Q&A: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation’s Five Recent Grants

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Atlanta’s winners of the grants include Dashboard Co-op, who presented 2011’s Anti-Manners with dance choreography by Helen Hale. Photo by Dylan York.

Earlier this week we received the incredible news that the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation has chosen five organizations from Atlanta to be recipients in the inaugural year of their new grant program called SEED. SEED is a three-year grant of $10,000 that focuses on operating capital that was awarded to organizations in Atlanta, Detroit, New Orleans, Portland, and Providence.

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The Atlanta cycle of the surprise grant was awarded to Dashboard Co-op, Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, gloATL, Living Walls, and The Lucky Penny.  In the press release the foundation wrote, “Our intent is to invest in the smaller arts organizations in five key geographies across the US where the arts are really growing …. Atlanta is an exceptional city—we are proud to be a part of your growing and flourishing arts scene.”

This morning we spoke with Christy MacLear, the executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, about the award and the foundation’s focus on cities off-center and organizations still emerging. Our conversation with Beth Malone of Dashboard Co-op appears at the bottom of this article.

BURNAWAY: Thank you so much for taking a moment to speak with us. I understand that the grant has a particular focus on geographies outside of the traditional art centers, New York City and Los Angeles. How did the foundation pinpoint these areas, and why are they of particular interest to the foundation? In Atlanta we were so excited to be included. We are a city for the Artadia award, which focuses on individual artists, but having an award like this for our small organizations is such an amazing opportunity.

Christy MacLear: [Atlanta] is such a vibrant city, and when we were looking at it there are a number of amazing things happening there right now. The selection of the cities was intended to look outside of where most people pay attention to for art and look at the cities that might define the American fabric more broadly. These are places where it’s economical for artists to live and where some of the most interesting things are happening. We wanted to focus on cities where the most vibrant things are happening. [We have a] philanthropy committee that has been interested in how we go about support at a grassroots level. Rauschenberg provides broader exposure regionally and nationally for these organizations.

SCAD - Derrick Adams

BA: Can you also speak to how the grant process worked and how the nominees were chosen. It’s interesting that the foundation took an approach like the MacArthur Genius Award in having an element of surprise with the announcement. Why was it important to the foundation to focus on small and emerging organizations within the city as opposed to larger and older institutions?

CM: We chose the cities first and then found the partners who would help identify and nominate organizations. We asked them to keep it confidential and reviewed the nominations, did research, and based on that narrowed the nominations and made selections. The best thing about it was that it was a surprise. This is a grant for regional seed growth, but the idea that it was a surprise is really important. The surprise is very much with the spirit of Rauschenberg; he was interested in focusing on emerging artists early in their career. Some [of the awarded organizations] have been around for a while, and this may take them to a new level. Some of them are operating out of their living room. It was important to us to reach the fringes.

A lot of smaller organizations aren’t nationally reaching, and we wanted to make them visible. When we’ve spoken with [organizations], the grant of $10,000 a year provides a different way of thinking [about running the programs]. Another thing we find is that everybody wants to support projects, and organizations end up developing themselves based on projects and hope their core operations gets funded. We are interested in how you remove the hurdles for these organizations where the greatest ideas are happening.

BA: For Atlanta, the organizations that were chosen to receive the grant are mostly young and emerging organizations doing some of the most cutting-edge artwork in the city. But many are not widely known outside of the immediate Atlanta arts community. I am interested in how the organizations were chosen, and who you may have worked with in Atlanta to make this decision.

CM: That was based on the experience of our Philanthropy Committee. [We were interested in] representatives from re-granting foundations and leaders in the cultural fabric of the city. We also asked our board if they knew of places. The most important thing is an on-the-ground understanding of the fabric of these cities. The [organizations] can be small enough that they may just be starting up and not have the structure defined yet. [The nominations really came] from a local knowledge base. We have a small eight-person board, mostly East Coast and LA, so yet again one of the big questions is how do you identify and support the arts on a broader scale.

For Atlanta [the grant] is really about momentum and growth and recognition for what you are doing. The nominators will change all the time. Next year the program will grow to more cities, and we will rotate it around. It’s about anonymity and recognition of the recipients as opposed to focus on the nominators. Even locals only know certain things, so it’s important to move around.

BA: What is the foundation’s expectation for how this grant will grow?

CM: I think we are interested in listening to the field. We are interested in what the hurdles are and helping to remove those hurdles and develop grants that expressly shape what the outcomes are. I’m more interested in rewarding great outcomes than granting for the future outcomes. It helps the organizations grow and try new things. The expectations end with that. Our hope is that the program grows to a broader set of cities and we receive feedback on improving it. The grants help shape because it allows operating support. We want to be nimble and flexible and responsive. We all have the intent that next year it will grow. We want it to be something that swings organizations into a broader form of recognition or fundraising and allows them to do new things they couldn’t have done before.

Following the announcement Tuesday afternoon we also spoke with Beth Malone, Director of Dashboard Co-op about the impact this grant will have on the organization.

Beth Malone: At Dash, we are humbled, re-invigorated, validated, and lightheaded. We are proud of the company we keep—we’ve grown up with Living Walls, glo, and Lucky, and our artistic aspirations began on the dance floor of Eyedrum. Dash will continue doing what we do—we’ll bring radical contemporary art to raw, forgotten spaces in Atlanta to inspire neighborhood development and cultural awareness. We’ll send our exhibitions to sister cities (maybe those supported by SEED Grants!) and invite organizations from across the region to share their shows with the Atlanta audience. We’ll finally be able to create an honest-to-goodness strategic plan, and, hell, get started on that Art Motel we’ve been talking about.

You know, I spend each day working very closely to artworks by Robert Rauschenberg at the High. I get to see his revolutionary processes, concepts, and combines. To be awarded something by his namesake foundation is a mind-altering, life-assessing moment. My puny brain can’t even appropriately express the gratitude.