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The State of Arts Funding: Deana Haggag and Dennis Scholl in Conversation

Margaret Carrigan

Edgar heap of Birds, Stomp the Castle, 1992. Pastel on rag paper. Courtesy the artist.

Arts funding in America is in peril, especially as President Trump’s administration vies to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts. With fewer and fewer federal dollars available, private funding organizations are increasingly called upon to pick up the slack. Thanks to the work of shrewd administrators, some of the organizations are using this time of uncertainty to rethink traditional funding models.

Dennis Scholl and Deanna Haggag represent two of the forces propelling arts funding forward today. Scholl spent six years as vice president of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has a long history of extending awards to community-minded creatives all over the country who haven’t typically been supported by traditional benefactors. Under his guidance, Knight expanded its philanthropy into the national arts arena, awarding roughly $200 million in grants during Scholl’s tenure from 2009 to 2015. In September, he took up the helm at Miami Beach’s ArtCenter/South Florida, where he will spearhead the non-pro t’s new grant-making program.

After nearly four years at Baltimore’s Contemporary, a non-collecting museum known for its challenging site-specific projects, Haggag assumed the role of president and CEO of United States Artists (USA). Founded in 2006 in response to a previous round of severe NEA budget cuts, USA is renowned for its sizable $50,000 unrestricted grants awarded directly to individual artists annually. Within the past decade, the organization has awarded over $24 million to nearly 500 artists including William Pope L., Theaster Gates, Wangechi Mutu, Rick Lowe, Lorraine O’Grady, and Kara Walker.

The Miami Rail spoke with Scholl and Haggag in a roundtable discussion on the specific challenges facing arts funding in the US, and how they see traditional grant models changing to better accommodate artists’ needs today.

Margaret Carrigan: Dennis, at the Knight Foundation, you were part of a national funding organization; now in your new role at ArtCenter/South Florida, you have a more local purview. Conversely, Deanna, you recently shifted from the local to the national when you assumed your role at United States Artists in April after four years at the Contemporary in Baltimore. Can you highlight some of the biggest differences in funding considerations at both levels of influence?

Dennis Scholl: Well, I’ve always been based in Miami, and on a local level, it’s a bit exceptional. We’re incredibly fortunate to have a number of arts funding resources that either don’t exist or are much smaller in many other communities. I say with real conviction that we have one of the greatest art funding sources in the country led by what I consider the gold standard for governmental arts leadership, the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs. Our elected officials have made a real commitment to culture for decades and, sadly, that’s unusual. They have over a billion dollars in facilities that they oversee and, on an annual basis put out tens of millions of dollars to numerous cultural organizations in the community. So when I think of local arts funding, I think about how we’re exemplary because we’ve been blessed with an incredible amount of resources that have led our community to think of itself as a cultural destination over the past 10 years or so.

Deana Haggag: In my role with USA, I’ve gotten a better sense of what communities across the nation struggle with and it’s often that there’s very little national support. The city of Miami does a great job of picking up the slack in that respect. So did Baltimore in my experience—the city had a lot of private organizations for its size that contributed to cultural endeavors. But I think the thing small markets like Baltimore face is the equitable distribution of available funding. So the issue becomes two-pronged. First, where is the money going to come from? Second, even if the money comes, how do you make sure it gets to communities that really need it, given that these communities are often unseen or at least not often rewarded for their artistic contributions in a mainstream sense? Cities everywhere are struggling to support their arts and culture sector and I think we have to remind people that that’s something we need to advocate for and legislate.

MC: Speaking of legislation, President Trump’s administration is legislating the National Endowment for the Arts into extinction. How does that shape your respective long-term visions for your organizations?

DH: It’s important to note that USA was founded in 2006 as a direct response to one of the last major NEA cuts. So any time the NEA comes up we’re automatically called upon to offer a comment on the situation. For me personally, I struggle with how to interpret this kind of governmental oversight. I think we need to consider how we can collectively push federal officials to give a damn about arts and culture, and that really starts with local politics. We have to make sure our council people and our mayors know undeniably that their constituents think that this is an issue. I don’t think we can make the leap to make the president care about the NEA, because historically presidents haven’t really cared about the NEA regardless of whether or not they’re cutting it. And that’s because locally I don’t think we’ve trained elected officials to think about it as part of their rhetoric.

DS: After I started with the Knight Foundation in 2008, the first million-dollar grant I made was to USA because I wanted to make a statement that this kind of unrestricted financial support to artists is important and it’s getting lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. For me, there’s virtually no more important organization for individual artists working in America than USA. I hope that on a local level, in my new position, that we can replicate some of that in our community. We have to reframe the narrative of arts funding and part of that process is finding ways to help individual artists rather than just funneling money into 501(c)(3) organizations.

Another way is by making communities ask for the arts. Inside|Out, also a Knight Foundation-sponsored program, is one initiative that has been doing that very successfully. The program, developed by the Detroit Institute of Arts, allows museums to make high quality replicas of works in their collection and then place them throughout the community in places like dog parks and on ice cream stands. After the first few instances of this, the Foundation started getting calls from elected officials in other cities saying “Where’s my Inside|Out pop-up?” So there is a way to engage your community members and, by extension, local representatives.

MC: Dennis, in your role at Knight Foundation and now at ArtCenter/South Florida, you often extend grants for specific projects, exhibitions, and programs. USA, on the other hand, Deanna, solely offers unrestricted grants to individual artists. What are some of the benefits of both of these different type of funding structures?

DS: Organizations like the Knight Foundation often fund nascent arts organizations, collaboratives, cooperatives, individuals, etc. Sometimes you’re doing them a favor by providing them with the structure of a restricted fund by helping them shore up what their project or mission is. You have to be careful to be sure that you’re giving people the tools to succeed. Sometimes funding a specific project rather than unconditional support is a benefit to them. That being said, unrestricted funds to proven artists who have careers of excellence—that’s a pretty safe bet in my book. If you don’t think I’ll be using this model in my new position, you better think again.

DH: That’s great to hear. Honestly, in the past six months, I’ve talked to a lot of other funding organizations and individuals who are thinking about shifting their funding models to a more unrestricted structure. I am really interested to see what would happen if more organizations made unrestricted funding available to artists. As for USA, we’re looking to see how we can make our grants even more useful for artists. Last year we conducted an impact study and measured our impact over 10 years. At that point we had invested about $25 million into the field and were just shy of funding 500 artists. The study revealed that it’s overwhelmingly helpful for artists to get an unrestricted award, but that recipients weren’t always sure how best to allocate it effectively—should they put it toward making more art or paying rent and childcare? So we’re spending a lot of time investigating how to better the structure of an unrestricted award so that artists can tailor them to their needs more easily.

MC: Is there something specific generating this increased interest in unrestricted funds?

DS: I think the digital revolution has created the opportunity for a lot of collaboration between artists, as well as between organizations. The amount of collaboration I’m seeing among individual artists is really impressive. But it leads to needing a different way to deal with the vagaries of a system like the traditional non-profit sector 501(c)(3) model, which gets so confusing so quickly once you’re dealing with multiple grantees or anecdotal projects. The more we get away from this model, the more risks we’re seeing people take, and that’s a great thing. We shouldn’t expect artists to fit themselves into this model in order to make art, that’s not how creativity works. It works through collaboration and communication.

DH: This change in communication is perhaps the most important thing we’ve talked about. It’s allowing funders to become more demanding, not necessarily of their grantees but of themselves. They’re better equipped to look at themselves and ask important questions like, “Am I reaching who I want to reach with this support? How do I make sure I’m building a constituency that’s reflective of the demographic I want to be serving?” Funders doing this are getting better, they’re really digging into their communities.

MC: What is one of the biggest challenges facing your respective organizations or arts funding as a whole right now?

DH: Among my colleagues and other similar organizations to USA that I’ve been working with—such as the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Creative Capital, and Fractured Atlas—one question keeps coming up. How do we do this better together? We haven’t gotten to the stage historically where our organizations are really sharing how we’re doing our work. So, for example, there’s no master list of every single individual artist resource in the country available. We don’t know how much money collectively we’re investing into the sector each year, we have no idea how many artists we share, how many artists we have not shared, neighborhoods we don’t get into. So I think we’re asking ourselves how we can pool our resources better to help our grantees better. As a result of asking that question, we’ll be able to weed out some of the redundancies and see where we’re strongest. I don’t think individually we can do the work of the federal government. But collectively we could cover a lot of that ground. We’re a powerful industry financially. We don’t have definitive proof of that yet, but we can if we share this information.

DS: When speaking to funders across the country, I could sum up my challenge in just a few words: We need to be braver. Funding organizations need to see themselves as greater risk-takers, working closer to the ground in their given communities, and making a grant portfolio that looks and feels more like the community in which they exist. There should be more experimentation with different kinds of grants, different kinds of artists and projects—they might just surprise you! I’ve always said that putting money out into the arts community means that we’re in the risk-taking business. If we’re not acting at least a bit like venture capitalists then we’re not doing it right. If you’re not falling, you’re not trying.

Margaret Carrigan is freelance writer, editor, and critic based in New York and London. She has a penchant for art, architecture, cats, cooking, and 20-minute YouTube yoga videos.