Ruby Lerner Talks About The Creative Capital Foundation
Helen De Michiel: Who will you be funding and what constitutes the "independent film community" for Creative Capital?
Ruby Lerner: In this first year we’re trying to support around sixty projects—in a combination of the performing arts, visual arts, media and in a category we’re referring to as "emerging fields" which means computer-based art, interdisciplinary work, and interactive installation work. In each of these four areas we’re hoping to fund approximately fifteen projects. We’re interested in work that crosses discipline lines, work that utilizes technology but also involves live performance, and work that is exploratory in both form and content. There will be a particular emphasis on works that deal with our "moment in time" and the issues we face as communities and as a society. We’ll be particularly attracted to projects that deal with contemporary life. Of the fifteen media projects in our ideal universe, we want to support media artists who work in animation, experimental and short forms, documentary and narrative.
Having said that, our pool of available money is small. Since we’re focussing on work that is more exploratory in terms of form and content, we’re not a good place to come for your $350,000 PBS documentary. Because we have such a limited amount of money, most of the grants are going to be quite small. For example, out of the fifteen projects funded in media, twelve will be $5,000 grants, and the other three will be in the $15,000 to $20,000 range. So when we talk about narratives we’re interested in, we mean experimental and non-traditional narrative; we’re also interested in experimental documentary. That’s the territory we’ll be swimming in. Yet it doesn’t mean those may be the only projects we’ll fund— I’m sure there will be works that have nothing to do with what I’ve just said that will excite us and the panels. But those are the areas we’re carving out for ourselves. The criteria won’t be funding only media projects that are meant to end up in a mainstream movie theater or on broadcast television.
What did you learn when you traveled around the country conducting focus groups before the launch of Creative Capital?
The conversations with artists were totally instrumental in developing the guidelines. The meetings were cross-disciplinary, and included media artists, performing artists, visual artists and those working in computer art and installation. The meetings were an integrative experience and a very exciting way to shape the application process. People were generally quite heartened by the approach that Creative Capital has been set up to take: to not just give the money away, but to be there after the initial support comes through to help the work make its way in the world by providing other types of advisory and professional development services. This concept seems to be very moving and useful to people.
After a project receives Creative Capital support, how is the relationship with the foundation going to work for the artist?
It’s difficult to talk about this part of the process because what we’ve realized is that every project is going to be completely different and will probably develop with us in very individual ways. For instance, in the range of possibilities for a media artist, we might pull together curators, critics, distributors, or festival people to brainstorm early on in the process with the artist and us about what the potential paths for this project might be. We want to begin thinking about those issues very early on and build relationships for these projects in the initial stages of their lives.
Can you clarify how "strings are attached" to funding from Creative Capital?
The first string attached is that artists should be interested in working with us in an active way as part of the development process. For a lot of artists this is exciting. Others may just want the money and need to be left alone. For those who want to be left alone, this would not be an appropriate grant. This is not a program that is right for all artists and all projects. If artists don’t want us on their backs calling every few months and asking you how things are going, then Creative Capital is not for them. But for others, this ongoing relationship is a dream come true.
The other concern people have about Creative Capital is that some small portion of the project’s proceeds will come back to the Fund to help replenish it. This is not an endowed foundation. This means it is like every other arts organization — we have to raise our budget every year. We are looking for a diversified funding base and we’re never going to stop fundraising or looking for money from other foundations, individuals and the business community. We are even beginning to plan a small endowment to cover some of the costs. However, one of the areas we are hoping will contribute to Creative Capital is that there may be some earned income from the projects we fund. And necessarily, it will only be one area of support out of a number of areas of support that can help our program thrive. In no way do we see this ‘return’ as supplanting the fundraising work we are planning already. But we also feel this reinvestment is an important philosophical part of this new idea.
We haven’t completely worked out the details, but the goal is not to make anything onerous, and to help artists become self-sufficient. We aren’t setting up a program that would defeat this purpose, because why would we do that? The idea is that there would be some small percentage of the proceeds that will come back to the fund if the project ends up generating income. My feeling is that you never know when this could happen. If we are making an early investment, and if we are working with those projects to help them be successful, then the concept of return is appropriate for the Fund, especially on behalf of future artists to benefit from those profits, and help us to thrive and remain vital.
What about the issue that panelists may choose projects based on their potential for actually generating revenue?
That’s a very important point, and my answer to that is, how can you know? You just have to look at the work that seems the most exciting to you and be willing to back it up with other kinds of services, and then try to do the best you can to make a life possible for that work. And then whatever happens, happens. Panels will be composed of the typical media arts mix, but we might also have a commercial distributor or exhibitor on the panel, since there are a lot of those people who are smart and have come out of our universe anyway. There would be folks from media centers, media writers and a wide variety of others in what will be a small panel. Also, it’s not like we’re only writing a check to a project. We’re marrying all these projects, and our staff will be very involved in the decision-making at that point in the process.
Are you using a venture capital model for the Fund?
The way it’s not a venture capital-like fund is that profit is the bottom line in that kind of model. We have other goals. We are going ask questions like, does this project have the potential for significant artistic impact? Does this project have the potential for cultural impact—and that could be at the local, regional or national or international level. Those will be the most important selection criteria. Once a project has been selected, we want to help maximize its impact in the world. And as a consequence hopefully, there will be financial impact for the artist, and in the long term, for us as well.
Have you been considering how Creative Capital might partner with other media organizations?
The only way this Fund will work is when the infrastructure that supports artists is strong. We’ve been meeting with artists and organizations around the country to look at how these relationships might work. There’s no way we’re going to develop this program without strong arts organizations. But Creative Capital is a program to support individual artists, not organizations. We want to know what can we do to help strengthen the institutional infrastructure that supports artists. And we want to begin asking that question with the field. One of our goals is to continue convening small focus groups across artistic disciplines. In the next year there will be a convening of folks in the media arts community, across the nonprofit and commercial sectors, to have a conversation about the ways we might work with the infrastructure that’s already there, and the non-monetary things we might do to help strengthen it. For example, if a network of media arts exhibitors wants to show one of our funded artists upon completion of a project, we could come in and assist with promotion and outreach to a particular constituency. It would be helping by giving our services and advisory resources to both the artists and the organizations involved.
How are you keeping expectations about Creative Capital from getting too far out of control?
We’ve all been through this before – that we can solve all of the problems in the media arts field through funding initiatives. Look at ITVS, and they have hundreds of times more money than we do. In the future, if we are able to put $250,000 a year into creation and promotion of media projects (and we’re not there yet!) I will be very pleased. I have to say over and over, Creative Capital is very limited in terms of dollars. The expectations are very high, and people are very excited about this different way of working with projects. Although we have a relatively small pool of support available, we want to leverage our early little dollars into more dollars. When a project becomes too big for us, we will say, who can we approach to help this project? We can introduce our artists to other funders and donors who may have an interest in the work or the subject matter. We expect to be actively engaged in the process of helping the artist raise more funding for their project. And we’ll be setting up a network of advisors and consultants to assist the projects in targeted areas of expertise.
I often say I’m going to change my title to Director of Expectation Modification! I’ll be happy to go on the record to say that we will not meet any of the grandiose expectations that people have for us. I think what is exciting is that this Fund is a new way of working with projects beyond the actual granting process. That is the experiment, and I’m looking forward to finding out if it’s a good idea or not.
HELEN DE MICHIEL is the National Director of NAMAC.
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