Thanks to its old friends at the Andy Warhol Foundation, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art is about to go into the grant-giving business itself. For the next two years — and very possibly much longer — PICA is going to route $75,000 a year of Warhol money to artist-driven projects in Portland through its new Precipice Project.
Warhol has been giving grants to PICA for many years, including a two-year $150,000 grant recently that will fund PICA’s own visual arts programming.
The new grant expands Warhol's Regional Regranting Program to the Northwest (it is now operating in San Francisco, Kansas City, Chicago and Houston), and it means that an important source of Portland's vitality as an arts scene is about to get direct financial support, in some cases for the first time.
That's because the money, in micro-grants from $500 to $5,000, is aimed at "vibrant, under-the-radar artistic activity," according to Warhol’s Rachel Bers. Under whose radar? The traditional sources of arts funding, government agencies and foundations, said Kristan Kennedy, who will oversee the grant for PICA.
As Kennedy pointed out, a good portion of the excitement and surprise of the Portland art scene comes bubbling up to the public from outside our system of commercial and non-profit galleries, from pop-up galleries, social practice projects, hybrid performance/publication/art exhibitions and the like. "We have this level of activity all the time, but it's undervalued, though not by the artists."
Traditional funders find it hard to help this crucial strata of art making and art dissemination because it tends to be, in Kennedy's words, collaborative, temporal, mutable and intentionally anti-institutional. Those funders usually look to official non-profits with 501(c)(3) status and sometimes to individual artists. But they tend to pass on the artists who have started an arts library in their house and want to expand it to include "tools" (cameras, presses, etc.) for other artists. But that's exactly the sort of project that San Francisco's Southern Exposure, which has gotten Warhol funding for this purpose since 2007, funds.
The first visible sign of the Precipice Fund will be a website that will go live in April, according to Kennedy, to let artists know the ideas behind the grants and the process for applying. She expects projects and applications to be developed and written by artists over the summer, with an October deadline. The first round of grantees will be announced in November.
Kennedy said a panel of three will choose among the applicants. None of the three will be from PICA. In fact, Kennedy said, the idea is "to get beyond our taste and aesthetics." The grant from Warhol will help fund a new position for community engagement, education and outreach at PICA, which will help inform artists all over the city about Precipice, among other things.
Winning projects can't be part of PICA's Time-Based Art festival or any other PICA programs, per Warhol rules.
Some of the 2012 projects funded by Southern Exposure in San Francisco, which has been receiving money from Warhol to re-grant since 2007:
Art Poem Performance Discourse: An artist-run exhibition space and studio in Oakland. The space fosters a collaborative environment for artists working in poetry, installation, painting and performance. Upcoming projects include bamboo mazes grown in the gallery and a dance re-enactment of Occupy protests.
Hacking for Artists: A series of collaborative workshops designed to introduce artists to the basics of computer programming and electronics. The workshops will employ a hands-on approach as artists develop their own projects while learning about open source programming and electronics tools. The program will explore various hacking research methodologies that will allow participants to continue to develop their programming skills after the workshops.
In the Make: A San Francisco-based online arts journal that offers an intimate look at current art practice by publishing weekly studio visits with Bay Area artists. A collaboration between photographer Klea McKenna and writer Nikki Grattan, the visits reveal the richness and challenges of creative work and provide exposure to emerging Bay Area artists.
Mission Mini Comix: A San Francisco-based cartoonist collective/organization that self-publishes mini comics, both for amusement and as a vehicle for social justice. MMC has been publishing and distributing its work for 15 years in the Bay Area and beyond, and this grant will be used to increase capacity. They will use their grant to increase distribution of hundreds of titles, add work to the website and pay contributors.
That's four of 16 wildly different projects funded by Southern Exposure in 2012 from 146 applicants. Kennedy served on the panel that made the selections in San Francisco, but she said the Warhol guidelines were very flexible: PICA will be able to make its own decisions about the geographic area served, for example, and the rules they apply. "Warhol doesn't get tied up in rules, restrictions and bureaucracies," Kennedy said.
"We definitely need this here in Portland," wrote Stephanie Snyder, director of the Cooley Art Gallery at Reed College, responding to an email asking about whether this initiative is something Portland needs. "The more funding the better, especially for emerging collectives and new-genre spaces and projects."
And Disjecta Contemporary directory Bryan Suereth agreed: "I feel the influx of new funds like these will be a dynamic improvement for artists, groups and others outside the institutional walls to create and exhibit work."
Disjecta received money from the Warhol Foundation last year to fund its curator-in-residence program, and Suereth had good things to say about how the foundation worked with his organization. "Warhol is an incredible foundation in that they eliminate the heavy-handedness of the grant writing process," he said. "They have a simple application form with a real focus on the artistic merits of an organization. I would expect these funds will mirror Warhol's seemingly unstated objectives: to fund simple to access, high-caliber and high concept work and be impactful. This will allow artists to focus on making work as opposed to making reports (though of course tracking grant funds and impact is incredibly important)."
How about PICA as a pass-along granting organization? "I believe that PICA understands the eccentric imperatives and needs of precisely this type of organization or 'non-organization,'" Snyder said. "And PICA will do a great job of assembling panels of artists and arts professionals to help them make these decisions. It's wonderful that Warhol has put its trust in PICA in this new form."
Suereth agreed with the logic that led Warhol to PICA: "...as the largest entity engaged in contemporary art, they seem the logical choice to serve as the 'bank' in this instance. I appreciate that PICA is willing to leverage their national recognition to access these funds; and that they, appropriately, will not be the 'grant-makers' — rather a 'panel of peers, curators and artists' will divest the funds."
And he suggested that Disjecta might be able to facilitate some of the artist-driven projects that Precipice funds, though Disjecta itself wouldn't be eligible to receive money itself.
Suereth also pointed out that PICA itself is in the middle of a reinvention of sorts, re-establishing its presence in the local community, 365 days a year, after several years when its programming was almost exclusively limited to its Time-Based Art festival. Having recently moved to a new space with room for informal performances and exhibitions, PICA is now making lots more connections than in the past.
For PICA the grant has helped fuel a period of self-appraisal. "For us, it's about asking ourselves about where we are in year 17," Kennedy said. And PICA's press release on the grant quotes artistic director Angela Mattox: "With our recent move to a new space and an expanded artistic presence outside of the TBA Festival, we're exploring how we can be even more generative of artistic ideas. Precipice will be a valuable complement to our other channels of support."
What about the name, Precipice? According to Kennedy, it's intended to suggest both the danger of the edge and a moment of potential.
And the money, she said, will "allow PICA to formalize support for these vital projects and to ensure that they remain where they want to be: on the edge of the city, on the edge of practice, on the edge of an institutional structure."
Barry Johnson edits Oregon ArtsWatch, where you can find both his stories and the contributions of other Oregon arts writers.