Nearly two dozen foundations and philanthropists, reacting to cuts in Federal arts spending, have joined forces to support artists who challenge convention. The new group will attempt to make up for some of the individual grants the Government ended in 1994 after years of controversy over works dealing with nudity, sexuality and other provocative themes.
The new nonprofit organization, called Creative Capital Foundation, will be announced officially next week. But it has already made it clear that it will not shy away from the kind of innovative art that incited protests by religious and political conservatives.
"This is a boisterous, diverse country, and we have always had art that upsets people," said Archibald L. Gillies, president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and one of the new group's organizers. "Controversy," he added, "won't bother us at all."
Creative Capital hopes to raise $40 million over the next 20 years. With current assets of more than $5 million, it plans to make its first round of grants, totaling up to $1 million, early next year.
Going a step further, the organization will actively proselytize for freedom of expression. The grants it plans to give each year to 50 to 60 artists will requiring the winners to work with experts to develop audiences for their art and to market it.
At its peak in the late 1980's the National Endowment for the Arts awarded as much as $10.5 million a year to more than 750 individual artists in grants of $1,100 to $45,000. But since then the endowment has almost been eliminated several times by members of Congress upset by those grants and by what they said was the agency's distance from American values. It has survived, but with a budget cut nearly in half from its peak to $98 million in the current fiscal year and no appetite to make awards that would restart the cultural wars of the last decade.
Creative Capital is stepping into that breach. "The Supreme Court has ruled about pornography, but anything beyond that is fair game," Mr. Gillies said. "In this organization's absolute principles, one comes first and that is funding experimental, challenging art on its merits. Then after selecting it, we see what the marketing potential is. The nature of the content is not a factor."
With such talk, Creative Capital is throwing down the gauntlet to conservatives who in recent years have tried to shut down some exhibitions and performances. Though the fights have most often been about public financing of controversial art, mainly by the endowment, some conflicts have also centered on state and local arts grants and the commercial availability of provocative art.
The president of the Christian Coalition, Randy Tate, said on learning on Friday of the the new group, "They can fund what they feel they need to fund." But referring to the Colorado school shootings, he said, "Especially in the context of the last week and a half, We have learned that images have consequences."
"I won't condemn anything until I see it," he added. "But I would hope they use great discretion and put forward images that strengthen society and family values."
Creative Capital's founders say they believe that this kind of art easily wins financing, unlike the difficult art they will focus on. The group's grants come with a twist straight out of Wall Street and reflecting the business background of some backers (like Jeffrey Soros, nephew of George Soros, the billionaire financier). In a sure sign that this is the era of the deal, even in the arts, grant winners must agree to share a portion of any proceeds from their project. The cash will go back into Creative Capital's kitty, increasing its capacity to finance additional artists.
The Warhol Foundation, with a pledge to give $400,000 a year for the next three years, is Creative Capital's largest contributor. Others, including the Norton Family Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Joe and Emily Lowe Foundation, the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation and the Eli Broad Family Foundation, have each promised up to $100,000 a year.
Creative Capital's executive director, Ruby Lerner, said contributors knew that the group would seek out and not shrink from artists like Karen Finley, who often performs in the nude and famously smears her body in chocolate; Robert Mapplethorpe, whose homoerotic photographs offended many, and other artists who caused headline-making conflicts.
Ms. Lerner said she told the contributors, "We might get through the first 20 years and not have a single controversy, but we might have 50 of them in the first year."
Creative Capital plans to award grants of $5,000 to $20,000 to performing, visual and film or video artists, as well as those who make hybrid works. The money will be split roughly equally among the four categories each year.
In the hope that the culture wars are over, William J. Ivey, the national endowment's new director, has put in a $150 million budget request for the next fiscal year, up $52 million from the endowment's current allocation, and has raised the possibility of resuming individual grants. But he has made no promises about when that might happen.
Supporters of the arts say they cannot wait. "The arts are filled with energy, yet sources of public finance are more and more precarious," said Catharine R. Stimpson, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University. "The important issue is supporting creativity."
Ms. Stimpson has agreed to serve on Creative Capital's board, as have Laurie Anderson, the performance artist; Lewis Hyde, the writer; Ronald Feldman, a New York art dealer, and Louise A. Velazquez, a senior business adviser at the Interval Research Corporation, a Silicon Valley company that is trying to engage the arts and high-tech in new ventures.
As the first big, national response to cuts in endowment grants, Creative Capital could make a difference. "Direct support is important," Mr. Ivey of the endowment said. "Our grants had a significant impact on the careers of a large range of artists." But he and others agree that an equally important effect may stem from the attempt to enlarge the audience for contemporary art. "Whenever individuals engage art and artists in a personal way with good interpretation and explanation, it always expands the audience," Mr. Ivey said.
Mr. Gillies described the process that Creative Capital's founders envisioned as broader than marketing. "We will ask, 'What does this project need to succeed, what does an artist need to get to the next level?' " he said. Artists will get individual advice from an array of volunteer curators, producers, publicity agents and others who can help artists devise a plan to present their work to the widest possible audience.
That plan helped woo contributors. "Emerging artists get a lot of one-time cash awards, but this affords them something else," said Dini S. Merz, a program officer at the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, which is giving $300,000 over four years. "It will answer the question 'How can we help artists help themselves?' "
But will artists agree to such interference, and an untested idea at that? Yong Soon Min, a Korean-born artist who lives in California and is known for politically charged, feminist work, said she had no problems with it. "A marketing plan can be very helpful," she said. Rather, her concerns centered on Creative Capital's administrative ability to deliver on the promise.
She appears to be typical. Ms. Lerner said that in meetings Creative Capital has had with artists around the country not a single one has raised objections.
Randall Bourscheidt, president of Alliance for the Arts, an advocacy group in New York, is not surprised. "Anyone looking for a grant can't afford to ignore this," he said, adding that the conditions would not sound ominous to artists. "It's a series of expectations, but it doesn't limit their voice or stifle their creativity."
Besides, as Mr. Gillies pointed out: "If they don't like that aspect, they can say, 'We're not going to apply.' Some artists will say, 'I want to do what I do, and I don't want anyone hassling me,' and they will go and get a fellowship like the Guggenheim."
The revenue-sharing requirements apparently did not disturb anyone either, though the details are sketchy. Ms. Lerner said they would be worked out individually with each grant agreement, and Mr. Gillies said Creative Capital would probably ask for 10 to 15 percent of a project's gross revenues. Creative Capital would also have a cut if, say, a film, video or performance moved from a nonprofit space to a commercial theater, as the musical "Rent" did, for example.
The group has other plans to shore up the nation's artistic infrastructure: annual round tables to assess the state of the arts, an annual retreat for grant recipients, a quarterly publication, a database of arts businesses and nonprofit groups, public events and a Web site where artists can sell their art.
All that is in the future. Creative Capital, with its small staff, first has to hustle to erect a structure for doling out money. Ms. Lerner wants to cast a wide net, and so is sending staff members into studios, theaters and other arts centers looking for prospects, is soliciting nominations from arts experts and on July 1 will start accepting applications from artists themselves.
Those who make the initial cut will be asked for work samples, a detailed budget for their project and a schedule. The applications will go through a peer panel review process, with the winners chosen or approved by the trustees.
Ideology aside, Mr. Gillies said the winners would have projects that have artistic merit, not simply shock value. Creative Capital, he said, will not foment confrontation.
"It's not that we'll support everything controversial," he said. "We will support what people across the country are saying is good art, is exciting, interesting art."