Art Ventures: Building a city that artists call home

Art Ventures: Building a city that artists call home

To learn about The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida and its Art Ventures program is to learn a great deal about Jacksonville’s philanthropy and art. This year, The Community Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary, and for more than half its history it has dedicated part of its grantmaking to small arts organizations and individual artists. The mission of the foundation is this: “Stimulating philanthropy to build a better community.” In this continual build, Art Ventures uses the arts as tools to help achieve the goal. 

The nuts and bolts
Here's a primer on The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida: Founded in 1964, it is the oldest community foundation in Florida; and with assets totaling $297 million in 2013, it is also the largest foundation in the state. They manage four-hundred and thirty-four funds, benefiting areas such as public education, neighborhood revitalization, veterans, and the arts, among others. Community foundations exist in this country as tax exempt public charities that manage the funds given by donors—individuals, families, and corporations—in order to carry out their charitable interests for the benefit of their communities. “Through [our] rich history and in partnership with our donors, we have acquired deep knowledge of critical local issues, and we embrace our ability to help lead positive change in our community,” The Community Foundation states. In short, they plan to “do good work, forever.”
Forever is a big word. Especially when talking about funding. But that is the very nature of an endowment— there is a corpus, the capital sum, donated as a seed to take root, growing interest that can be utilized while the initial money is never touched.
Art Ventures is an endowment in perpetuity—it will keep funding the local arts community forever. And this is just one of the special characteristics of this fund.
Art Ventures was conceived in 1989, when the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) selected the foundation as one of three in the country to receive a four-year grant to support small and mid-size arts organizations and individual artists. The only catch was that the organization had to match the funds 2:1.
Calling the initiative Art Ventures, The Community Foundation took on the challenge. The late Ann Baker (1937-2011), a foundation trustee who was instrumental in making Art Ventures a reality, shared on a video produced by the Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville when the foundation received their Special Recognition Award in 2009: “We felt it was an opportunity we should take advantage of because we knew that the Cultural Council was funding larger and midsize nonprofit organizations, but smaller emerging organizations and individual artists really had no opportunity for grants.” Baker and her friend and fellow volunteer Courtenay Wilson, are given much of the credit for Art Ventures’ beginnings. “The corpus exists because of Ann and Courtney,” says Amy Crane, program director for Art Ventures. “Their tireless work is why it exists today as an unrestricted grant.”
But that was a catch—that Art Ventures was to be “unrestricted,” an open grant making program. Unusual at the time, this meant the donors would not determine how their money was spent, the foundation would.
Raising the matching funds required Baker and Wilson to convince prospective donors to give even though Art Ventures would handle grantmaking differently than a traditional fund, where donors offer specific recommendations as to where their grant dollars go. The Community Foundation felt that Art Ventures needed flexible parameters that would allow the funds to “give wings to artists,” says Crane. Art Ventures gifts would be pooled together and the grant selection process would be a community effort. Baker and Wilson succeeded in their mission and the Art Ventures Fund was launched, with the motto “using the arts as tools to build stronger communities.”

The plans
In deciding how to use the Art Ventures funds, the foundation made another bold decision: to form a grantee selection panel that combined art volunteers with foundation staff, trustees and donors. From then on, the art volunteers have been chosen specifically from within the field of applicants each year, and always include past recipients of the grant. “This lends integrity to the process,” says Crane.
Sallyn Pajcic, a donor whose fund at the foundation is the Anne and Sallyn Pajcic Art Ventures Endowment, has served on the selection panel, calling it “a real joy.”
“Just learning about the different artists in our community, the treasure of their work, and the potential to help them achieve their visions, was impressive and exciting,” says Pajcic. “The Art Ventures Fund is, to me, really an investment in our artists and, as a result, our community.”

The tools
By 2013, more than $1 million had been granted to one-hundred and thirty-nine artists and eighty-three arts organizations for everything from capital to operating and production costs, to time to study with experts in their field and, of course, time to create and share their work. The list of Art Ventures grantees is long and reads like a ‘who's who’ of the First Coast arts scene. The list is also extremely varied, full of tales of artists of all disciplines who have taken a leap with their art careers, created a new body of work or production that has garnered recognition and led to new opportunities, and, as is often stated, simply gained inspired momentum through receiving funding...affirmation for their work.
Local artist Linda Broadfoot has received multiple Art Ventures grants: Her first was to create a portable Polaroid image studio to produce her artwork on location. What she says she also received, however, is the “intangible benefit of confidence and empowerment gained from the honor of receiving this grant which transcends any financial consideration, and only makes my work stronger.”
The “broad brushstroke,” as Crane puts it, that is the grant’s impact, encompasses the work of artists that are new, well-established, and everything in between. Noted poet, playwright, and radio host Al Letson speaks of his experience with Art Ventures not only as integral to his success, but to those whom he has worked with. Letson shares that he came to be familiar with The Community Foundation around ten years ago when local filmmaker Dan Solomon offered to produce a film from one of Letson’s poems. Arriving with skepticism to the first meeting with Solomon, Letson recalls, “I get there and Dan has this truck, and all these cameras and crew people…and I was like, ‘How did you do this?’ and he said, ‘Well, I got this grant….’ That's how I first heard of The Community Foundation."
Letson went on to receive the Art Ventures grant himself, the first time in 2005 to write and produce his play Julius X, and the second to fund his play Summer in Sanctuary.
Like Letson, there are artists who have received funding at the start of their careers, and then again, at a later stage. Such is the case with well-known local photographer Thomas Hager, who received Art Ventures funds in 1995, 2002, and 2004 (artists cannot receive the grant two years in a row). In 1995, Hager used the money to fund a trip to Florence and Rome to study figurative art; in 2004, to purchase his first digital camera. When asked of the lasting benefits of this grant-funded purchase, Hager answers, “I will never be the same photographically speaking. I can say the visual world will never be the same…” He adds the important final note, “I am funding my artistic activities through the sale of my art work.”
On the subject of lasting benefits and helping to build the local arts community, one can also look at the success of Ian Mairs’ radio show-cum-local arts platform, “Swamp Radio,” which is receiving current critical acclaim. Mairs received one of the earliest Art Ventures grants (in 1993) which supported his expenses while he completed his play, Parts Unknown. Nearly two decades later, he received a grant to produce a ten-day Off-Broadway workshop in New York of his play, Withitness.
Art Ventures spans such a large timeframe that we can also speak of artists who have, unfortunately, now just left their legacy. One example is Christina Hope Shepherd (1949-2014), who received Art Ventures funds in 1991 to produce her iconic underwater photography series exhibited at The Cummer the following year.
“Many recipients have made careers on the First Coast, bringing vibrancy to the area, while others have been propelled to other places,” says Crane. She points out that the grant’s work should be viewed through a “wide angle lens” (borrowing another art term), due to the scope, variety, and sometimes national recognition of the grantees’ projects.
The newest crop of grantees continue Art Ventures’ tradition of an impressive assortment of the arts. The 2013 list includes Crystal Floyd, an ascendant multimedia artist who was recently featured in the exhibit Our Shared Past at The Cummer; Jamal Jones, a local hip hop artist who performs live at Downtown ArtWalk and other events and has been recognized at the state level for his art form; and Kate Garcia Rouh, who used the grant funds to install a tile mosaic on the interior of a gazebo in Yacht Basin Park, also known as Mom’s Park, in Riverside/Avondale.
“I feel very invested in my community, my city, Jacksonville. Making art that the public can enjoy, and making our city a more interesting and beautiful place is a calling that I feel strongly,” says Rouh. “[Art Ventures] enabled me to create a lasting work of art that anyone can enjoy.”
Rouh mentions that her Art Ventures project led to a new project she presented at this year’s crowd-funding bonanza, One Spark. Jones, too, has seen how the momentum gained through receiving an Art Ventures grant led to further funding—in his case, a Spark Grant from the Cultural Council.
“These grants to individual artists nurture their creativity and work. We all reap the rewards of that nurturing as it results in opening our eyes, ears and minds to diverse visions of the world as seen through those of others,” says Pajcic.

The building
When The Community Foundation received the Cultural Council's Special Recognition for Art Ventures, the Cultural Council stated it was “for planting the seed and growing a resource for the benefit of artists and organizations for years to come.” Baker then called it a “tremendous challenge” to keep the endowment growing.
With confidence, foundation representatives reiterate that Art Ventures’ livelihood is eternal, and Jacksonville can benefit as each year both new artists and established artists with new aims receive the foundation’s help to create lasting contributions. As Susan Datz Edelman, VP, strategic communications, puts it, Art Ventures “captures the best of our community—all that uplifts.”
In a similar description, Mary Ann Bryan, whose fund, the J. Shepard, Jr. & Mary Ann Bryan Arts Endowment, is a major part of the Art Ventures initiative, speaks of the boost art provides: “The arts lift us from the tedium of our daily lives,” says Bryan. “A vibrant arts community offers a new vision of our city and its possibilities and brings vitality and creative energy to the solutions of its problems. Hopefully the Arts Ventures program has helped encourage artists to call Jacksonville home.”   
The Foundation will be the presenting sponsor at the Florida First Coast Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals’ (AFP) 29th Annual National Philanthropy Day Awards luncheon in Jacksonville on November 20.
For more information on Art Ventures, visit The Community Foundation for Northeast Florida, 245 Riverside Ave #310, (904) 356-4483.