Last month, the New York Times published an article examining innovations aiming to “green” burial practices by reducing the use of embalming chemicals and cremations, which negatively impact the environment. One of these innovations, a body suit that redistributes nutrients from human corpses back into the soil, was the brainchild of artist Jae Rhim Lee, who first developed the suit as an artwork exploring how society thinks about death. Artists like Lee are among our society’s most daring, creative thinkers, and her burial suit is just one example of how artists push boundaries not only within the art world but also in realms beyond the arts—in the sciences, technology, and social justice sectors. Their impact on society shows why investing in artists remains a worthy endeavor at a time when our world faces so many challenges and why it is essential for arts funders to develop thoughtful strategies to help artists realize their potential.
When the National Endowment for the Arts made devastating budget cuts in the mid-1990s, many of us in the art world began to think seriously about better alternatives for supporting artists. In 1998, I helped start Creative Capital as a daring experiment, borrowing ideas from the venture capital sector to build an organization grounded in the belief that the same early, continuous, and strategic support that helps fledgling businesses take off also helps innovative artists build lasting careers. Now, 17 years later, we’ve provided critical support to hundreds of artists in all disciplines, some of whom have gone on to win MacArthur “Genius” Grants, appear in the Whitney Biennial—or even turn their art into green burial start-ups. The reasons behind our success are quite simple: We come in at the start of a project, see it through completion, and provide our artists with the skills and tools to build a sustainable career beyond that single project.
Like many other arts funders, our work starts with providing an artist with funding to pursue an idea. But we don’t just write a check and walk away. We support the work from start to finish, meeting with our artists to chart their progress and providing funding at strategic moments that help direct the project to its most successful completion. Take our work with Jen Bervin, for example. Bervin is an artist and poet who applied to be a Creative Capital Awardee with an incredible proposal that merged poetry, textile arts, and science. Inspired by cutting-edge biomedical silk sensors, she proposed creating a microscopic poem, printed on a biomedical silk sensor, that could be embedded under the skin of someone with a chronic health condition. The practice of embedded silk sensors had already been tested at Tufts University and other research centers, but Bervin asked, “If I were to have a silk sensor embedded under my skin, what would I want it to say?” She envisioned a series of microscopic poems exploring the themes of silk, healing, and the body—imagining that the content of the poem could hold great meaning for the patient.
To pull it off, Bervin would need to conduct extensive research and convince the medical research centers pioneering the silk sensor technology to collaborate with her, so it was a risky project, but exciting and profound. We began our journey with Jen in January 2013. Bervin has used our financial support to pay for her extensive travel expenses related to The Silk Poems project, including consulting with biomedical labs and visiting more than 30 international textile archives. More recently, she used her funding to offset her studio rent as she began to create nano-printed silk poems. She also leveraged the prestige of the award to secure other support for the project, including a Bogliasco Foundation Fellowship and an artist residency with the SETI Institute.
As with all the artists we support, we also provided resources to help Bervin build a successful long-term career, arming her with practical skills to sustain a career amidst the challenges of the art world. Support included professional development workshops to bolster her skills in strategic planning, fundraising, public speaking, and other crucial areas often overlooked when we think about supporting artists. It also included participation in community-building events like our Artist Retreat, where she presented The Silk Poems to curators and presenters from across the United States. Her presentation caught the attention of Denise Markonish, curator at MASS MoCA, a well-respected contemporary art museum in the Berkshires, and ultimately The Silk Poems premiered at the museum in a major international exhibition of work at the intersection of art and science.
Part of our mission is to support artists who are expanding the possibilities and horizons of their fields. Our organization, once a radical experiment, is now a proven model for how funders can help daring artists realize projects that enrich our lives and reshape how we interact with the world. As I hand over the reins of Creative Capital to Susan Delvalle after leading the organization for 17 years, I’m delighted to see the explosion of arts entrepreneurship programs at art departments throughout the country over the last five years—including Arizona State University, SUNY Purchase, and CalArts—and the arts incubator and entrepreneurship programs that nonprofits like the New York Foundation for the Arts and the Center for Cultural Innovation have started. And we’ve also seen how a venture capital model can be applied to other sectors—such as science and social justice—to nurture creative individuals with original ideas. In fact, last year the funders of a new pediatric cancer research program sought our advice as they designed a support structure for their researchers that would encourage innovation and discovery.
When we put resources into cultivating our society’s most creative thinkers—early, continuously, and strategically—we nudge promising ideas along the path to becoming powerful projects that spark provocative conversations or evolve into endeavors that have impact far beyond the art world. Indeed, supporting these kinds of projects and helping the brilliant artists behind them achieve stability and longevity is vitally important for society. We need these artists to continue experimenting, challenging us, and pushing the boundaries of the art world—and the worlds beyond it—for years to come.