By Ted Loos
March 13, 2018
Sarah Wagner preparing for an exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of Art. In 2014, she won a $25,000 grant from the New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation. Credit: Muskegon Museum of Art
For every Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons who are making millions from their art, there are millions of artists who struggle to get by.
Take the Detroit sculptor Sarah Wagner, who has had what many people would consider concrete successes in terms of getting her art seen by the public. For instance, she has an exhibition of her installations, “Vegetable Lamb of America: The Art of Sarah Wagner,” on view at Michigan’s Muskegon Museum of Art through March 18.
But she also has a job in construction. “Anyone who makes art, you have to figure out how to make a living, too,” Ms. Wagner said. “Very few people do that from their art.”
Then in 2014, she won a $25,000 grant from the New York-based Joan Mitchell Foundation, which was established by the abstract painter. For most artists, getting a substantial cash grant is an event that can transform their creative lives.
But once it’s obtained, what comes next? Should they fund a current art project or pay down debt? Should they rent a studio or buy one? Should they sit on a beach and think of great ideas or get health insurance?
Ms. Wagner’s installation “Vegetable Lamb of America” is on view at Michigan’s Muskegon Museum of Art through March 18. Credit: Muskegon Museum of Art
In other words: More money, more problems.
Ms. Wagner was not sure what to do, but the foundation also helped her to get advice. The organization provides financial counseling to its grantees, a trend that is gaining traction among nonprofits that make similar grants.
First, Ms. Wagner dialed into a group video conference that was arranged by Creative Capital, a nonprofit artist-focused group based in New York with significant funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
“I was embarrassed at the ways that I make money,” Ms. Wagner recalled of the group call. “They said, ‘No, that’s called ‘multiple revenue streams.’ It sort of took the stench off it for me.” Then she had a phone session with a financial counselor, also paid for by the Mitchell foundation.
In the end, Ms. Wagner took the grant and “spent it on living, and didn’t make much art,” she said. “I had a pause.” But she said that not only did it fuel her creative juices — directly leading to her current museum show — she used the time to learn bookkeeping skills, which had previously bedeviled her. Now, her finances are better organized.
The Mitchell foundation started the counseling program after the last recession. “A recipient of one of our awards came to us, and she was having cash-flow issues,” said Christa Blatchford, the foundation’s chief executive. “She said, ‘I need counseling.’ We had never given it before, but I realized it was irresponsible of us not to.”
Left: The Joan Mitchell Foundation started a counseling program after the last recession. Christa Blatchford is the chief executive of the foundation. Credit: Jeremy Tauriac, via Joan Mitchell Foundation. Right: Deana Haggag is the president and chief executive of United States Artists, which gives unrestricted grants of $50,000 to up to 50 artists every year. Credit: Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times
The foundation has given more than 1,000 grants to artists since 1994, and the awards for painters and sculptors are generally $25,000, though they offer the option of taking the money over two years.
Ms. Blatchford said that the counseling the foundation helped arrange focused on “things that would make them feel successful.” But she added that financial counseling was not for everyone: “Some people show up, but they zone out — they aren’t ready.”
While many arts organizations give grants for specific projects, rarer is the unrestricted grant, and the open-ended quality is the very thing that has brought financial counseling to the forefront.
As Deana Haggag, the president and chief executive of United States Artists, said, “Our money is different.”
The organization, based in Chicago, gives unrestricted grants of $50,000 to up to 50 artists every year. “My dad asked me before I took this job, ‘Do youknow what you’d do with $50,000?’” said Ms. Haggag, who started as president last year. “I had no idea.”
So Ms. Haggag is studying how the group can counsel artists on how to use the money. “Hopefully in a year, it’s a regular service,” she said. The group’s annual assembly in March, which gathers together the new fellows, will include, for the first time, a group session on managing money.
You can’t underestimate what artists — or anyone else — knows about finances, said Edward P. Henry, the president of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and a member of the United States Artists board of trustees. The Duke foundation is a major donor to United States Artists, part of its annual giving of more than $100 million a year, some of which goes to separate artist grants.
“When you receive an award, maybe it’s unrestricted, but it’s still taxed,” Mr. Henry said. “You’ll receive a 1099. And you have a Schedule C to legitimately deduct the cost of your materials. This is all Step 1.”
United States Artists announced its new class of fellowships in January, and two of the recipients were Cauleen Smith, a Los Angeles filmmaker, and Pepón Osorio, a Philadelphia installation artist.
“No Crying in the Barbershop” by Pepón Osorio at the Museum of Art of Puerto Rico. Mr. Osorio is part of United States Artists’ new class of fellowships. Credit: Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times
Both have received other awards: Ms. Smith won the Herb Alpert Award in the Arts for $75,000, and Mr. Ossorio received about $300,000 from a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a “genius grant.”
How the two artists talk about their plans demonstrates the variety of approaches — perhaps to be expected, given the personal nature of making art.
“I’m a nice middle-class kid,” Ms. Smith said. “You’re taught to save, save, save. What I’d really like to do is invest in a building that could be a studio and generate some income. But this is L.A. — 50k won’t buy me a mailbox.”
She noted that she had considered seeking financial counseling in the past, but the advisers “only want to deal with really wealthy people.”
Mr. Osorio, 63, acknowledged that his likely path is probably not one a financial adviser would endorse: He is planning some travel that involves investigating and preserving the legacy of his earlier work.
“When people think of a big chunk of money, they think of their future,” he said. “But I think of the future of my practice.” The MacArthur Fellowship, which he received in 1999, went straight into works like “Tina’s House,” a collaborative project that involves video and sculpture.
Mr. Osorio added, “Most likely I will plan everyone else’s retirement before I plan mine.”