Like all great artists, Robert Rauschenberg had an uncanny ability to see and shape the future. In a world that was growing smaller and in which creative technologies were more widely disseminated than ever before, he realized that the line between art and life, meaning and interpretation, high and low were increasingly arbitrary and personal.
Rauschenberg also viewed his art as a vehicle for social change and, as he grew older, actively supported people and issues that moved him. In 1990, he established the foundation that bears his name to benefit and promote awareness of the causes and groups close to his heart, which included arts education, environmental causes, and artistic collaborations of various kinds.
Rauschenberg died in 2008 at the age of 82, and today his foundation, led by its board and staff, is in the process of redefining the scope of its activities and transitioning from "a model that was artist-led toward one that serves the public good."
Recently, PND chatted by e-mail with Rise Wilson, who joined RRF as its first director of philanthropy in August, about the foundation's SEED program, which provides unrestricted operating capital to "boundary-pushing" arts organizations in their earliest stages, allowing them to build the capacity and programming.
Philanthropy News Digest: You and your colleagues have just announced a second round of SEED grants -- $30,000 in unrestricted operating capital to start-up arts organizations around the country. Why start-up organizations?
Rise Wilson: Before I speak to the choice to focus on start-ups, I should clarify that these particular early stage organizations were selected because they were choosing different operating models, pushing the boundaries of their medium, working in an interdisciplinary way, or in some other fashion "nurturing the new." Nominators were encouraged to identify organizations who were exemplary in their efforts to experiment, take risks, and support emerging artists. So the program is not just about start-ups for start-ups' sake but the importance of investing in new and untested models.
What we know from the legacy of our founder, Robert Rauschenberg, who invested in artists at the earliest stages of their careers, is how catalyzing this kind of support can be. Early investment validates that artists -- and, in the case of the SEED program, organizations -- are on the right path. It shores up their financial and logistical capacity to pursue their vision, and it can provide more space to test out ideas -- rather than choosing the safest, most "fund-able" projects to develop.
There is a marked absence of risk capital in arts and culture. Traditional philanthropy still seems to be operating with the tacit expectation that organizations should have at least three years of bootstrapping before receiving institutional support. Though there is wisdom in assessing a potential grantee's capacity to carry out its vision, there are a great many flaws in this metric of grant-worthiness. The ability to bootstrap is often tied to access to wealth, which is not evenly distributed -- geographically, demographically, or culturally. So there is a justice component that is available in the decision to invest in early stage work. To be clear, this justice element was not a core feature in the design of the SEED program, but it's available -- and in my new post at the foundation, it's one I plan to underline.
So there is a justice component, and on a really basic and fundamental level, there is the the fact that we need to figure out how to fund good ideas. Our sector is literally filled with creative thinkers. We are in the business of creativity and creative problem-solving, yet early stage funding is so tenuous it can kill great ideas, through neglect, before they've had a chance to take root. How do you prototype and pilot when funds are only available to proven, tested programs? We have an opportunity to apply lessons and strategies from the social-enterprise sector and impact philanthropy -- to encourage innovation, which by its nature often involves untested ideas, uncertain models, and starting from scratch.
As a foundation, risk-taking is one of our core values, so it is not only the kind of work we support but the way we approach our own. We want to remove barriers for creative thinkers to do good work, even when that means they are new, working with a fiscal sponsor, or have selected a for-profit structure as a way to advance their creative endeavors.