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New grant program aims to help 'starving' artists

Thursday, January 03, 2002

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

Arts organizations that depend on philanthropy for survival collect thousands of dollars each year from Pittsburgh's foundations.

Meanwhile, independent artists collect their paychecks from their day jobs, unable to get foundation support because they are not incorporated with the state as a not-for-profit organization.

Because most foundations in southwestern Pennsylvania restrict their arts funding to not-for-profits (which are deemed more accountable for a grant's use than an individual), a funding disparity exists between groups that present art and the people who create it. There are roughly 5,600 artists in Pittsburgh, according to a database compiled by the arts service organization ProArts, yet few of these playwrights, composers, visual artists and choreographers receive money directly from local foundations.

The best a foundation can do for the independent artist is fund groups like Artists and Cities, which offers low-rent apartments and studios for artists, and ProArts, which coordinates workshops on arts fund-raising and marketing.

But in 1998, when the arts staff of the Heinz Endowments reviewed its giving policies, it decided to start paying more attention to the proverbial "starving artist."

"We asked ourselves, what is at the core of the arts ecosystem? The artist," said Janet Sarbaugh, arts program officer at the Endowments. "We wouldn't have a cultural life without them. But we had no system in place to support them."

So this fall, the Endowments launched Creative Heights, a program that funds local artists who collaborate on a project with a Pittsburgh arts organization. In 2002, Creative Heights will dole out $150,000 in grants ranging from $10,000 to $40,000 to artists in residency -- say, a choreographer who works on a new dance piece with a classical music group, or a composer who writes music for a new work staged by a theater company.

"The artist gets a physical place to work, gets access to the resources of an institution, and gets public exposure they might not otherwise get," Sarbaugh noted.

Kerry Spindler, arts program associate at the Endowments, said artists have told her they are frustrated and discouraged when few people see their finished work. Creative Heights is therefore intended, in part, to give lesser-known artists some more visibility through an established organization.

The program is also intended to encourage arts organizations to present new material. An organization will receive a third of each grant and the artist will receive the rest. Channeling the money through an organization allows the Endowments to adhere to its policy of exclusively funding incorporated groups while still directing money to the artists.

Already, the Brew House Association, an incorporated organization that runs the Brew House artists' studios on the South Side, has received three proposals from artists hoping to strike up a collaboration with the Association, said Timothy Pisano, a painter who lives in the building and was one of the many advisers to the Endowments on the new program.

Despite the emergence of Creative Heights, local artists still don't have many funding resources. In 1995, the National Endowment for the Arts stopped awarding grants to individuals after being criticized by Congress for funding artists whose work some Congressmen deemed inappropriate.

That left local artists with fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts; two annual $15,000 Creative Achievement Awards from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust; two annual $10,000 awards from an anonymous local donor (administered through the Heinz Endowments), and grants from Creative Capital, a New York foundation that gives grants directly.

"If the artist doesn't market his stuff to galleries, he's limited in terms of what resources he can tap into," said Pisano, who supports his painting by working as a self-employed paint contractor. "And there seems to be a general lack of support from the public in terms of buying art these days."

The situation brightened in 2001 when the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts brought its Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts program to Pittsburgh. The program hands out money through ProArts to arts groups and artists that have never been funded by the Council before. Last year, individual artists received many of the grants.

Reflecting the growing local concern that independent artists aren't getting enough support, ProArts also hopes to launch a professional development fund for artists. The fund would support artists who are seeking to expand their creative abilities.

Marilyn Coleman, ProArts' executive director, acknowledged that her organization has traditionally focused on organizations. But she said it is reacting to the changing nature of small arts groups, which are increasingly artist-run and are forgoing the traditional administrative staff and office space.

"We have to find ways to support artists who are working with new models," Coleman said.

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