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by Nancy Dalva

Published in Foundation for Contemporary Arts' 2003-2006 Grants Booklet


In the fall of 1962, a novel project was initiated that still exists today as the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. The New Yorker ("Talk of the Town," March 9, 1963) called it an epochal new development in foundation-founding, and an historic watershed in the flow of money to artists."

"A group of us began to think about raising some money," Jasper Johns said at the time, "so that Merce Cunningham could have a New York recital." Thus four people (John Cage, the composer; Lewis Lloyd, a producer; Alfred Geller, a lawyer; and Johns himself) looked into the expense (and, for a dance company, the inevitable financial shortfall) of a Broadway season and were inspired to cover the costs with the sale of works of art. "Several works - a Rauschenberg, a painting of mine, and a Lippold sculpture - were promised to be sold to cover the losses," Johns recalled later. "The value of the works seemed in excess of the expected loss. I asked Merce what should be done with the excess, and he said, 'Help other dancers. We are all in the same boat.' Because the excess seemed insufficient for providing much help to others, we invited a fairly large number of visual artists to a meeting and cocktail party at the Allan Stone Gallery, and asked them to contribute to the cause. Many agreed. The Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts was incorporated early in 1963 and held its first benefit exhibition at Allan Stone in February, with works by more than seventy artists." The participants included Willem deKooning, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Robert Indiana, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers, James Rosenquist, Mark Rothko, Frank Stella, Saul Steinberg and Andy Warhol.

Some forty-five years later, the enterprise is still going strong, with Jasper Johns presiding over a board of directors that reflects the continuing commitment of visual artists towards their brethren in the more ephemeral arts. The Foundation's recent name change to the Foundation for Contemporary Arts reflects not only an enlarged purpose, but also the increasing mutability among and between the arts, and the addition to the mix of new technologies, and the myriad artists drawn to them from across disciplinary lines. (Who's to say that painting isn't a kind of performance, that music doesn't have color, that choreography isn't visual?) Yet the original mission persists and the original vision. But look through the pictures in this catalogue, and you will see how the mandate has expanded from the support of choreography to include visual artists, and theater artists, and composers, poets, film makers, and those working in what is called "performance." The recipients are so varied, one would be hard pressed to find a common theme beyond these: passion, originality, persistence, curiosity, individuality allied with an openness of intellect.

The Foundation has consistently made it possible for art to be made and for art to be seen by supporting the making and presenting of art of an innovative nature, with as few exactions on the artist as possible. Hence, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts performs its good works vis a vis individual artists by a kind of stealth -- there are no applications, none of the tedious paperwork and grant writing that so distract from the making of actual work, no rejections or disappointments. Rather, anonymous nominators suggest artists to a committee who select the grantees after serious consideration of each and every one. The Foundation's work is in the moment, it is open-minded, and it is about the work. There is no hoopla.

For the nominators, the request to participate - like the grants themselves - comes as a surprise. Once chosen, they may nominate artists in any of the fields for which grants are given, though they are selected for particular expertise. They may not indicate to the artists that they are nominators, but using go-betweens and ruses, they amass materials about the work, and write letters presenting "their" artists. And what letters! I have seen some of these documents, and they are models of descriptive generosity, fiercely and wonderfully partisan and passionate, and articulate. Once the nominators submit them, their part in the process is done. Unless, and until, they find out their nominees are grantees. Then, they float on air. Instigating a successful grant is every bit as meaningful as getting one: a way to give back, a way to look forward, a way to participate, all with a certain Zen character.

At the annual deliberations of the board, the members are joined by a few invited individuals with comprehensive knowledge in their given fields. Previously, they all have perused huge binders comprised of the nominators' letters, and hundreds of pages of support materials. Now, they spend two days looking at videos, slides, computer generated visual material, listening to music, and talking about all of it. Surprisingly to newcomers to the table, the final selection happens only at the very end, when every applicant in every field has been considered (and often reconsidered); everyone votes in every field. (That is, the music expert votes on performance grants, visual arts grants, etc.) This collective involvement enlarges the process, and the possibilities of the process. Somehow, in their hours of respectful consideration, and in arguing - and there is arguing - and deliberating, a sense of the nominees emerges. Sometimes, a consensus of the deliberations emerges. Sometimes not, and the voting sorts things out. Some years there are more grants in one area, the next year, in another. Always, afterwards, there is a collective sense of achievement and a sense of things set in motion. Soon, the grantees will be called.
For one and all, the news comes as a surprise. Let me take you behind the scenes of two such moments, as they might happen -- both in dance, the field the Foundation first supported. First imagine a choreographer -- long distinguished in her field, highly accomplished and original, continually evolving, always generous in her practice, and forever working without the net of her own foundation or her own board. On this day, as ever, she wakes up, makes coffee, sits in her kitchen wondering where she is going to find studio space to rehearse her next work, and the money to pay for it. The phone rings. It is the director of Foundation for the Contemporary Arts with news of a grant. The choreographer bursts into tears. Next, conjure a young dancer-choreographer, out on the road with the company with which he performs, standing in a crowded room filled with the buzz of a party celebrating the work of a master whose work he esteems. How will he get from here, to there? He feels his cell phone buzz. He answers, and from half-way across the country, the Foundation director tells him he is a recipient of a grant to continue the work in which he has shown so much promise, intelligence, and initiative. He is elated.

These artists didn't know these calls were coming, or might be coming. Previous grantees have indicated later that while the money is wonderful, so is the recognition. It is in every way significant. While the monetary boon means the world to the recipients in terms of getting their work done, the validation they feel in being selected by this organization, with its distinguished board and storied origins is also real, and it is lasting. So, too, is the sense of real accomplishment felt by the people behind the scenes. Their mission is ongoing. Soon, nominators will start out afresh, and funds will be raised anew. And always, always, the artists go on doing what artists do: they make art.

Nancy Dalva lives and works in New York City. Among her other activities, she produces and writes "Mondays" with Merce, a webseries at www.merce.org.

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