“Funder Perspective: Broadening Support for Arts and Technology”

By Eleanor Savage

Eleanor Savage

Photo courtesy of Eleanor Savage

The global pandemic has highlighted and amplified technology’s central place in every aspect of our daily lives. But what is not so visible is the vital role of artists in the development and shaping of social and cultural tools and in world-building through technology. The National Endowment for the Arts’ Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium provides a timely exploration of this diverse sphere of artists, including essential information on the role of grantmakers. I invite a deeper conversation around expanding support for this imaginative and innovative work.

Many future-facing conversations in the philanthropic sector are centering on arts and technology. Grantmakers in the Arts’ 2020 virtual convening, Power, Practice, Resilience Remix’d, opened with a visionary keynote featuring Ruha Benjamin, Salome Asega, and Sage Crump, all of whom are creatively engaged with technology, sciences, and cultural work. The conversation, titled “Building the Future We Want,” highlighted the big questions that technology-centered artists such as Sasha Constanza-Chock and so many others are asking around the use of technology and who has input into its design and implementation.

Panelists praised Costanza-Chock’s book, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need, for championing how design might be led by marginalized communities and dismantle structural inequality, advance collective liberation, and bolster ecological survival. They also recognized the work of Allied Media, a Detroit-based media network that models and supports collaborative technology-based initiatives, including the Design Justice Network’s network principles, a guide for collaborative, creative practices; Consentful Technologies, a community-developed guide for generating digital applications with consent; and A People’s Guide to AI (artificial intelligence), a demystifying of AI.

What this keynote conversation also raised was the issue of insufficient financial support for arts and technology, even in this moment when these artists, networks, and communities are creating vibrant new ways to construct experience and change narratives. Rather than just creating cool new apps or gadgets, they are modeling collaboratively built, non-hierarchical community power; making data visible and meaningful; providing resilient solutions; and building values-based tools, systems, and practices rooted in justice, consent, racial equity, accessibility, and open-source sharing of resources and knowledge. Technology-centered artists are leading critical work that challenges the tech industry around uses of surveillance, artificial intelligence, data tracking, cultural bias, digital divides, corporate mining, and monetization of hardware and software, and raises the stakes for developing ethical approaches to technology.

The vital nature of this work calls on funders to reconsider traditional frameworks of support and respond in ways that are as expansive and adaptable as the work itself.

Since the early 1990s, I have worked with artists in this sphere, in a production capacity at Walker Art Center and in a funding capacity at Jerome Foundation, and I can attest to the complex and dynamic learning journey. I hear from many colleagues in philanthropy that they don’t know how to categorize the work and find it hard to fit into traditional arts-funding frameworks. The wide-ranging creative approaches are experimental, process-oriented, time-based, participatory, collaborative, performative, immersive, virtual, interactive, modular, and variable.

The work is genre-defying and genre-expanding, continually adaptive and purposefully questioning. There are constantly new tools, new technologies, new expressions, though artists are rigorously building upon known areas of practice sourced from multiple sectors, within and outside of the arts. Such art eludes categorization, doesn’t follow a linear path, and can involve messy and uncertain processes. This universe of artists requires funders to step outside their comfort zones, trading the probability of success for greater potential impact.

I urge funders to be fearless in establishing an inclusive and equitable environment to better support this dynamic ecosystem of future-facing artists: embrace the values that support this work; make a concerted effort to build authentic relationships with the artists, organizations, and networks involved. It is important to engage with the artists and arts leaders involved to collaboratively build responsive and adaptable grant strategies, programs, guidelines, and direct funding to the priorities identified by this sector. These shifts of funder mindset, while focused on arts and technology, benefit artists across all sectors.

How do we make the leap to fund arts and technology?
Rather than a program or strategy or theory of change, we need to look at core grantmaking values to prioritize the tech-centered sphere. Jerome Foundation’s values ofinnovation and risk define our priority of support for artists and organizations that are deepening and expanding as well as questioning and innovating traditional aesthetics, practices, and expression within and across artistic disciplines. Our value of “humility” centers artists and organizations as the best authorities to define their needs and challenges, and directs us to support those entities who embrace their roles as part of a larger community of artists and citizens and who consciously work with a sense of purpose, whether aesthetic, social, or both. Our value of “diversity” compels us to support a diverse range of artistic disciplines and forms created in a variety of contexts and for different audiences.

In a quick scan of other funders of the tech-centered universe, I found the following:

  • curiosity” as a charge to be open to new ideas and forms;
  • support for art with the “capacity to transform” communities;
  • artistic excellence defined as authenticity, inclusion, and theintegration of technology” in all aspects of the creative process;
  • work that fosters “change and change-making” as priorities;
  • “participatory” grantmaking that engages those most impacted;
  • “inclusion, access, and equity” for all communities to all forms of art.

This list is greatly aligned with the ethos and creative expressions of artists working with technology. With the call for radical change (across all arts sectors) for funders to take immediate action to address issues of inequity, transparency, accountability, representation, lack of relationship, and cultural gatekeeping rooted in capitalism, colonialism, and systemic racism, there is much to learn from this realm of visionaries who are actively engaged in alternatives to these systems.

How do we move to relationship-based partnerships?
To be in relationship with artists and arts leaders in any community requires program staff to be rigorous in learning about artists, experiencing the work, and understanding how they are creating and where they are finding support. We know the systems of support are different by geographic region and by location—rural, remote, or urban. Artists who are Black, Indigenous, Native American or people of color (BIPOC); artists with disabilities; LGBTQ; and women tech-centered artists are impacted by the biases pervasive in every sector, though the arts and technology sector is much more diverse than the tech sector. There is no singular path to support for tech-centered artists, but given the values of this sector, the nuanced paths are discoverable. Practitioners are actively creating their own means of distribution and are freely sharing information and creating open access to their ecosystem, such as artist/technologist Amelia Winger-Bearskin’s Wampum.codes and LaJuné McMillian’s Black Movement Project (BMP).

How do we center those most impacted in designing supportive grantmaking processes?
“Nothing about us, without us, is for us,” the rallying call from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is a refrain that helps focus this idea. Participatory and equitable grantmaking practices shift the decision-making from funders to the tech-centered arts community, which has the most knowledge and experience to inform the grant process, as well as accountability to their community. This changes the funder role from arbiter to facilitator and gives agency to the artists and arts leaders involved. The community develops the grant strategies and guidelines, shapes the application process and materials, and implements the grant-selection process and funding decisions, whether by panel, nomination, lottery, or some other process.
Jerome Foundation involves artists in every aspect of the organization—on our board, staff, and selection panels. We engage artists to inform the development of our programs. We are constantly adjusting our applications and work sample parameters based on feedback from artists. Our goal is to provide a process in which artists feel they can be their authentic selves and share materials that best communicate their work to panelists. In navigating the question of artistic disciplines, we invite artists to share how they self-define and what words they use to describe their work. Tech-centered art-making is a compendium of intersections: from a filmmaker exposing coded bias (Shalini Kantayya); to an immersive theater artist (Janani Balasubramanian) collaborating with astrophysicists on a project integrating new media, augmented and virtual reality, film, and literary fiction; to a composer (Kathy McTavish) working to humanize AI; to a creative technologist and media artist (LaJune McMillian) creating open-source motion-capture databases.

What are meaningful and generative funding levels?
Funder expectations around appropriate levels of funding must be considered. Work with technology is complex, requiring access to skills, experience, and equipment that is expensive and rarely mastered by one person. The ethos of this sphere is collaborative and work with specialists is a necessity. Projects that authentically engage community members in the design, development, and implementation of a technology-based project will likely have an extended timeline and require considerable compensation for participation. Immersive digital performance experiences require a scale of production beyond what is typical for more traditionally staged theatrical works. Access to the tools and technology and time for coding or data-gathering are cost-prohibitive without institutional support. The call from this sector (and all arts sectors) is for increased flexibility: multiyear fellowships for artists or collectives/collaboratives; flexible general operating support for organizations; and support for field research, convenings, development of infrastructure, and collaborative initiatives that help create open-source tools, code, and practices.

Extending funding to commercial entities should be initiated and informed by artists and arts leaders because there is great risk for exploitation by profit-driven companies. The interest from the tech field in working with artists is strong. Artists are making a clear push to maintain their work in a democratized, non-capitalist space. Funders should beware of the interest by big and small tech companies to monetize this work. A simple rule of thumb: fund the artists and arts organizations directly rather than an intermediary. Give artists the agency to decide if they want to work with a tech company.

Artists working with technology are fostering integrated approaches to creating and experiencing art, addressing social and cultural issues, defining equitable and justice-based ways of working, and developing tools that help us adapt and thrive in the face of many challenges. Artists in this expansive and fluid sphere deserve the same respect and recognition for their work as that bestowed on older, more familiar forms. Funders must begin to prioritize this sphere, through relationship, partnership, funding, and advocacy. The call from artists is for radical trust and radical change. We are all witness to their radical vision and radical practice. I call on funders to respond with radical investment!

Eleanor Savage (pronoun flexible) is program director at Jerome Foundation, living on the ancestral, traditional and contemporary lands of the Dakota Oyate (also called Minneapolis, Minnesota). As a white butch, civic-minded, anti-racist advocate, Savage has focused their work in the field of arts philanthropy on racial equity and undoing racism.

Savage acknowledges this essay is directly informed by the work of artists of color, and specifically by Black and Native American women, transgender, queer, and butch artists. Additionally, Savage credits the Twin Cities Theaters of Color Coalition, the Minnesota Racial Equity Funders Collaborative, the Minnesota Artist Coalition-Radical Shifts initiative, Penumbra Center for Racial Healing, Grantmakers in the Arts and justice-minded artists, arts leaders, and philanthropic colleagues far and wide for ongoing learnings and accountability around racial equity and anti-racism practice.