The Pew Fellowships go top-down

A vision derailed: The Pew giveth, and the Pew taketh away

Former Pew fellow Pupi Legarreta: Would he qualify today?
Former Pew fellow Pupi Legarreta: Would he qualify today?

On November 5, the innovative and highly regarded Pew Fellowships in the Arts program announced a radical change in its selection process for its grants to individual artists. This change will alter an inclusive, open process of application by artists to a closed, more exclusive, top-down process controlled by nominators who are already established in their fields and selected by Pew. This is a decision apparently made with no input from past Pew awardees or from artists and arts communities in the regions.

Philadelphia's thriving arts and culture scene owes much of its vitality to the nurturing role played by local foundations. One of the brightest jewels in this financial constellation has been the Pew Fellowships in the Arts program, which has dispensed more than $12 million to 237 artists in a dozen or so disciplines since its inception in 1991. In terms of dollars (currently $60,000 per grant), there's nothing else like it in Philadelphia and only one larger grant-giving program anywhere.

More important, the Pew philosophy of giving grants directly to individual artists is a rare exception in today's corporate-minded foundation world, with its preference for funding arts presenting organizations. Funding arts groups with respectable boards is less risky than channeling money directly to eccentric right-brain artists; such grants are also easier to administer for foundation program officers, who can keep a safe distance from the less orderly worlds of individual artists. That the Pew Charitable Trusts chose the funding road less traveled is a lasting tribute to the late Ella King Torrey, the visionary who created the Pew Fellowships.

A critical component of Torrey's vision as well as the past success of the Pew fellowships has been an open application process where any artist in the five-county Philadelphia region could apply for a grant. But the Pew Fellowships' recently announced changes effectively turn this bottom-up open process on its head.

"'Customized development resource support'

Beginning with the 2009-2010 year, the policy of accepting applications from artists will be discontinued. Instead, a panel of 30 "anonymous" nominators, "from a highly qualified and knowledgeable community of curators, directors, presenters, writers, and artists, among others," will each nominate two candidates and provide a written, supporting narrative. Nominated artists will then be invited to apply and be evaluated by a multidisciplinary panel of evaluators.

In addition, instead of focusing on 13 arts discipline areas, which previously rotated over a four-year cycle, all disciplines will be in play each year. What the Pew describes as "customized development resource" support will supplement grants to advance the professional growth of awardees.

Nobody asked the applicants

The rationales offered by Pew for discarding the open application system are not convincing. Pew cites the large number of applications received as a burden on its limited resources. But Pew doesn't provide annual application numbers, except for one high year, when 400 candidates applied. Pew hasn't shared data for years when numbers were substantially lower, nor do its figures break down the number of applications that might have been disposed of summarily. The changes themselves will actually increase the Pew's administrative burdens by creating a whole new tier of nominators to coordinate, and by requiring a larger multi-disciplinary panel to evaluate applicants from all disciplines every year.

Pew also contends that the open-application process exerted a burden on unsuccessful applicants who expended precious time filling out grant applications. But the applicants themselves, as well as the arts community in general, don't appear to have been consulted. One community arts leader whom I consulted described the artist-initiated open process as an important growing experience for many artists, one that gave them hope that this was a grant that they could try for, as opposed to waiting passively to be anointed.

Flying below the radar

Among the dozen artists and presenters I interviewed— most of them prior Pew Fellows— as well as two foundation directors, the consensus was that Pew will be much less likely to find the outstanding artists who fly under the radar of "knowledgeable people," and who now won't have a chance to be considered any more. "Established people will call the shots for younger people," one of my sources suggested.

Melissa Franklin, the Pew Fellowships director, emphasized to me that the change was intended to permit a more "thoughtful and thorough" selection process, in which more information would be provided about the artists under consideration. But when I asked her what exactly was wrong with the existing selection process that required such radical change, she didn't respond directly.

A possible justification, but…

I suppose it's possible that Pew officials haven't been satisfied with the quality of past recipients or the depth of the pool from which they were selected. That would explain the ending of the four-year cycle for each discipline and the folding of all candidates into each year of applications, a change that will increase the annual pool.

I could respect such a rationale even if I didn't agree with it. But such a justification appears nowhere in the Pew's published explanations for these changes.

Choreographers, but not dancers

One should note that the changes don't address the long-standing arbitrariness of dictating as eligible only those who make or create art in rather narrow terms. Thus for dance, only the choreographer— not the performing dancer— is eligible for a Pew Fellowship. For music, likewise, only the composer is eligible. This practice obviously embraces an arts hierarchy that skews the definition of who is and isn't creative in the art-making process. It might even help explain why too many fine dancers feel they must also become choreographers.

The basic question is whether a limited number of anonymous, nominator experts— with likely just two or three assigned to cover each of the 13 areas of arts practice eligible for fellowships— will discover better recipients than the open application system that has operated since 1991. The new process, my sources suggested, will discourage artists from taking risks. The use of a closed group of nominators will also foster a kind of cultural incest, exacerbated by the Pew's decision to keep nominators' identities confidential, so their preferences or biases or personal conflicts will be known only to their acquaintances.

An anemic example

In such a secret bureaucracy, as one former Pew Fellow put it, "weird people who can be most interesting and worthy of consideration" are likely to find themselves shut out. One such artist referred me to the "anemic" quality of grant recipients at the Independence Foundation, where an artist must be nominated by an organization that already receives grants from the foundation.

The consensus response was that whoever gets chosen as nominators, whether curators, academics or artists, will never be sufficiently versed or know enough about who is out there in the multiplicity of genres and art making encompassed within any one field. And virtually everyone I surveyed maintained that many talented artists who have won Pew Fellowships in the past would not make it through the new system.

Would Pupi qualify today?

Would the two or three nominators covering music composition choose the Latin musician and Pew Fellow, Felix (Pupi) Legarreta, or King Britt, who was primarily known as an electronic music, hip-hop club deejay? Would the few nominators covering all of writing (fiction, non-writing, poetry) choose the poet Lamont Steptoe, who may not be a household name among critics and academics? Thanks to a Pew Fellowship the poet Daisy Fried has had two books of poetry published, has won writing fellowships at Princeton and Smith College, and has taught at Temple and Villanova. But when she won her Pew Fellowship in 1998 she was just 30 years old, had yet to attract a poetry publisher, and was known then as a free-lance journalist. Would such a relative novice be likely to attract the notice of the Pew's newly constituted anonymous nominating panel?

By jumping into a radical change, Pew failed to consider less drastic reforms, like targeted outreach to uncover and encourage outstanding artists who might otherwise not apply. Perhaps Pew should gather a group of past Fellows— as it is now belatedly doing for the purpose of selling the changes to a skeptical audience— and designate them as the new system's outside evaluators in 2010.

Unlike governments, businesses and even not-for-profit arts groups, foundations don't answer to voters, stockholders or customers. Left to their own devices, foundations can come up with inspired ideas like the Pew Fellowships, or insipid notions like anonymous nominating panels. The Pew Fellowships program, like all foundation initiatives, needs to remain accountable, open and transparent— for its own good, not to mention that of the arts community.

Jonathan M. Stein's wife, Judith E. Stein, Ph.D., won a 1994 Pew Fellowship in non-fiction writing. The views expressed here are solely his.

To read responses, click here.
To read a related commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read a related commentary by J.T. Barbarese, click here.

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