MF: That’s right; the original idea was to treat artists with the same dignity and respect that other professional disciplines enjoy. It was about providing artists with the resources they needed to focus on their work.
PM: We know that artists form the foundation of any cultural community. Can you articulate how we see the role of the Pew Fellowships program within the wider landscape of how artists are supported in making their work—from grants awarded specifically to them, to the varying ways that institutions might support artists, even if indirectly?
MF: The opportunities for contemporary artists in the United States to concentrate on the development and creation of art are extremely limited. Artists are not alone, but perhaps "lonelier" than individuals in other fields, such as scientific research or humanistic scholarship, when it comes to the availability of direct support. Small artists' grants, residencies, commissions, etc., are all essential ingredients to a healthy cultural infrastructure, but in addition, it is paramount that artists are also afforded significant long-term support.
Arts institutions are, for the most part, devoted to the presentation and preservation of artworks, rather than the support of contemporary artists. Those institutions that do support the creative process most frequently do so on a short-term or commission basis, which can sometimes restrict experimentation. Many artists are also affected by marketplace pressures that may preclude artistic investigations that are not immediately seen to be commercially viable.=
The assertion that creative ideas need time, concentration, and freedom in order to flourish is not frequently challenged. Nor do many find fault with the assumption that creativity and its results—new products, new visions, new solutions—are critical to the survival and development of culture. Even though it’s generally accepted that one of the most effective ways to advance a particular field or discipline is through the advancement of exceptional individuals within that field, in the United States we have historically been reluctant to embrace the application of these beliefs when manifested in the form of significant and direct financial support for artists.
Our approach allows individual artists to engage in longer-term creative investigations, without the pressure of having to relocate or to produce specific outcomes, or commit to a binding course of action. This is some of the thinking that is behind the Pew Fellowships program and why we are structured the way we are today.
PM: The Fellowships have been adjudicated by an interdisciplinary panel and still continue to be so to this day. We've chosen to use panelists from outside the region, as we also do in the Center's project grant program, and we continue to invite distinguished experts from the various fields to serve as our adjudicators. Why did we initially make that choice, and why do you think it continues to be the appropriate one?
MF: It is imperative that our fellowships selection processes are fair, consistent, and objective. All of the applicants are entitled to be considered fairly on an equal footing with the other applicants. Outside panelists mitigate the potential for unfair biases, while contributing the expertise necessary to engage with the selection process in an informed way.
I think the interdisciplinary process certainly continues to have relevance today, especially given that many artists are working in hybrid and interdisciplinary ways. In 2010, when we redesigned the program, we were seeking a non-discipline specific approach as a response to the way artists were working. Our hope was to expand the definition of what a creative practice is and can be, and we were looking to artists to lead us there. In this context, the interdisciplinary panel functions most effectively. It also generates rich conversations and new insights into artists’ work among our varied discipline specialists.
PM: Yes, and those conversations often benefit our work at the Center in larger ways, by keeping us close to what are the priorities and best practices in the fields that we fund. So there’s an indirect benefit to us from the panel process as well.
What were some of the important milestones and changes as the program developed?
MF: One structural change occurred in 1996, when we transitioned from 16 to 12 Fellowships, and from four to three categories being reviewed annually. In terms of milestones, I would say that the increase in the grant amount was significant. In 2008, we moved from $50,000 to $60,000, and then in 2014, we increased the Fellowship to $75,000.
PM: We wanted the award to retain its prestige and its relative value.
MF: Hitting our first 100 Fellows in 1998 was also an exciting milestone. Another important development was creating a category for folk and traditional arts in 2000. We had always included folk and traditional artists in our other categories such as sculpture, choreography, crafts, and music composition, but we didn’t have the expertise on the panels to speak to these practices in a truly informed way. By creating this category, we were able to bring together experts in folk and traditional forms to make the initial selections, and then have this expertise on the final interdisciplinary panel as well. It expanded our pool of applicants and opened us up to a broader range of artists, many of whom became Pew Fellows. Lastly, the program underwent a redesign in 2010, which prompted us to remove discipline-specific categories and expand individual support to encompass all fields.
PM: Let’s talk more about the updated program structure. We went on for 18 years with an open application process and the disciplinary rotations. We had a lot of success, but we also, as time went on, began to feel the need to refresh the program. So, in response to the Fellowships' contextualization within the Center's work as a whole, and to artists' changing practices, we worked with consultant Cynthia Mayeda on revising and updating the program's structure.
MF: Yes, in 2008, we began an intensive year-long process of critical re-evaluation. Our primary goal was to establish a refreshed strategic focus for the program. We had just marked our 18th year, as you say, and the program had essentially operated the same way over that time period. In rethinking the Fellowships, we wanted to respond to the shifts since the early 90s in how artists had been practicing and the fact that many artists were increasingly working in and across multiple disciplines.
Our previous four-year rotation of disciplines meant that each year applications were accepted from artists working in only three categories, and those artists had to wait four years to apply again to the program in their discipline area. In addition, our focus on certain disciplinary categories did not always make room for artists working outside of these established categories.
We saw these issues as an opportunity to be proactive, and we therefore abandoned the notion of categories and decided to entertain artists in all disciplines every year. Given the larger applicant pool that this shift made possible, we also decided to move from an open application process to a nomination process, so that we could administrate the program effectively.
PM: Another important factor in the program’s redesign was that the context for our grantmaking had changed. When the Fellowships was first established by The Pew Charitable Trusts it was one of two initiatives focused on supporting work being created in our region. Over the years, six other initiatives were established: all of them project-focused and discipline specific.
Then, in 2005 Pew established The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and brought all of us together in one space, to take advantage of the synergies that could occur through the co-location. And my work as executive director since 2008 has been to steadily move the Center forward as a single organization with the shared goal of enriching the cultural life of the community and raising Philadelphia’s visibility as a hub for dynamic cultural experiences. Part of the re-evaluation of the Fellowships had to do with aligning it more closely with the Center, our criteria for making grants, and our work as a whole.
Shall we touch on how and why, when we were rethinking the program, we more clearly defined our criteria for awarding a fellowship? We wanted them to be consistent with our other criteria for awarding grants, but also to be thoughtfully focused on what is relevant in evaluating individual artists’ work.