Where Should Artists Get Money From? Know Your Values Before You Fundraise
When you fundraise, you’re asking for money from outside sources to realize your creative vision. As an artist, you’ll have to figure out how much it matters to you who those sources are. Who will you seek funding from and who isn’t a good fit? If the philanthropic arm of a corporation whose work you disagree with would be willing to fund your work, would you apply for a grant from them or accept money if it was offered? Would you take money from a company that you think harms your community?
You don’t want to take money from somewhere that makes you so uncomfortable that you wouldn’t even want to use it, but also, you need money in order to make your work. There isn’t an easy answer, and there’s no such thing as purely ethical money under capitalism.
We want you to get the funding you need to bring your vision to life, and give you tools to get more financial support. Fractured Atlas works with artists to help you secure funding through crowdfunding and fiscal sponsorship (which opens up the door to a wider variety of grants for independent artists and small arts organizations). We also regularly share information about upcoming grants that artists can apply to and resources to help you manage your fundraising more successfully.
There isn’t necessarily a right answer to where artists should receive financial support. But there might be a right answer for you. Figuring out your boundaries regarding financial support is an important early step in your fundraising cycle. Clarifying values and boundaries around money will help you go into a fundraising campaign with more self-assurance.
No Right Answers, No Purely Ethical Money
Capitalism is a fundamentally inequitable system, which (among other things) means that finding pure, ethical money isn’t really possible. Money always comes from exploited labor, and often comes from legacies of institutionalized inequalities. We all have to engage with these thorny issues of money and ethics under capitalism, whether or not we want to.
But just because there is no such thing as a “pure” way to fund a project doesn’t mean there aren’t meaningful differences between ways you can get funding, or differences between those sources of money.
Primarily, we work with artists who are crowdfunding and seeking funding from grants, so we’ll focus on those two categories of funding, although we recognize that there are other ways of financially supporting your work.
You could crowdfund, which means receiving many relatively small donations from your network of family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and anyone in their extended network if they choose to share your campaign with their community. Crowdfunding means asking people to dig into their own (possibly shallow) pockets to help support your work. It might be deeply meaningful to create work that you know for a fact is materially supported by the community you are creating it for, but it might be difficult to raise enough funds through just your community, and it might be a big ask, especially if your community doesn’t have a lot of disposable income.
Receiving money through a grant is a different situation. You might receive a grant from a nonprofit, a foundation, or the philanthropic arm of a corporation. In these cases, you are partnering with an organization that has a mission, and is awarding grants to support that mission. When you partner with a foundation or a corporate philanthropy, you’re partnering with an organization rather than a community or individuals. Rather than asking a lot of people to donate smaller amounts of money, applying for grants allows you to access larger sums of money, without worrying that you’re asking people to dig into their own tight budgets. However, when you apply for and accept grants, you are possibly working with institutions that accrued the money they are looking to give in ways that you find objectionable, or are looking to put a friendlier face on the work that they do to drive revenue.
Foundations and nonprofits have historically been founded by wealthy people to function as tax shelters or as ways to burnish their images and legacies. (For example, the Sackler family owns Purdue Pharma and have come under major criticism for profiting from the opioid epidemic. They also have given almost $80 million to the arts, medical research, and education.)
Universities, especially prestigious ones with sizeable endowments, might commission art pieces or offer grants, but many have built their legacies on the Atlantic slave trade.
We don’t think that there’s a right answer for how artists should get money to support your work. These are tricky questions with no easy solution. You have to figure out what works best for you; what allows you to make your work and feel as good as possible within the confines of capitalism, legacies of settler colonialism, and other forms of structural inequity and violence.
You can take a number of different approaches. We’ve outlined three broad ways to think about where your money comes from here.
Partner with Everyone Possible
You might decide that it doesn’t matter to you where the financial support for your project comes from. In fact, you might decide that you actually want funding from corporations whose revenue streams you find problematic or from foundations whose founders you disagree with. You might want to accept money from all available sources – even the ethically questionable ones – to bend systems of power and inequity to support your own creative and possibly liberatory work.
You might want to partner with any and all institutions as part of a reparations framework – to use resources from people and institutions who have profited from systemic racism. Or to accept funding from institutions that have profited from other structures of oppression that have negatively affected you and/or your community.
If you decide to take this approach, you’ll have the most avenues for receiving financial support because your net will be the broadest. But, you might have to deal with potentially being a “public face” for that organization or institution. If you accept money from an institution, you’ll be associated with it.
Build Financial Partnerships From Organizations That Meet Specific Criteria
You might operate in the grey area. You might decide to apply for grants or accept funding from institutions that meet particular criteria that you establish as being most important to you. This approach is a middle ground between partnering with anyone and only seeking financial resources from sources that you think are as ethical as possible.
You might decide that it’s okay to partner with corporations or nonprofits with a particular percentage of POC folks in leadership or who have made substantive commitments to environmental change. You might decide to apply for grants from large family philanthropies but not corporate ones. Maybe you’ll accept funding from everywhere but Amazon because of its working relationship with ICE, its mistreatment of warehouse workers, and concerns over privacy and racism with its Ring surveillance system.
If you decide to take this path, start by outlining what exactly your boundaries are when it comes to money. What is non-negotiable for you? What isn’t your favorite, but you can look past? By figuring out what your limits are, you can better set yourself up to only apply for grants where you would feel comfortable accepting funding if you were selected. Plus, it never hurts to have a check-in about your most deeply held values.
Only Accept Community Funding Aligned with Your Politics
Finally, you might choose to only accept financial support from grassroots organizations, crowdfunding from your community, or from groups who are aligned with your politics and your values.
In an ideal world, we would all want to create partnerships with organizations that we feel are ethical, community-based, and with whom we share a political perspective. It is possible to financially support your work this way, but it is the most logistically challenging and limiting of the paths described.
The first challenge is to articulate exactly what it means for an organization to be aligned with your values and your politics. Even nonprofits with the best of intentions can miss the mark, and the nonprofit industrial complex is real. You might find nonprofits with great missions, full of passionate workers, but whose boards are made up of exclusively old white men who come from generational wealth. The board might be diverse, the mission might be great, the team might be effective, but the staff might also be undercompensated for their labor. It’s extremely challenging to find an institution that hits all the ethical marks you might want it to. Especially if that institution has enough money coming in that they can redistribute it.
Next, if your community is made up of people who are economically disadvantaged (POC, queer, rural, gig workers, sex workers, the list goes on), it can be hard to get your project funded if you’re counting on donations from that community. If you’re primarily crowdfunding from your community, they simply might not have the excess funds to suppport your creative work. It can also feel challenging to ask people to support your creative work when you know they have other pressing concerns like food insecurity or debt.
If you decide to take this path for financially supporting your work, be explicit about what your chosen funding boundaries are. You’ll be dealing with a smaller pool of grants to apply to and people to accept funds from. But hopefully by being up front about why you are funding a project the way you are, you can really show your audience and community that your work is for them.
Where You Get your Money Is About Accountability
Ultimately, fundraising isn’t an end in and of itself. Artists raise funds so that you can make the work that you want to make. And that work that you’re making is for yourself and for your community. Your community could be your neighborhood, your city, other sculptors, fellow AAPI dancers, Indigenous potters, or anyone else who happens to be interested in your voice, aesthetic, and perspective.
When you think about which financial partnerships you’re making, consider those communities that you are a part of. How does your choice affect your credibility within those communities and does your choice in any way perpetuate harm?
For example, activist pressure recently forced Warren B. Kanders to resign from the Whitney board because he has financially benefited from selling tear gas canisters used against protesters all over the world and bullets used against Palestinian civilian protesters. Even though Kanders helped support the art world as a member of the board, the protestors demonstrated their belief that his money was too ethically compromised to be accepted, even if it was to further good art.
Money can help you realize your vision, but it might come at the cost of your community’s trust. Before you start fundraising, we advise that you start thinking about how to balance the need for funds and the communities that you are ultimately accountable to. And then, once you’ve secured funding from a grant or from crowdfunding, you’ll have to work to keep your donors engaged.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.