When Hamden artist Cat Balco was planning her “Ellipses” project last year — a health care and arts collaboration to help patients cope with their illnesses — she knew exactly what the state of Connecticut had to offer her for grant funding.
Artists like Balco, who is on the University of Hartford faculty, and non-arts organizations like Balco’s partner, Masonicare, had no place in the longstanding Connecticut arts grants system, which generally ignored artists in favor of classic arts organizations.
But as Balco heads into phase two of “Ellipses,” all that has changed. The state’s Office of the Arts is rolling out a new and potentially groundbreaking grant program to replace its old one.
While it’s designed to provide for many who have often been left out of the cash flow, the new program also comes with a new guiding philosophy — “creative placemaking” — which means grant-seekers have to prove that what they do contributes to their community and draws in partners in the process. Add to that a new online application system and new rules, and the result seems to be tempering some of the excitement artists like Balco would otherwise have.
“To be honest, it’s a mixed blessing. I actually think my project is kind of perfect in terms of what they want to fund,” Balco said. “I think the challenge is, it’s a really complicated grant application process.”
While not universal, Balco’s sentiments are not uncommon, especially for artists who have little experience with grant-writing, never mind the new ‘placemaking’ concept.
“I’m not a grant writer or someone who’s done that process,” said Duvian Montoya, an Easton-based painter who is no stranger to public collaborations as evidenced by his life-size installation at the South Norwalk Train Station. But he will not try for one of the new grants.
The tiny Office of the Arts staff, which has worked for more than a year to put the new program in place, is aware of the concerns and anxiety, as artists have inundated their phones, email and the online question and answer system.”For an artist to go into that realm of raising funds on your own,” he said, referring to the matching funds that are generally required under the new system, “And then doing the grant process. It’s daunting.”
There has also been some bristling that organizations have to justify their existence in more deliberate and specific ways.
“There are organizations out there that don’t really want to hear that they need to tell us how they’re relevant in their community,” said coordinator John Cusano. “They want to do what they’ve always done.”
A tough start
Cusano, and coordinator Tamara Dimitri and coordinator Bonnie Koba said for years they had pushed for a more inclusive grant system, but it took the new Malloy administration’s reorganization to make it happen.
The old Commission on Culture and Tourism was dismantled, and arts became its own entity within the Department of Economic and Community Development, under the theory that arts are an economic driver, especially when viewed through the lens of the relatively new idea of ‘placemaking.’ Scattered communities around the country have begun to adopt it, but Connecticut is thought to be the first state to embrace it as an overarching policy.
It’s been thorny and delayed rollout, however. In the past, Connecticut has supported arts through two broad funding mechanisms. Large organizations have generally received direct funding through line items, or earmarks, in the state budget. Other arts organizations, not individual artists, have been able to apply for grants mainly for general operating support.
After a false start by the state last winter, the Office of the Arts designed a complex four-tiered program under the name Arts Catalyze Placemaking — ACP 1 through 4, for short. (“Who names these things?” said one arts group leader, echoing a general sentiment that the nomenclature is a bit clunky.)
ACP 4 is for sustaining support, closest to the old grant system, and doesn’t require applicants to request specific amounts of money.
ACP 1, 2 and 3 represent different financial levels and applicant pools, and they are project-based. ACP 1 is the new venue for individual artists, among others, with award amounts from $500 to $5,000. ACP 3 grant awards can be as high as $100,000, though they’re mostly geared to organizations.
Individual artists, teaching artists, educational programs, public art projects and municipalities can now apply for grants in ways they’ve never been able to.
Applicants in the first three levels must apply for specific amounts but have been warned that they’ll get what they ask for or nothing — so no highballing. For the first time a significant portion of administrative costs can be included in requests. Staggered deadlines allow applicants to apply for lower grant levels if they’re rejected at a higher one.
‘Why do you exist?’
But at every level, ‘placemaking’ is a defining concept.
“The process of applying used to be, ‘Tell us how great you are.’ Right? And everybody would [write] page after page after page of telling us what they do and how well they do it,” Cusano said. “Now it’s ‘how are you relevant in your community? Make your case. Why do you exist?’
“It’s really going cause a little soul-searching on many of our constituents’ behalves.”
Early evaluations are mixed. At Shakespeare on the Sound, a Rowayton-based organization that does a yearly summer production but year-round educational programs, administrative manager Scott Bartelson said he was going for broke with a sustaining ACP 4 grant request. While the organization worried initially that it would be at a disadvantage because it is small and largely volunteer-run, the process, he found, was not too dissimilar from the past.
“I like the opportunity that we can send them video files on the e-grant system,” he said.
But artist Joe Malfettone, who admitted he really didn’t understand the new process, already had his summary proposal to partner with the Bridgeport Parks and Recreation Department on a public art project rejected because Parks and Rec is not an approved municipal department for grant purposes.
“A standardized limitation such as this doesn’t seem to serve the purpose of the grant,” he said in a follow-up email, noting that the project’s value should be what’s important, not what municipal department is involved.
Norwalk 2.0, an organization that spearheads community partnerships for arts and other projects, had its proposal approved. But co-founder Jackie Lightfield said while she applauded the grants program philosophy, the process was too convoluted. “I don’t know what it is about government and bureaucracies,” she said. “I think I had to read 11 different documents that had contract information in them to figure out how to do this grant proposal.”
A bigger pie
Adding to the confusion is the uncertainty of just how much money will be available for the grants. Funding was doubled to about $3 million for each year in the last two-year budget. But that amount is now down to $2 million and could face further cuts this winter.
The Arts Office also has not allotted dollar amounts to each grant category, preferring to see which ones prove more popular and moving money as needed
“The reality is we have a lot more good stuff to fund than we have money to fund it with,” said Kip Bergstrom, the DECD deputy commissioner in charge of the arts office. “We need to make the pie bigger.
“Over time I think what we’re trying to build is the case why art is so critical to the Connecticut economy.”
In the meantime, with two deadlines already passed and the rest less than two weeks away, artists and organizations are still scrambling their ways through submissions
For Deborah Goffe, founder, choreographer and chief cook and bottle washer for the Hartford-based dance company Scapegoat Garden, just finding the time to do it, let alone the expertise is a challenge. “It’s more difficult for someone like me doing this at 11 o’clock after a long work day,” she said.
But as someone who stands to qualify for more money from the state than she ever has: “It has the potential to level the playing field a bit.”
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