“More Than Just a Check.” This Funder Couples Cash and Professional Support to Help Artists Thrive

Dyani White Hawk, 2024 Creative Capital Awardee.

Founded in 1999, Creative Capital provides individual artists with cash support — still hard to come by in arts philanthropy — while cultivating a deep network where artists can explore collaborations, manage their finances, and tap expertise to build out their social media presence.

Last week, the New York City-based funder announced that it awarded $2.5 million in grants to 54 artists for the creation of 50 new works through its 2024 Creative Capital Award, called Wild Futures: Art, Culture, Impact. Awardees, who hail from all corners of the United States, receive unrestricted project funding of up to $50,000, which can be drawn down over a multi-year period, plus access to a suite of professional development services and community-building opportunities.

“The Creative Capital Award is designed to be more than just a check,” said President and Executive Director Christine Kuan, via email. “We strive to help each artist in a transformative way by providing long-term scaffolding and professional services that elevate their projects and their practices.”

This model — cash complemented by professional development support — has defined Creative Capital since its inception. What’s changed in recent years is stakeholders’ commitment to reframe what Kuan called “every level of our grants and services” through the lenses of access and equity. As a result, it rolled out free professional development services for eligible artists and streamlined its application process, which galvanized a surge in applications for “Wild Futures,” while underscoring how demand for arts funding continues to outstrip supply.

“I do think there’s a widespread craving for originality and new ideas in art,” Kuan said. “We’d love to see more philanthropic support for individual artists creating new work.”

A unique process

Creative Capital’s mission is to advance artistic freedom of expression by funding underserved, risk-taking artists in the creation of new work. Since its inception, it has awarded $55 million in grants and services to 955 artists in the visual arts, performing arts, film, technology, literature and multidisciplinary and socially engaged forms. Last year, it disbursed $2.25 million to 163 artists, 75% of whom identified as BIPOC and 15% as an artist with a disability. Funding flowed to 75 cities across 28 states.

Sixty-one percent of its incoming revenue came from institutional funders, followed by individual donors and its board (23%), investment income and carryover (10%), corporate sponsors (3.5%), government funders (1.5%) and earned revenue from workshops and contracted services (1%). Creative Capital’s roster of institutional funders includes the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Bloomberg Philanthropies, and the Doris Duke, Hewlett, Mellon, Skoll and Surdna foundations.

“We fundraise every dollar we give away to artists,” Kuan said, “so we hope to reach new philanthropists who see that Creative Capital is not only important in the what, but in the how — that our unique process of uplifting artists serves communities in meaningful, tangible ways and has the potential to become a powerful, transformative architecture of support for every artist in America.”

As to what this process looks like, every submitted proposal is reviewed by a panel of more than 40 to 60 experts annually. Proposals go through three rounds of review, with different reviewers scoring the applications at each stage. The top couple of hundred projects go to a panel for final discussion, debate and final scoring. For this round of “Wild Futures” grants, panelists focused on socially engaged projects around issues such as climate, mass incarceration and abortion, as well as those that, according to Kuan, “advance artistic forms and stretch disciplines.” 

Kuan underscored two benefits of Creative Capital’s expansive review process. First, artists know that even if they don’t receive an award, “curators, cultural producers, arts administrators and industry experts” will review their work. At the same time, panelists, some of whom don’t have access to under-the-radar artists from all over the country, get to “have their finger on the pulse of what artists are dreaming of creating.” After the final discussion stage, the top 50 project proposals are presented to the board for ratification.

Comprehensive support

Creative Capital recognizes that working artists need to devote a considerable amount of energy toward important activities like managing their finances, sharpening their business acumen and building out a social media presence.

Each awardee has access to “a giant Rolodex” of industry professionals, peer mentors, cultural producers, financial planners, tax accountants, lawyers and communications experts, Kuan said. “We help to identify the right expert and we also pay for those services — the wraparound support is comprehensive, deep and long term.”

The funder’s goal of boosting access and equity extends to how it manages its suite of offerings. Previously, individual artists paid for professional development workshops, but last year, it launched its new Creative Capital Curriculum, a free resource of online, self-paced courses covering topics like artist’s statements, project budgets and social media.

“We hope that institutions and foundations will join us as members to help us add new content and keep the curriculum free, open to all artists,” Kuan said. “We’re interested in building sustainable infrastructures for artist support that artist communities can rely upon year after year.” More than 8,000 artists have registered for the curriculum to date.

Creative Capital also provides artists with opportunities to build bonds with their peers and industry professionals, including its Creative Capital Carnival, which was launched in 2022 and brings together more than 1,400 people each year in person and online. Last year’s carnival included a screening of artist projects, a reception, and a boat cruise around the Statue of Liberty — including a dance party. 

Artists’ “only source of project support”

In another example of how Creative Capital’s focus on equity and accessibility informed its grantmaking, leaders simplified the application process to reduce barriers to entry for underserved and risk-taking artists. When Kuan came on board in 2021, it reduced the number of round one application questions from 40 to six and eliminated letters of recommendation. Meanwhile, it increased the number of $50,000 grants from 35 to 50 per year.

Creative Capital received 5,600 applications for its latest award, almost double what it received during the pandemic, and saw a 300% increase in applications from underrepresented communities of color, suggesting its streamlined process has paid dividends. But for Kuan, these metrics also echo a refrain we heard before and during the pandemic — philanthropy needs to do more to support individual artists.

“We hear from most of our awardees that we are their only source of project support,” she said. “As many grantmakers have moved to offering fewer but larger grants, it has narrowed access to funding to a handful of extremely worthy, but perhaps already well-established artists.”

Kuan’s analysis underscores a fundamental financial reality in the arts funding space. Since most arts foundations operate on a modest and fixed grantmaking budget, an abnormally large and transformational grant to one individual means a commensurately smaller grant for another — if they receive a grant at all. Arts funders’ gravitation toward fewer but larger grants “crystallizes for me the unique role Creative Capital has in supporting artists creating new work at a grassroots level,” Kuan said. “We’re looking not so much at the CV of the artist, but at the potential of the artist to realize a bold new vision.” 

On March 4, Creative Capital will begin accepting letters of inquiry for its 25th anniversary Creative Capital Awards supporting project proposals in visual arts, performing arts, film/moving image, technology, literature, multidisciplinary and socially engaged forms. Just like Wild Futures, the awards include $50,000 in unrestricted support plus access to networking and professional development opportunities. Click here to learn more.