The Foundation for Contemporary Arts
“The Foundation is based on the principle of recognizing bad kids doing great things.”
I lost eight confirmed paid rehearsals, seven performances in another artists' work, and three opportunities to show and perform my own work. Cancellations also include a residency where, upon completion of my residency, I was set to receive a fellowship. … Other previously confirmed gigs have been cancelled in the summer and fall. … I have requested a reduced rent from my landlord and was denied. The money I have in savings will be depleted by my rent and living expenses leaving me no funds for food and supplies in two months.
March 2020 in New York City was just the first of rolling closures across the arts in the United States. For artists, it was a terrifying moment with no end in sight. This is the precarity of a life in the arts, dramatically exemplified by this excerpt from an application to the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA), requesting emergency assistance in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The FCA Emergency Grants COVID-19 Fund launched five days after the nationwide shut down of all arts venues on March 13, 2020 and has since then distributed over $3,000,000 in grants. Additionally, FCA has also partnered in Artist Relief, which has raised $25 million dollars to distribute $5,000 grants to more than 4,000 poets, painters, dancers, musicians, singers, sculptors, filmmakers, and countless others committed to a creative life.
As another COVID-19 Fund grantee noted, “I have no idea where things are going… it is very significant that FCA was so swift to recognize the economic devastation faced by artists and to respond to it in this way.” The Emergency Grants fund, established in 1993, has always served to help artists with a budget shortfall or needing funds for an unexpected, last-minute opportunity. The more recent COVID-19 Fund bestowed $2,000 one-time relief grants reviewed and offered by an all-artist panel, to help artists mitigate the financial instability caused by cancelled or postponed performances. The FCA perpetuates its grant program in the spirit of its for-artists-by-artists founding. As Jasper Johns, a founder of the organization once said, “it’s rooted in the community from which art arises, not the community that uses art.”
Founding the Foundation
In 1962, Merce Cunningham’s friends wanted him to perform in New York. It had been two years after all, since his last appearance in the city. Johns, Cage, and Rauschenberg first collaborated when Rauschenberg made the set for Cunningham’s Minutiae in 1954. A year later, they organized a night of Cunningham and Cage performances. In 1960, they largely covered the costs for Merce Cunningham and Dance Company to perform at The Phoenix Theater on Second Avenue. This was what they did for an artist whose medium faced singular challenges.
The performing arts, then as now, confront consistent financial hurdles since ticket sales rarely recuperate the costs of space and rehearsals. In order to cover a full Broadway season in 1962, Johns and Rauschenberg decided to each offer a painting of their own, and Cage a work by Richard Lippold, to a sale that would raise funds for Cunningham’s Broadway season. The plan was a success, enough so that they even had a surplus of money. When they told this to Cunningham, he replied, "Help others, because we are all in the same boat.” The opportunity to support more performance artists, however, meant asking other visual artists if they would donate works for a larger benefit exhibition. Despite discussions of post-medium, mixed media, cross-platform, or interdisciplinarity, the arts are far more sequestered from one another than they once were, when gallery shows were attended by dancers and musicians, with visual artists attending concerts and performances. So-called “fine” artists have the advantage of some thing to sell. Performance artists produce an ephemeral good, more difficult to turn into a trade or exchange item.
Beyond individual patrons, few organized structures existed to support artists at the time. Knowing such well-heeled supporters presumed a level of access that many performance artists—especially those of the avant-garde—did not necessarily have. Not many granting organizations yet existed, and those that did were limited and, typically, conventional in their expectations. Out of this need was born the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts (FCPA), touched off by that first sale of works on Cunningham’s behalf by Cage, Johns, and Rauschenberg. In 2004, it became the Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA), in recognition of its broader purview. (For the rest of this article, reference will be made to FCA even though at the time it may have been FCPA.)
The founding board members were an active group. The Pocket Theater producer Lewis Lloyd and lawyer Alfred Geller were important figures in this early period, helping with the logistics of that Broadway season for Cunningham as well as establishing the benefit sale that funded the initial organization. Elaine de Kooning joined and would remain integral for several years. The board decided to invite artists to Allan Stone Gallery on November 26, 1962, and propose the idea of a benefit exhibition that would aid artists. Robert Motherwell, Louise Nevelson, Jack Tworkov, Alexander Calder, Saul Steinberg, Mark Rothko, David Smith, Marcel Duchamp… the list is an astounding roster of names, almost all of them friends, or friends of friends, called upon to help other artists.
The one-week benefit exhibition opened February 25 with 69 works by 67 artists. Fifteen sold, raising $34,685. Most of the rest remained with the Foundation, selling over the next few years. When the board convened on April 1, they designated the first grants. The funds allocated for Cunningham’s Broadway season were reappointed to a European tour when a printers’ strike shut down all the theaters in New York City. The board granted $1,000 each to composers Morton Feldman and Earle Brown to produce new works. Judson Memorial Church received $500 for lights and permanent stage sets that would support the Judson Dance Theater. Later that summer, FCA also provided a $500 grant to Paper Bag Players, a children’s theater group established by Judith Martin and a former Cunningham dancer, Remy Charlip. More events raised more money, and the little foundation first established what has become an incredible 60-year legacy of support.
Bad Kids Together
The word-of-mouth approach in the beginning nurtured a sense of community. Many artists in all fields across the downtown scene became aware of FCA and the support it provided. First there were ad hoc grants offered by request. In a 1971 funding request for $3,000 from Trisha Brown for the upcoming year, she describes herself as “an aging unknown” but continues: “I got ideas for dances you wouldn’t believe … Actually I can’t dance at all but like most cripples I got heart and heart is interested in 3 thou in 72.” Brown was a founding member of Judson Dance Theater, along with Twyla Tharp, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainer, all of whom redefined modern dance in no small part through the regular support of small grants from FCA (all received individual grants over the years, while Rainer also received the Merce Cunningham Award in 2015).
Their work transformed the world of dance for generations. The contemporary Belgian choreographer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, produced works not only partly inspired by that new style of dance but based almost entirely off the minimalist music of Steve Reich, another FCA grantee. Reich’s travels to Ghana to study drumming and observe Gideon Alorwoyie influenced him to layer tape phasing with live sound, which developed into a four-part composition, Drumming, presented in 1971 at MoMA, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Town Hall—all with funds provided by FCA. The grant he received paid for the four musicians at each venue, and ensured resources to imagine the music that would inspire future generations, such as a choreographer across an ocean, who would herself hire dancers to produce new works. This is the generative cycle launched by many FCA grants. A small sum suddenly appears incredibly significant. In 1969, FCA provided a first fill-in-the-gaps grant to Meredith Monk. Just over 50 years later, she received the $40,000 John Cage Award, one of FCA’s largest and most prestigious. As Monk said, upon getting the call: “You know, John and I were bad kids together.”
The grants support the edgy work that becomes the parlance of the medium and eventually seeps into the cultural vocabulary. Though audiences might describe the work of Richard Foreman and the Ontological-Hysteric Theater as an assault on the senses, it is hard to imagine contemporary culture without the influence of his “disorientation message.” Elevator Repair Service and Young Jean Lee, both grantees of FCA, trace their origins to Foreman. Could general audiences have come to appreciate David Lynch (or PeeWee’s Playhouse) if not for the boundary-pushing explorations of Foreman’s work so crucially supported by FCA? Foreman, Brown, and many other grantees of FCA also collaborated with The Wooster Group, in a demonstration of creativity weaving through New York across genres and time. This innovative performance company founded by Ron Vawter, Kate Valk, Jim Clayburgh, Willem Dafoe, and Peyton Smith has ties to the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s, and would go on to include actors like Frances McDormand, who mentioned her work with the group in her 2015 SAG Award speech. Decades after founding The Wooster Group, in 2003, Kate Valk received a Grants to Artists award in recognition of her constant work in performance and support of so many others pushing themselves to create new performance practices.
Beyond artists, FCA has provided grants to those small organizations that provide space for artists to gather and get feedback on their experimentations. Those places can touch so many. Grants over the years to Dance Theater Workshop and Movement Research helped countless choreographers experiment with the language of bodies in motion. The Monday night performances through Movement Research at Judson Church connected many young dancers with their first professional opportunities, while FCA’s support for The Poetry Project ensured a space remained for the transformation of language, as downtown coffee shop culture waned. Its workshops and publications have fostered countless talents; it is still located at St. Mark’s Church with a vision entirely keeping with FCA’s aspirations that “cultural action at the local level can inspire broader shifts in public consciousness.” Grants like one to P.S.122 have made it possible for them to support other groups. FCA supported P.S. 122 (now called Performance Space New York), which shares a home with P.S.122 continues to house Mabou Mines, an organization that received its first grant from FCA in 1970. Founded by five artists, including Philip Glass, the experimental collective deconstructs classic works of theater or develops new performances in a collaborative, exploratory effort that frequently spans years before a work emerges. Such creative practices would be impossible if not for open grants that support the effort and don’t require an explicit outcome as a part of the request.
Money granted by FCA is often there in the background, providing the support and encouragement for artists to continue, despite precarious lives punctured by uncertain recognition. FCA is a resource for artists whose experiments may be initially illegible outside the creative hub of other artists. If an outcome is known, then the work isn’t an investigation into that art’s potential. Encouraging that kind of disruption requires belief that the arts matter and that the changes they produce are generative. When artists experience each other’s works, they garner intuitions and perceptions that shift across media specificity, creating the ties that not only knit various disciplines together but introduce new patterns. The Foundation is based on that principle of recognizing bad kids doing great things.
A Community Chorus
By the 1980s, the Foundation was providing tens of thousands of dollars in grants each year, and by the 1990s, hundreds of thousands. The semi-regular exhibition benefits sold visual artists’ works, hosted the first year at Allan Stone (1963), but thereafter at numerous other galleries, including occasionally simultaneous showings: Tibor de Nagy (1965-6); Leo Castelli (1965-6, 1980, 1981, 1988, 1993-4); Kornblee (1965-6, 1967-8); Brooke Alexander (1988, 1995); Matthew Marks (2000, 2014); Bortolami Dayan (February 2006); Paula Cooper (December 2006); Cohan and Leslie (2008); Lehmann Maupin (2011); and David Zwirner (2016) and Gladstone Gallery (2018). An upcoming exhibition is in the planning stage and additionally, they sell an impressive selection of works online.
Exhibitions were not the only fundraising events. In 1963, John Cage organized a relay team of ten pianists to perform Erik Satie’s Vexations in full at the Pocket Theater. The one-page musical score requires four pianists to play the motif 840 times, and the full concert lasted 18 hours and 40 minutes. (With a legacy of such durational musical performances, the Foundation’s later support of groups like Bang on a Can’s 24-hour musical events comes as less of a surprise.) Cage decided to sell tickets for $5 with five cents refunded for twenty minutes and a twenty-cent bonus for those who stayed the entire time. A time stamp machine in the lobby allowed audiences to come and go. Shortly before 1am, several dozen artists arrived to support their musical comrades after the closing of the Hans Hoffman exhibition at Museum of Modern Art. (The New York Times noted that detail in its review but never that the purpose was to benefit this new foundation.)
By the 1990s, the financial position of the visual arts was no less precarious than the performing arts. In a 2012 oral history interview with Jasper Johns conducted by Stacy Tenenbaum Stark, who held the role of Executive Director of FCA from 2005–2021, he spoke about the changes that led the Foundation to begin making grants to visual artists: “A lot of performing artists seemed to expect to receive grants every year from certain organizations. Relatively few visual artists seemed to receive grants. And the numbers of visual artists and their needs increased so rapidly from the 1960s to, say, the 1990s.” Though James Turrell received a $1,000 grant in 1984 for his Roden Crater Project, grants to visual artists were not formalized until 1993.
The growth at the Foundation made the board realize the importance of introducing a full time Executive Director. Mary Judge, appointed in 1993, was the first. She formalized the grants programs, establishing Grants to Individuals, Grants for Immediate Needs, and Grants for Organizations. In addition, the John Cage Award was established in 1992 to honor artists working in the spirit of the Foundation’s cofounder. The Grants to Artists awards as they are now known, initially provide $25,000 to artists (and have since increased to $40,000) who have been nominated anonymously.
Excepting the Emergency Grants, there is no application process. The grants are neither lifetime achievement awards nor project specific. FCA annually invites a group of anonymous nominators, who change from year to year, to propose one—and only one—artist in any field. Artists don’t know they have been nominated, so when they get a call announcing they have received a grant, it is exhilarating. People report being stunned, speechless, overwhelmed. The musician Jim O’Rourke described “the time to work on something without a concern for how ‘practical’ it was” as “an incredible feeling.” So many artists express the impact of the award’s ability to alleviate financial difficulties, but also the pleasure in supporting other artists. Xaviera Simmons received a 2015 Grants to Artists award that allowed her to provide dancers a “fair hourly wage and also a handsome performance fee… Knowing that dancers are some of the most underpaid artists in the United States… This I believe was one of the most important developments that came as a result of the grant; the ability to pass the funds forward.”
Of course, the grant’s acknowledgment that an artist’s particular form of creativity matters is deeply rewarding. As board member and 2016 Robert Rauschenberg Award recipient Jennie C. Jones expressed, it is incalculable: “The value of not asking for support but rather being told—'you are seen, what you do matters.’” Though anonymous, the nominators share their exhilaration at the experience of being able to propose an artist and see them receive necessary validation: “The feeling when your nominee is selected? You float on air! You have done good by stealth, you are a secret Fairy Godmother! Ever after, you follow ‘your’ artist with a sense of involvement, interest, and exhilaration,” says one. “The ability to help an artist without inflicting the arduous grant proposal package upon them is part of the thrill. It is marvelous to offer an artist an award simply for the hard work they have been ushering forward—day in, day out—connecting people and ideas with care and diligence. It builds a meaningful landscape in a way that not all grants do.”
FCA grants now cover dance, music/sound, performance art/theater, poetry, and the visual arts, but even they are expansive understandings of the categories. The number given depends on the strength of the nominators’ pool, and the amount for each Grants to Artists awards now stands at $40,000. A few named awards represent partnerships with artists’ foundations that have close ties to FCA. The Robert Rauschenberg Award was the first endowed grant, established in 2013 to celebrate the “innovation, risk-taking, and experimentation” for which he is known, and Trisha Brown the first awardee. Since then, in partnership with additional artists’ foundations, FCA now also designates the unrestricted Merce Cunningham Award, Roy Lichtenstein Award, Dorothea Tanning Award, as well as the designated Helen Frankenthaler Award for Painting, Cy Twombly Award for Poetry and C.D. Wright Award for Poetry.
The named awards provide an additional sense of the community of the arts. Latasha N. Nevada Diggs, awarded the C.D. Wright Award in 2020 articulates the lasting impact it can have: “There is so much to write and create to even begin to match the magnitude of Wright’s legacy. It affirmed so much and told me to stay on the path. For that, I am honored and humbled by this gesture.” Eve Beglarian, who received the Robert Rauschenberg Award for Music/Sound in 2015, has noted the significance of the time to experiment without duress that the grant afforded her: “The work I have made this year is only the inchoate beginning of a new direction in my work and in my life. I hope to be able to share the fruits of these explorations for years to come.”
Art and technology represent a cross-disciplinary practice that many struggle to appreciate, but FCA has been a significant support for artists and organizations in this area since the beginning. Much is made of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) as a groundbreaking interdisciplinary venture that nurtures collaboration between artists and engineers, but few recognize the important role FCA played in its mid-1960s founding as the financial clearinghouse for an international meeting of thirty engineers and ten artists. Electrical engineer Billy Klüver, who initiated the project with subsequent help from Rauschenberg, had a background making such connections: he helped Jean Tinguely and Andy Warhol incorporate technology into their work and he guided Jasper Johns into the use of neon letters for Field Painting (1963-4) and Zone (1966). Following his tenure as an FCA Board member from 1965–66, Klüver helped, helping coordinate the fiscal sponsorship of 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering.
Also in 1966, FCA sponsored Six Lectures at the 92nd Street Y; audiences could not know what to expect. Lectures hardly seems the word for Merce Cunningham’s April 21 performance with live and recorded speech. On the other hand, R. Buckminster Fuller spoke for over three hours the week before. Composer and writer Peter Yates gave a talk with short musical samples to illustrate his points. Harold Rosenberg worried about the influence of media on art, and Marshall McLuhan closed out the program on May 7 with ideas that would find fulfillment the following year in his revolutionary book, The Medium is the Massage. These historic events, however, represent the Foundation’s ongoing recognition of experimental work in the use of new media and computer arts.
Charles Atlas was an assistant manager and lighting designer at the Merce Cunningham Dance Company before becoming their first in-house filmmaker, where he developed an entirely new vision of media dance, transforming the notion of video as simply a passive record into an active movement art in its own right. His work was groundbreaking in the 1970s, and becomes even more significant as we rethink virtual engagements amidst the surge of online performances from the last year. His works range from extravagant to minimal, continuously exploring the potential of new technologies.
Besides occasional grants that enabled his productions over two dozen years of creative experimentation, Atlas received the John Cage Award in 2006. So much experimentation with technology was initially sonic and, in the spirit of E.A.T.’s international effort, the grants fund artists from around the world, although admittedly most have a connection to the United States. Yuko Nexus6 received a Grant to Artists award in 2007 for her sound collages that combine field recordings, samples, digital processing, and her own vocals in Japanese, German, and English. She uses both lo-fi and complex technologies to compose interactive electronic music. Academic noise collage can be hyper-intellectual and dry but Nexus6 introduces a sense of joy that shifts into a pleasure sound garden. The grant funded her sixth and seventh albums. Digital artists Shelley Eshkar and Paul Kaiser, innovators in the applications of motion capture, constituted the collaborative Riverbed Media that received an award in 2000 for their work integrating dance, computer animation and drawing. Their award enabled the production of Biped, a digital animation of choreography, for which the motion capture developed into a series of abstracted and hand-drawn images of the dancers projected onto a transparent scrim.
More recently, the visual artist Ian Cheng received a 2021 Grants to Artists award. His background in cognitive science and use of simulation and game technologies may seem par for the course within the realm of digital art, but the Foundation’s support in this area has enabled audiences over decades to experience and develop an increased appreciation for such avant-garde practices.
These Days Continue
After the second benefit exhibition in 1963, Elaine de Kooning wisely recommended that the organization keep 75% of proceeds until they had accumulated a $100,000 sum. It is astonishing to consider how far FCA has come since then. In 2005, it disbursed 57 grants totaling $179,000. In 2013, it celebrated fifty years of distributing support for a total of almost $10,000,000. Though much of that is recognized in the significant named awards and individual grants, the hallmark of FCA as expressed by Jill Jakes, the first board secretary who remained an active board member until 1971 was “to give grants to people for whom a little bit of money would make a very big difference.” The last year of the pandemic has shown that the spirit of the organization remains in the small but significant sums that help artists from one month to the next.
From March 2020–June 2021, the COVID-19 Fund panel provided 1,535 grants to experimental artists, totaling $3,070,000. Reaching back to its roots in supporting performance artists, FCA took note of the particular challenges that dancers, actors, and performers of all kinds faced when in-person performances were not an option, and recognizing that galleries and performance spaces remain about uncertain what to expect as the pandemic continues, FCA launched the Bridge Fund in April 2021. Since these spaces rarely schedule events more than 12 months in advance, and are now in a period beyond cancellations, many performing and experimental artists don’t have prospects as galleries and venues determine how to plan for an uncertain future. FCA sought out community partners, including past artist grantees and arts organizations, to identify and refer artists in need, helping to allay housing and food insecurity, medical costs, loss of work, amid a variety of precarious situations artists have been confronting. The referrals helped spread the word and expedited the granting process.
As a recipient of a grant earlier this year from philanthropists MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewett, FCA doubled its overall Bridge Fund grant-making budget, enabling them to raise grant amounts from $1,000 to $1,500 and distribute 50 percent more grants than originally planned. The priority of the Foundation has always been to be responsive to the community, to adapt, to amend its programs as needed. As many artists shifted to online transmission of performances, FCA altered the constraints of the Emergency Grants to also support funds necessary for live-streaming equipment.
Over the last few years, the Foundation has also sought to expand its geographic reach. With help from nominators, former grantees, and community leaders all over the country, FCA has been able to support creative communities that have been overlooked in the past by many large arts funders. In Puerto Rico alone, FCA has supported 62 artists with Bridge Fund grants. This good work is a natural extension of FCA’s approach to produce a community of artists who help other artists pursue their practice despite the long list of practical impediments set up by social and economic structures. Recognition of the plight that artists face in these times comes from an organization that is truly founded on the motto “by artists for artists.” We all get by with a little help from our friends.