for this importance is that the goals of a family foundation can and will shift as the newer generations who move into Board of Directors’ positions change their desires as to what the mandate should be. The most salient example in recent L.A. history of what this means was seen at the Lannan Foundation, which diverted the resources it had dedicated to being a substantial supporter of contemporary visual art into broader educational programs as just such a generational shift occured.

This being said, what part does the grant/awards structure occupy of an artists overall "significance"? I accept the subjectivity of panelists as a given, and the differences between the “chronicles” and the “history” (following the earlier discussion of Brandi). So I’m not interested in arguing that significance, as it is conferred by a grant, is thereby fixed relative to the artist’s self-perception, that of exhibiting institutions, or that of art magazines and Web sites. But I would venture to say that it remains the most interesting component at play today. Certainly it is not the first thing one would reference in demonstrating of proving artistic significance. However, almost everyone I have spoken with on this subject recognized the grant/awards structure as being intrinsically the most appropriate, or fairest means for measuring an artists' significance within the broader general context of the art world. The professional validation of each artist recipient’s output seems particularly important at a personal level and this was often weighed as the single most important effect of the grant or award. Others attest to the importance of the support in strictly financial terms, allowing for the acquisition of time or materials, or providing the means for travel experiences.

What the grant/awards structure affords the art world is its “fourth leg” of validation and support, with some additional measure of significance flowing from the collective point of view of a revolving group of cognoscenti (as opposed to a fixed set of curators or administrators). More importantly, it is the least pre-dictable source of connectivity and synergy circulating in the art world.

Incidentally, the process necessarily creates a dialogue among the panel participants that cannot be underestimated, in that it effectively broaches the walls of each enclave's fiefdom. Whether or not this has a lasting effect, the contact fosters a momentary overview on the part of proponents of organizations who work within the arts but who might not otherwise be in communication. For the artist recipients, there is typically their own momentary sense of community, whether it’s during an awards ceremony or a celebratory group exhibition.

Another effect of grants is to erode some of the hyperbole away from the “lone artist” paradigm, a caricature that has really long since ceased to apply, but which is still very much alive and well in the popular mind, as well as in marketplace rhetoric and sales pitches (consider how common it has become for our established artists to hire the assistance of up and coming recent art university grads--and how frequently is that acknowledged?). Grants also provide experiences that an artist could not get from their normal life trajectory (travels and interactions), and often extends the psychological license to experiment. The infusion of cash can concretely push an artist to try a new medium or new format that they otherwise would not have risked.

I would advocate further expansion of the grant/awards structure to play an increasingly central role in the art world. Aside from the current areas of impact, this would be beneficial in creating new bridges for artists to move more fluidly within and beyond the art world. This notion would place artists directly into communities instead of isolated in an academic tower. The work of artists in the community has been often damned with faint praise (in the feudal citadel only the lone genius is capable of producing significant works), and it is hardly the only model worth aspiring to. In my mind it stands first among many valid possibilities that may be considered as a natural consequence of this type of growth. But if nothing else, the rupture between the highly romanticized solitude of art school day camp and the highly competitive and highly populated reality of the art world could be attenuated by connections not founded in the cult of celebrity.

When I last checked, the results of the grant/awards distributed over the years were not being tracked, so what they have led to remains anecdotal or unknown. The work of getting each grant/award sorted out for each administrative cycle must already be daunting, so it is understandable that they aren't traced. Yet, it seems to me that it would be a good idea to examine what these forms of validation and support are unleashing. It also seems to me that observing the improbable synergy and unexpected expansions of the art world could lead to dismantling sections of an outdated mythology. Scrutinizing and integrating the overlooked and underestimated effects of grant/awards in the chronicles of art making today is one step in comprehending the overall ecology of an art world that has already been transformed--even if we don’t really understand how.


I spoke with many people about grants but I would like to give special thanks for the long(er) conversations to Claire Peeps (Director of the Durfee Foundation), Susan Rankaitis (artist), Robbert Flick (artist), Kyungmi Shin (artist), Arleen Chikami (artist and administrator) and Mark Johnstone (administrator and author of the recently published "Epicenter (San Francisco Bay Area Art Now").