An Interview with Ruby Lerner for BmoreArt by Cara Ober

Photo Caption: Ruby Lerner (left), with Paige West and Christopher Cooper. Photo by Gulshan Kirat.

Grant making organizations devoted to serving the needs of artists are in short supply in this country.  The New York-based non-profit Creative Capital  has spent the last fifteen years figuring out how best to give artists the resources, skills and connections they need to achieve professional success and impact the world around them.

They start with a rigorous selection process—distilling more than 3,000 applications annually down to 46 recipients in rotating disciples, each of whom gets access to up to $50,000 in cash at defined points in their project. Equally if not more valuable than the cash is access to an array of professional development  services valued at $40,000 per artist. The networking and connection making that Creative Capital grantees are exposed to at the summer Artist Retreats and on other occasions is truly priceless. In the following conversation, Ruby Lerner, Founding President and Director of Creative Capital, explains the importance of these educational programs, as well as the importance of critical arts writing, in challenging deeply entrenched, and largely false, stereotypes about artists and money.

This conversation was originally conducted in December 2013 when Ruby visited Baltimore’s Station North Arts & Entertainment District to celebrate the launch of the Baltimore-based Rubys grant program for artists in Baltimore. The project-based grants, which are a tribute to her legacy of thoughtful support for artists, make awards of up to $10,000 for individual artists in Baltimore. BmoreArt published the first half of the conversation, which focused on Ruby’s professional background and philosophies on funding, on January 29, 2013, to give readers a sense of the larger ideas behind the grants.

The first round of Rubys was announced on April 22, 2014, with thirteen artists receiving funding for projects in immersive theater, interactive media experiences, documentary film and musical composition. Now that the second granting cycle has begun, the rest of our conversation with Lerner becomes even more relevant.

It’s rare to find an arts administrator with such a varied background in arts funding, and it’s even more extraordinary for them to candidly discuss the complicated relationships between artists and money. In the following conversation, Ruby Lerner explains the different ways that Creative Capital continues to redefine the relationship between arts funding, fundraising, and interventions to build stronger artists and communities.

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Cara Ober: In addition to granting money to individual artists, Creative Capital provides additional opportunities to grantees, from the beginning. What kind of training do artists need to maximize the benefit of their financial award?

Ruby Lerner: Very early in the life of Creative Capital, we brought in an expert to do ‘life work planning’ workshops for the artists who receive our awards. This included strategic planning and coaching, and we created a workbook for artists. The focus of the program was to provide the basics on money management, time management, goal setting, and strategies for balancing life and work. We have offered these services since the beginning of the organization—since 1999—but in 2003, we created the Professional Development Program, which teaches the same skills and strategies to artists all over the country through in-person workshops and online webinars.  The Program has now reached more than 7,700 artists, and everywhere I go, people tell me the workshop changed their lives.

Cara Ober: After conducting these workshops for many years, what resources or skills help artists to make their best work?

RL: Artists need space, time, and people. After a few years of conducting workshops, we went back to the drawing board and created a whole new set of materials, which included an orientation period soon after they are notified that they have won the grant and professional development sessions at our annual Artist Retreat. When awardees come to the orientation and the Retreat, we talk about the life of the work in the world and the impact you want your work to have. We discuss marketing, public relations strategies, and promotion, and how to accomplish this domestically and internationally. We ask, How are you representing yourself online, and what community engagement is needed? We break information into component parts to make it easier to absorb. We end the pre-retreat with strategic planning. It’s so much better now, and so different than when we started out.

CO: How is Creative Capital different than other arts funding organizations?

RL: Most organizations hand money to artists and organizations and that’s the end of the relationship. I call that ‘Here’s a check. Send us a report’ philanthropy. This is ‘drive-by philanthropy.’ It’s not enough. There might have been a time when it was, but that moment is long gone.

We are living in such a complicated environment. In the early days, many of our programs were geared towards emerging artists. But now, many of the younger artists are better prepared for the world – they’ve had to be more proactive – and it’s mid-career artists who have benefitted from our programs the most.

CO: Can you give me an example?

RL: We were working with a major artist, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner, to help fund a retrospective. I was sitting with her, during one of our elongated orientations, just wondering if she was bored to tears. She was the first person to write me after the workshop and say, “I was so moved by what we learned today, I wish I had known these things 15 years ago. I think my career would have been different.” I am not exaggerating! This is a major, iconic artist! I was shocked.

CO: Why is money such a challenge for artists?

RL: It’s not just money. It’s the mythology. I do a lot of presentations and classes… as I show the kinds of work we support, I will show an image of Van Gogh with the bandaged ear. I say, “This is the sufferer in the attic.” While it’s a tired cliché, it’s still present in people’s minds. Then, I show all the crazy and wonderful work we support and say, “This is what artists in the 21st century are doing.” We try to wipe out that negative image, but it still prevails. I think a lot of artists internalize that message, and are conflicted about success.

CO: What about professional development in art schools?

RL: In the early years of our workshops, when we did sessions in LA, I saw someone who taught at an art school nearby. After a workshop, she said, “You know, I think I have had a really bad attitude about a lot of these things. If I had had a better attitude I would have been more generous with my students.” This understanding and change is huge.

CO: I am not sure that a lot of faculty members understand how important this information is to art students. It seems that faculty over a certain age believe that professional development is irrelevant.

RL: It’s true. Some of our artists have actually told us their professors in school said, “I had to figure this out for myself so you should have to, too.” This speaks to the poverty inherent in a system, if this is the internal culture of how people feel. There is so much insecurity. I think some people believe, “I didn’t make it as a professional full-time artist. I had to teach, so why should I make it easier for you to be a full-time artist?”

This is a somewhat antiquated notion: the ‘serious’ full-time artist. We don’t even encourage that. For many artists, a day job or some other steady, supplemental work can help sustain your practice. There are a lot of great day jobs out there! It can bring something to the work – I don’t think it takes anything away. When people question that, I bring up Wallace Stevens, the great poet. Did you know he worked in the insurance industry? Harvard tried to hire him as a poetry professor and he said no because he loved his insurance job. Who tells those stories? Nobody tells them. It’s all mythology. I believe this is the key – promoting the case studies and stories of artists with good work and good jobs and fulfilled lives.

CO: I think we need more doses of reality to counter the negative mythology. At BmoreArt, we have been writing a lot about artists with awesome day jobs and careers.

RL: It’s important to remind people that a career is not a direct path. I worry about the young people of today because they seem too purposeful to me. The ones who have found their way early on seem to have found too much of their way. Their career is a direct path – and I don’t think that’s the healthiest way to go. I’ve been so enriched, from working in so many different kinds of organizations and art forms – and you learn so much from each setting. I think if you get the internship at the MOMA and then work your way up to assistant curator at MOMA, it just seems so insular.

CO: I read somewhere that you should acquire jobs to learn skills, rather than a job to pay your bills. This idea of working to acquire knowledge seems to contradict what students learn in college.

RL: You’re right. This doesn’t necessarily make sense from a financial or logical standpoint. But, when you get the job that makes all the crazy shit make sense, you’re in the perfect situation. I will admit it is hard to give advice when you have a crazy career. I met with Art Table, a professional organization for women in the arts, and the members all have super expensive masters degrees but no tech skills. I said to them, “Look at me, because I couldn’t hire ME in my own organization.” They were complaining that they couldn’t get hired because they couldn’t design websites… and I thought, if you just spent 50 g’s on your graduate education, you should learn to build a website.

CO: In your opinion, what is the importance of writing about art and art writers?

RL: One of the ancillary programs we’ve been asked to manage is the Warhol Arts Writers Program. They made a commitment about eight years ago to support writing about contemporary visual arts. The funding used to be for publications because The Warhol Foundation couldn’t give money directly to individuals, but we could. This grant program supports blogs, articles, as well as short and long form writing. If you look at the projects they’ve supported it’s quite wonderful.

Arts writing is another part of the infrastructure. You can’t have a healthy arts culture  without healthy discourse. So writing is a really important part of it. My favorite part of that program that they created three or so years in, is a program for emerging writers. These are people who didn’t win the award, but they get apprenticed with a major art critic and get to work with them over a few months. In some cases where the writer and critic are in the same city, they can get together. This is a fantastic program and I wish we had similar programs in other disciplines, like video culture and experimental film. It would be great to have an omnibus program, a program that supports writing on the arts.

CO: What about the publications that already exist?

RL: Arts writing seems to be one of the first things to go as newspaper and magazine budgets decline… It’s so directly tied to ads.

And it’s not really an independent voice, which is critical to have as part of the ecosystem. I have talked for years about creating a diagnostic tool for communities, to test the health of their ecosystem.

For example, Baltimore has a great infrastructure in the arts. But what are the things that keep these people in the community? Those things are critical writing, great spaces to make and show work, affordable housing, and good jobs, so that they can support themselves. Also, grant programs so that there is money to support the actual work. You also need a healthy infrastructure of artist supported and artist run organizations.

CO: What about symphonies and art museums? These seem like the obvious places where philanthropists give the most.

RL: It’s great to have the big institutions, too, but for this part of the culture they’re a little less important. Baltimore has those too, so that actually exists. It’s important to have museums and see great, world-class art and art history, and to have those opportunities for the cannon, a symphony, a theater. They are an important piece, but before you get to that, there are a number of things that need to be in place in a healthy way. I think you could make a report card and say these are the things that are our strengths as a community and to do an analysis of where the gaps are, in order to make an attempt to fill some of those gaps.

CO: What are the long-term effects of a healthy and well-funded arts ecosystem?

RL: Over time this funding makes a huge difference. It keeps good artists here in the community from getting cynical, which happens a lot when there’s not adequate support for people. When there is funding, there is opportunity. This keeps a lot of the smart kids from area colleges in the community and is an attractor for artists from other places. It all enriches the community. The thing that’s most important are the artists who can create opportunities flowing through.

This is something we’ve learned and demonstrated at CC and the reason we host our annual Artist Retreat. This is an event where we host our grantees and hundreds of others. It’s a juicy mix of people:  we’ll have a visual artist sitting next to a performing artist sitting next to someone who acquires art for cable television next to someone who is an editor or publisher. There are very few places in our culture where you get this type of cross-pollination in any sector. Having all of these great individuals together is like the greatest “swap meet of the minds.” Many artists will make presentations and we encourage them to say what they need to bring their projects to fruition. There will be someone in the room who can help, even when artists have brought up crazy needs!

CO: So at the Creative Capital Retreat, the artists express their ideas and their needs, and then have the opportunity to connect with other artists and people from all different fields to help them solve their problem?

RL: Absolutely. We have a philosophy of empowerment. This means that artists solving problems together is more effective and organic than working alone. If you put great and generous people in a room together, then great things will happen. Also, when people are more secure with themselves, they are more generous with others. We see this a lot as part of our job: someone comes to us feeling insecure and, hopefully through the process of acquiring skills and being well supported by us, they will go out into the world and become a giver.

It is also about removing barriers. There are so many barriers between people. You can’t call them, you can’t make contact them or visit. At our Retreat, we’re all out in Western Massachusetts, and there are so many amazing people in the room. We bring donors and funders to the Retreat, all types of professionals, and our artists. It’s transformative for everyone. They have a great time. And business people, especially, are not shy – they’ll go up to an artist and suggest people they should talk to. We find out later the conversations and connections have continued.

CO: Regarding the Retreat, is this a ‘if you build it they will come’ approach? Once you get them there, are you hands-off or do you encourage certain types of interaction?

RL: You have to build a really good structure to encourage interaction. Good structures actually release power and energy. I think we have figured out, and tweaked over the years, a great retreat format that is an energy releaser.

In the past, I have been on conference planning committees where someone says, “Let’s not do that thing where you go around the room and people talk about what they do.” And this immediately halts connections. Do you actually want something to happen at this event? Why are we together if no one wants to learn? How can I connect if no one knows what I do? I guess I am a master orchestrator of people. (laughing) I curate the dinner tables for the first few nights at the Retreat – I call it ‘bar mitzvah seating’…

CO: Your background in theater, working with groups, has proven to be valuable!

RL: It just comes out of being a practical person. If we didn’t do that, all the people who already knew each other would cluster and all the others would be left out. And what would be gained from this? Some people love it. Some don’t. At this point it’s become kind of a joke.  One year I made a ‘mean’ table – which is kind of perverse – I had a lot of people all doing deeply personal work, and I put them all together to see how they would duke it out.

CO: Do you consider yourself a superb fundraiser?

RL: No, I consider myself an okay fundraiser. We’ve been very blessed to have long-term support from the Warhol Foundation as our base. Having $1.5 million a year from them provides incredible security, but my fundraising team and I have to match dollar-for-dollar, which is a steady challenge.

The thing about fundraising is – it just gets harder and harder. When I started doing this in the 1970’s, people were throwing money at arts organizations. Foundations and corporations were more generous in a different way then – it was a different moment. That lingered for a while, but I think the Reagan era saw the collapse of that. There was a psychological turn away from community values to individual ones. This makes is even more important that Creative Capital continues to fund bright and revolutionary artists, and that we give them the tools they need to succeed.

To find out more about Creative Capital programs and grantees, click here.
To find out more about The Rubys Artist Grants for Baltimore Artists, click here.

** Author Cara Ober is Founding Editor at BmoreArt