Across Colorado, funding the arts, lifting society

The Arts in Society grants back projects that aim to make the state a better place for all, bringing together the region's biggest funders of culture: the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Colorado Creative Industries, SCFD and the Hemera Foundation.

By Joanne Ostrow

Philanthropic foundations are typically known for giving arts grants to big, established organizations like opera companies or symphony orchestras, pillars of the nonprofit community that engage in art for art’s sake. That’s well and good; veteran nonprofits can always use the help.

But Arts in Society is an idea that better serves individual artists and smaller groups engaging in hands-on work at the intersection of culture and social justice. The three-year-old grant program is designed to help an array of Colorado artists who use their training and artistic excellence to create while engaging with issues that maximize civic impact.

This year, a total of $549,000 will be divided among two dozen Colorado grantees under the program. The 2020 awards will be announced in April.

Reydesel Salvidrez Rodriguez performs with Motus Theater. Image provide by Motus Theater.

But a few examples of projects awarded funds in 2019 provide a look at both the scope and geographic reach of the program:
  • Motus Theater’s Sanctuary Sundays presents the stories of refugees in sanctuary through documentary performances, public readings by church and civic leaders, and through intimate private readings in book clubs and community groups.
  • The Unsteady Hand offers monthly Creativity Labs by and for individuals living with Parkinson's Disease in Colorado Springs and Pueblo.
  • Hope West’s “art for the grieving heart” aims to expand access to professional art therapy bereavement services for grieving children in Mesa, Montrose and Delta counties.

Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, one of the original funders of Arts in Society, has gone “all in on arts and culture,” said Gary Steuer, President and CEO, and has been investigating new avenues that will allow its money to have a wide impact on the community.

Once Bonfils realized there was no specific framework to address “intersectionality” — arts and veterans, arts and immigrants, arts and health care, etc. — the foundation joined with Hemera Foundation in Boulder to create the Arts in Society grants program.

“Increasingly,” Steuer said, “artists want to use what they know to make a difference in the world. They are looking for ways to intersect with society.”

Arts funders traditionally have a different approach to giving, based on the perceived aesthetic quality of the work, which is why a new grant model was necessary. “They see it as social work, and very few funding sources understand,” Steuer said.

What began as a two-year pilot period in 2016 with $200,000 has grown into a statewide effort with five funding organizations contributing more than half a million dollars, with the mission-aligned RedLine Contemporary Arts Center contracted to administer the program.

Currently, there are five partners: Bonfils (at $200,000 a year), Hemera Foundation (initially $200,000 a year, now ratcheting down), Colorado Creative Industries ($100,000 a year to fund programs in rural and mountains areas), the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District ($45-50,000 a year) and Colorado Health foundation ($100,000 a year). Additionally, the funding partners collectively cover Redline’s cost of managing the program.

Hemera will rotate out of the group in 2021.

Hope West helps young people through grieving in Mesa, Montrose and Delta counties. Image provided by Hope West.

The granting process is modeled on the Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge. “We want to make it really easy, and really grassroots,” Steuer said. It was important at the outset to have no matching funds requirement. The grant amounts are flexible, typically $50,000-60,000.

For the granting, some 250 letters of interest are gathered each year in response to an open call, then a panel of nine examines the proposals.

The CU College of Arts and Media created a rubric to provide a framework for applications. A roundup of Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change — specifically projects at the intersection of artistic creation and civic engagement, community development and justice — was adopted from Americans for the Arts to confront the difficulty in measuring and evaluating artistic work. In short, the goal is to consider a “pallet of possibilities” rather than a “checklist of requirements.”

Fifty finalists are invited to submit full proposals with budgets. Last year, 22 grantees were selected for a grant period of up to two years, chosen to represent a diversity of place, art forms and issues.

“This is a new initiative for us,” said SCFD executive director Deborah Jordy. “We looked around the landscape and asked how can we look at being more of a community partner? AIS enables us to more effectively engage with other funders. We are one of a cohort of art and health funders. This helped to expand SCFD’s reach in diversity, equity, inclusion.”

Jordy believes the trend is clear: “We’re seeing a lot more cross-sector collaboration in arts-health-education,” she said. “The arts and culture world has always had a strong foothold in the social justice arena. Artists have a way of seeing ahead.”

She cites as other worthy examples the Colorado Photographic Arts Ceneter’s series of workshops for vets, and Art in Prison, a collaboration of the Art Students League of Denver and the Colorado Department of Corrections, using arts as a positive outlet for thinking/writing/expressing ideas for incarcerated women.

Ultimately, Jordy said, “a group of funders came together for the collective good. This only adds to a stronger community."

Libby Barbee, RedLine’s programming manager, is overseer of the Arts in Society grant program’s selection and application process. “The funders reached out to RedLine because we work at the intersection of art and social justice,” she said. “They saw us as being an important partner in our ability to level the hierarchies that exist in arts funding. They are looking through the lens of individual artists, at the grassroots, to make sure people are empowered to take advantage.”

Beyond the cash, grantees are given professional training. RedLine helps a diverse group of applicants with grant writing and consultations along the way.

Motus performer Tania Chairez. Image provided by Motus Theater.
“We’ve really tried to be as proactive and progressive in application support as possible,” Barbee said.

There’s been no pushback on the works concerning immigrants or other potentially controversial topics. “We’re agnostic on politics,” Barbee said.“We are humanizing the issues, telling stories.”

“This year we have $49,000 more than last year,” Barbee said, which came though partnerships with SCFD and CO Health.

“Lots of funders support art for arts sake,” RedLine’s Barbee noted. “These funders are really interested in this cross-sector work.”

Art therapist Joni Beckner, director of youth programs for HopeWest, said her program was granted $25,000 over two years. The grant enabled the group to “expand our professional arts therapy service across all sites and bring on two youth services coordinators in those outlying ares.”

HopeWest saw over 700 kids last year, age 3-18, grieving various kinds of loss or serious illness. “One of my visions is to expand that art therapy practice,” Beckner said. “To have this amount of award is so significant for us. Writing, music, art-making, we know they are healing… more and more the literature and studies are supporting the role of the arts in health care.” Next, the group intends to apply for an artist-in-residence grant for adults.

Kiara Chavez, Motus Theater’s Community Development & Marketing Coordinator, said the $35,000 AIS grant for “UndocuAmerica,” a radio and performance project, “was hugely impactful.”

Motus has long practiced social action theater, but this new effort resulted in a podcast that is going national. Six episodes launched on KGNU in October, followed by a pause due to staffing issues. The plan is to resume in January following help with marketing from AIS.

RedLine art center, better-known for staging adventurous art exhibits, was contracted to manage the Arts in Society grants. That provides income to the nonprofit organization. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.
“Arts in Society has been helpful with meeting people whose projects have been funded, getting access to resources,” Chavez said. “We got a sort of Marketing 101 by a founder by House of Pod,” a podcast incubation hub. “That was awesome.”

Additionally, Motus received funding for its Sanctuary Series, using theater, photojournalism, visual arts, and poetry to tell the stories of undocumented immigrants.

“The money from these amazing grants definitely helped create an impact in our local community, and into the national level,” Chavez said.

“Arts in Society as a model has garnered national attention,” Bonfils’ Steuer said. Several national conferences have taught potential funders about the initiative. To spread the word, a “replication guide” is offered through the website.

“It’s hard for the larger arts audience to understand art that is not resulting in one beautiful piece that hangs on the wall,” Barbee said. “This is a reclaiming of the purpose of art…With the Trump Administration wanting to cut funding for the NEA and the Humanities, it’s important for funders in all areas to recognize the role of art beyond the aesthetic experience.”

Within Bonfils’ $3 million worth of grant-making efforts each year, Steuer said, “Arts in Society is one of the most impactful.”

Ray Mark Rinaldi contributed to this story.
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