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National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities

Concept Papers


The Professional Artist: Grants and Fellowships

Deborah B. Lewis
ELA Foundation

Beethoven, Van Gogh, El Greco, Neil Marcus, Burt Reynolds, Access Theatre, Cheryl Marie Wade, Mark O'Brien, Third Street Kids, Charlene Curtis, Jaehn Clare, AXIS Dance Theatre, David Roche, Kitty Lunn, Christopher Reeve, Mary Verdi-Fletcher...

Did you recognize any of those names? These are but a few of the professional working artists with disabilities of yesterday and today. How did they jump through the hoops that they had to in order to receive funding and become successful? In this concept paper, we are going to explore the trends, statistics, pitfalls, and lessons needed in order to receive funding as an artist with a disability today.

As I thought about the topic of funding for artists with disabilities, I remembered the fifteen years I worked for and directed Special Audiences in Atlanta, Georgia. Special Audiences was an arts organization whose mission was to make the arts accessible to all Georgians. Founded in 1974, their initial funding was made possible by government sources both the Department of Human Resources and the Georgia Council for the Arts.

There was often a debate among the funders at the Department of Human Resources about whether they ought to be funding an arts organization since they were about providing services to clients or patients in the agencies that were overseen by the Department of Human Resources. Surely the arts were not a service to these people. It was not one of the basic needs such as food and housing, was it? The Georgia Council for the Arts questioned whether they ought to be funding an organization that didn't seem to fit into their criteria of producing art in a community setting and so maybe we were a service organization, hence not qualifying for as much arts money as we had before. After all, didn't we provide services for the people in the Department of Human Resources? As the years progressed, more pressure was brought to bear to cut government budgets and these debates got louder. Special Audiences, once dependent 100% on government funding, started to look for ways of raising funds beyond government contracts.

On one level, fundraising was easy. A corporation, individual, or foundation could fund one of our programs and be immediately gratified to know that not only had they contributed to the arts in the community, but they had enabled people with disabilities to have better access to it as well. And if we did not qualify for arts funding, we applied for 'disability' funding. But it got harder when we started to apply for funds to present artists with disabilities. This was not only providing access. This was putting artwork on walls and artists with disabilities on stages. Could these artists really be professional? Did they reach the standard of professional artists in the community? Or would the audience merely become interested in the artist's tragic story of overcoming hardships, rather than letting the art be judged for itself? We persevered and brought a dance company integrating wheelchairs and stand-up dancers to Georgia. A little girl in the audience stared at the dancers for a few minutes, trying to figure out what they were doing. Finally she shouted "DANCING!" and everyone turned to look at her. At last, an audience member had understood that dancing using wheels was just as much dancing as dancing using feet. We were on our way to more presentations of artists with disabilities.

The true test of our success as fund-raisers and as presenters was in 1996 when we held the first Cultural Paralympiad which showcased and highlighted the talents of artists with disabilities during the Paralympic Games in Atlanta. This was the first time a cultural program of this sort had been presented in conjunction with the Paralympics and it was a rousing success. We presented music, theatre, dance, art exhibits, films, and performance art by professional artists with disabilities in mainstream settings. What was gratifying was that in the struggle to raise the three million dollars of money and in-kind services to present this festival, we joined in a collaborative relationship with many other arts organizations. Arts organizations that never thought of having an artist with a disability on their stage were now part of an international festival to showcase these artists and they loved it. Their audiences increased because they reached groups of people with disabilities in the community that had not been touched by them before. Their opportunities for presenting increased as they looked at ways they could present more artists with disabilities in their facilities. Together we presented world class artists to the international community... and oh, by the way, they happened to have a disability. This was inclusion on these stages even if they had to have an excuse and a push to get them started.

I tell you this story to illustrate the funding sequence for artists with disabilities.

First of all, the discussion starts around people with disabilities being professional artists. There is a misconception born of past myths of using the arts in the old medical model of therapy and rehabilitation. People with disabilities were doing art, but not becoming professional artists in this model. Mainstream funders, willing to fund services for people with disabilities are familiar with the arts in the sense of people doing it in sheltered workshops. But they are hesitant about funding individuals presenting themselves as artists because they perceive that it may not be up to the standard of other artists. In doing research I asked many artists with disabilities how they fared in the funding world. These were some of the answers I got: "...my concern is that I will be exploited. The disability thing can be a nice humanitarian/`look crippled people can do art' angle for funding. That is one of the dangers of being an artist with a disability. It is very difficult to make your work known to people in the mainstream without either de-emphasizing the disability aspects of your life or having them be the story." Another person told me that he had a lot of insecurity approaching foundations because "...on the one hand I want no acknowledgment of my disability because I want my art to be its own acknowledgment. And yet at the same time I do want my disability known because there is a certain fight I have to fight as an artist that has nothing to do with my art and everything to do with my disability... and yet to say that seems like the most pathetic sort of begging." These two comments and many others like them seem to be the concern of many artists with disabilities. How do we break down the myths of the old models and create something new?

If and when a funder gets past the myths and misconceptions of the old model, how do they classify an artist with a disability? Under Artist or under Disability?

Funding for the arts is tight in general, so funders often look to other streams of funding within their categories when it comes to artists with disabilities. This creates an interesting problem for an artist with a disability: do you get funded in the arts category or the social service/disability category? This can be positive and negative at the same time. In the midst of doing research I interviewed foundations about their funding pattern. I was told that if an artist identifies himself as an artist with a disability in the application, they are often referred not to apply for the arts funding but to the discretionary or disability funding since there is more of that and they have a better chance at getting money. Let's look at this logic. Once again, the double-edged sword. This artist does not have to compete for the already small and shrinking arts funding. This artist has a chance at a pot of gold that is larger and with his unique project, he has a pretty good chance of getting funding. This is good, isn't it? Or is it? This artist does not get to be judged with other artists by a panel of his peers. This artist is not considered to be of the quality of other artists to be able to compete for those shrinking arts dollars. This is bad. It continually puts artists with disabilities back into the "special" model. By not allowing them to be included and judged in the mainstream, they are not able to compete in the mainstream and they do not have the opportunity to participate with other artists at the funding table, in the galleries, or on the stages.

I could find no cohesive pattern for funding people with disabilities as I interviewed foundations who provided funding in the arts. Some funders didn't know if they funded artists with disabilities or not since they did not ask for this identification on their grant application, but they were quick to assure me that they did not discriminate if they knew an artist had a disability. Others got very defensive about it and would not give me a definitive answer either way. It is a fact that many funders do not fund artists with disabilities because of the perceived myth of the medical model. A few funders "get it." That is, they understand the importance of creating opportunities for artists with disabilities to express themselves through the arts and are providing funds for them. What made them change their perceptions?

Let's look at the third part of the equation: how does an artist with a disability prove him or herself worthy of funding to the funding world? In order to analyze this we need to look at the grant seekers and the grant funders and the trends that affect all of us in this day and age. To the grant funders, the pressure is increasing every day. With the shrinking of government budgets in the arts as well as in other services, not-for-profit organizations have depended more and more on foundations, individuals and corporations to fill in the blanks.

According to Arts Funding Revisited, in the 1990's corporations responded to the drop in government funding by remaining flat in their giving patterns. This was true not only in the arts, but in all fields. Foundations fared better, with an increase of 12% over a three year period of time. However, this growth was slower than it had been in the 1980's and did not make up for government budget cuts of 9% on the national level and 18% at the state level occurring at the same time. The share of the number of grants dropped from 15.5% to 14.5% in overall funding during that time. This data also suggests that either the formation of new arts groups slowed down or that funders were less likely to expand support to new grantees. This meant that just as government dollars were shrinking, other dollars were expanding but not necessarily to new grantees. And as funders looked at an era where arts funding is being cut out altogether, artists with disabilities became the least likely to be funded because of the perception that the disability community is so well funded in the service sector. As we then look at funding for artists with disabilities, the statistics from the Foundation Center get even smaller. Of the $1,255,113,899 given out to all population groups served from 1994-1996 by the top 1,000 grantmakers giving $10,000 and above, 92 grants equaling $3,810,352 were given to arts organizations for programs and services involving people with disabilities. This broke down into 18% for building or program access, 49% for arts programs for people in human service agencies, 15% for arts outreach programs in educational institutions, 2% for arts research, 1% for advocacy and 10% for professional artists with disabilities.

What does this mean to the grant seekers? Artists with disabilities have to cope with lack of accessibility to training, perceptions of people with disabilities in the medical model, and competition for arts funds versus disability funds as well as deal with the reality that all artists face a shrinking arts dollar in a conservative environment. This is a daunting process for any but the strong of heart. But all is not lost. Even in this unfriendly environment, some artists with disabilities have done well. They have received grants that enabled them to continue and expand their work. How s this been done? What can they teach the new generation of artists and organizations working with artists with disabilities? I asked a few of them what their process was for getting out of the medical model and training funders to understand the importance of supporting the work of artists in their community. This is what I found out.

They broke the image apart by creating a new one for themselves. They got good training. They found good mentors. They produced good work. They got their work shown in a mainstream theatre or gallery. They joined with an existing arts organization for support. They created partnerships and collaborations with other artists and arts organizations to benefit themselves and their partners. They made good friends in the media and taught them how to talk about the work they did in a way that was reverent of the work and not concentrating on the disability. They got critical reviews which they sent with grant applications to local, state, regional, and national funders. They created good documentation in photos, video, print, and alternative formats for their work. They persevered year after year. They created a board of directors that was known in the community and could get work done. They went on tour. They received national attention in the media. They created work that made a positive impact on social change and gave voice to individuals that had not had that opportunity in the past. They got a reputation for doing quality work. They applied to funders that turned them down the first, second, and third time and they finally got funded. They worked hard. They built a good team to work with them and the team worked with them to succeed. They involved people with and without disabilities in the process. They taught people about having a disability wherever they went. They came up with creative fundraising ideas. They increased the scope and quality of their work. They won awards. They took total control and responsibility for their lives, their work, and their fate and they did not worry about statistics, trends, or what society does and does not think of their work or of the fact that they are artists with disabilities. They did not give up.

The Nobel Prize Winner, Kinzeburo Oe, once commented that one does not know a culture until one knows the perspective of its disabled citizens. By this comment, Oe meant to suggest that one cannot truly understand the moral or immoral leanings of a culture until one is exposed to the perspectives of those who occupy the farthest fringes of the human community. Funding for artists with disabilities is an important way to insure that all voices will be heard in our culture. Not hearing them is cutting off an important part of our society. We need to hear all of the voices in order to be a whole and thriving community. Funders need to be responsible and look beyond the myths of yesterday and consider the importance of these voices for our tomorrows. Artists with disabilities are the voice we need to hear.

© 1998, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Reproduced by permission.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without the written permission of The Kennedy Center.



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