Kicking the Gift Horse in the Mouth

Here on Staten Island, we’ve been having a strange few weeks, at least for those of us who are artists, musicians, poets, museums, or community groups.

I know of only one organization on the island that distributes arts grants. This organization, COAHSI (Council on the Arts and Humanities for Staten Island), applies for money from larger foundations like the JP Morgan Chase Foundation and the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, then redistributes (“regrants”) the money to individuals and art groups that would not otherwise be able to apply for the grant money. (These large foundations and government organizations don’t have the capacity for or interest in keeping track of individuals, so they hand off money to local organizations like COAHSI to manage.)

Suddenly, a few weeks after the last round of grant awards came out, a few people who didn’t receive awards attacked Ginger Shulick, the grants coordinator and occasional curator, in the pages of the local paper, the Staten Island Advance. (The third word is pronounced AD-vance, a pronunciation about which my husband and I have had many arguments; I think the strange accent is predictable from a linguistic point of view while he insists it’s just wrong. Whatever.)

In the first article, Arts group embroiled in furor over grant money, Stephen Barnett, a panelist, claimed that Shulick showed favoritism toward an application during the review session.

The second article, Arts granting process comes under scrutiny, followed a town-hall style meeting called by COAHSI and chaired by Ed Shick, first vice president of COAHSI. The paper reported that the Council “will appoint a small, independent panel to review the grant cycle in question.” It should take about two months, Shick said, and updates will be posted on the COAHSI Web site.

The meeting was packed–although I got there ten minutes early, all the seats were  gone, so I was stuck out in the hallway where I couldn’t hear very well. However, I did hear Shick and Melanie Cohn, the executive director of COAHSI, making a few points that didn’t show up in the newspaper:

  • Statistically, the number of artists (both amateur and professional, I think) on Staten Island should be about 6,800, or 1.4 percent of our total population of 487,407.
  • Young artists are being priced out of the other boroughs and migrating to Staten Island. They could be perceived as competing with the people who’ve been here awhile—some of the commentators complained about outsiders taking grants away from locals.
  • In 2009, 120 artists applied for COAHSI grants, and about 40 received grants.
  • For the 2010 Premier grant round, there were 46 applications for a total of $124,698 in requests. However, only $45,500 was available. Seventeen grants were awarded.
  • Staten Island needs more grant money and donations. “We all need to work on this,” Cohn said.

My Reaction to All This

Now, my first reaction to all this brouhaha was, are these people nuts? No professional artist or musician complains about not winning a grant or getting into a show—professionals know that you can’t win them all and the best thing to do, once you’ve swallowed your disappointment, is to ask the granter what you can do better next time.

Just to be sure, I asked my mom, Jane Fowler, a watercolorist in Connecticut who’s been winning prizes the last few years, now that she’s in her 80’s, if this was true. She said yes, and sighed.

Is Ginger the Scapegoat for Some Other Issue?

Second, picking on Shulick is very unfair. I suspect she’s being scapegoated simply because she’s the most visible member of COAHSI (note: I know that I can get a little paranoid, but experience has shown me that paranoia can be helpful on the Island—see the comments on the first article). When she started two years ago, she instituted regular grant-writing meetings all over Staten Island  so that anyone who could possibly apply would be able to learn about the available grants and how to apply successfully. Since 2007, applications jumped from about 50 to 120.

At the three meetings I’ve been to, she has been scrupulously non-committal about her preferences. If someone asked a question like, “Do you think my play about squirrels will get a grant?” her response was something like, “The panelists look for x, y, and z in performance art.”

So it seems very unlikely to me that she would have said, as claimed by Barnett, that one bid was “her favorite application” unless she was commenting on how well the applicant wrote the proposal, which is much different from saying she liked what the proposal was about.

So What Is the Fuss All About?

It’s hard to say, but I’d suggest these possibilities, organized by least to most likely:

Jealousy because COAHSI has a grant to look at opening an arts center: The Rockefeller Foundation gave COAHSI a grant to research creating a new arts center on the North Shore (close to the Manhattan ferry and where lots of artists live because the rents are cheaper). Maybe a real-estate developer or another non-profit group feels that COAHSI is horning in on “their” area and is trying to interfere with this project. (Unlikely, no doubt, but when I lived in South Street Seaport, I saw some very strange behavior around land development.)

Transparency was unexpected: Maybe there was favoritism before Ginger joined COAHSI, but certain folks were comfortable with it. When COAHSI made the process more professional and more transparent, these artists got frozen out, or thought they had been, and got angry.

Or maybe they’d always been frozen out and, because the new process was more transparent and fair, they thought they’d have better chances this time—but didn’t, and got angry.

[Note: Now seems less likely. See Robin Locke Monda’s post below for more information.]

There was a problem with the judging process: For that, we’ll have to wait for the results of the COAHSI board’s study. No doubt they’ll find one or two things went wrong, but with all the checks and balances in place, I believe it’s unlikely that they’ll find that the entire process is bad.

Grant-making is not well understood: This is the most likely possibility. Before I joined  Episcopal Charities as an advisory committee member (we sorted through grants and made recommendations to the board), the process of funding proposals wasn’t all that clear. However, during the six years I was on the committee, the board and the executive and associate directors

  • Pushed us to define our criteria for approving an application. Although our group started by saying that the process was more art than science, I began jotting down all the criteria that came up in discussions. The result was a rubric that everyone agreed matched our discussions and worked pretty well to separate high- from low-priority applications at the beginning of the process. (For sample rubrics, see http://whatworks.org/ and in particular, the Urban Institute’s Candidate Outcome Indicators: Performing Arts Program.) At the town meeting, Cohn listed the organizations whose grant-making rules COAHSI is required to follow, and based on my experience with Episcopal Charities, I would suspect that her panelists would have found it much harder NOT to follow the rules. Rules help you separate the good from the bad quickly, necessary when you’re evaluating dozens of applications in a limited amount of time.
  • Pushed the grantees to look beyond Episcopal Charities for funding. Money was getting tight for Episcopal Charities at the same time that more congregations were asking for help. (Sound familiar?) However, some of our applicants only applied to Episcopal Charities and had done so for years. The advisory board was asked to consider whether the applicants were too dependent on our grants and whether they could and should try to raise money from their own congregations or other funders. We didn’t cut them off if they didn’t try to raise funds on their own, but they were strongly encouraged to find new sources. The associate director also set up fundraising workshops to help them.

What Does This Mean to You?

If you don’t live on Staten Island, it might seem that the argument doesn’t have much bearing on your situation. However, as a grantee, pass-through organization, or a foundation, you could be susceptible to unexpected attacks as well.

How COAHSI reacts will be an interesting public-relations, governance, and grant-making case study. I believe they’re doing the right thing by addressing the attack publicly and quickly, while creating a panel of insiders and outsiders who will render a judgment after some of the heat has died down.

In the meantime, though, grantees are biting their nails, wondering if their grants will be taken away. An uncomfortable situation, to be sure.

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4 Responses to “Kicking the Gift Horse in the Mouth”

  1. Don Porcella Says:

    Thank you for posting this very logical recap of the situation. It is nice to have a view that is more probable than the advance’s view which was unfounded and lacked research on both sides of the story.

  2. SIArts Says:

    This is a great post. At the meeting it was stated that 60,000 adults are creating art in Staten Island. 6,000 might seem like a lot to Staten Island, but the NEA figures site around 60,000 artists in this area.

  3. Ken Tirado Says:

    Mike Fressola of the Staten Island Advance asked the specific question, “Will the grants be taken away?” and was told clearly, “No.”, at the town hall meeting.

    I think the article was quite fair. I attended the meeting out of curiosity. My daughter is an emerging young artists and I am re-entering the local arts scene. I am both a past grants recipient and a past panelist. I recall being very impressed with the integrity of the process back then.

    What the article doesn’t touch on – and what I am most troubled by – is how ugly this has become. Even the meeting itself, while very nicely handled by COAHSI, was simmering with hostility. This exists on both sides of this issue and can be seen in nasty internet attacks.

    I was very happy to see Mr. Porcella’s comments above. He put his name on them – he’d not hiding behind a fake Internet user name. That some people are slinging mud and calling people names in such a cowardly fashion doesn’t help anyone’s cause.

    Asking questions has become “spreading vicious gossip”. There is a polarization going on. Us verses them. Old verses young. I find this particularly disheartening because I’ve often discovered that “truth” exists usually in that gray area in the middle. Seldom is anyone 100% right or wrong.

    I’m willing to accept that the “truth” in this situation might be that yes, some artists were perhaps a little “jealous” and that yes, perhaps there was a legitimate cause to step back and see what might be a “perception of impropriety” in one or two COASHI choices.

    No one needs to be fired. No money needs to be returned. But can we not try to look at this objectively and learn something?

  4. Robin Locke Monda Says:

    This is a very reasonable and fair analysis based on what the writer knows. No doubt there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed by COAHSI to help clear things up for everyone.

    Re: the speculation that “Maybe there was favoritism before Ginger joined COAHSI, but certain folks were comfortable with it. When COAHSI made the process more professional and more transparent, these artists got frozen out, or thought they had been, and got angry.” I don’t believe this is the case.

    I used to be the editor of the COAHSI newsletter, and for many years before that I was also the newsletter’s designer. I had regular meetings with the former COAHSI director, Laura Jean Watters, and her staff to discuss upcoming COAHSI newsletter issues, which meant discussions of most aspects of what was happening at COAHSI, what grants were being announced and so forth. I’ve been a witness to much of COAHSI’s goings-on for years. And I’ve also been a volunteer community artist who has voted on some of COAHSI’s grant panels. I can assure you that Laura Jean Watters ran a VERY tight ship. There was no one more professional and above board than she. As far as I can tell, she and her grants director at the time, Ben Jacobs, were scrupulous in their application of the grants determination process.

    And having served as a grants panelist from time to time, I observed that the grants panel presentations were very professionally done, and the voting process was done by the book. In fact, in some of the grants panel sessions, Laura Jean was on hand to make sure the grants director followed everything to the letter.

    RE: “When Ginger started two years ago, she instituted regular grant-writing meetings all over Staten Island so that anyone who could possibly apply would be able to learn about the available grants and how to apply successfully,” as far as I know that is not a new thing. Ben Jacobs and others in his position before him also held meetings all over the Island to let people know about the availability of grants, and how best to apply for them. Perhaps Ginger is doing more of these meetings, doing them in newer locations, or doing them differently, which is great. But COAHSI’s past administration appeared to me to do everything they could to let people know about the grants, and to let people know how to apply for the grants. I attended a lot of those community outreach meetings.

    I think this is what has happened:

    (1) As usual, there is a small group of artists who feel dissed because they didn’t get grants. That always happens. Every grant cycle; every year. Someone is always pissed off and think things weren’t done fairly.

    (2) In the last three years COAHSI has a whole new staff and director. Unlike the previous COAHSI administration, many of the newer staff members are from other boroughs or have not lived here for a long time. Hence, some long-time Staten Islanders are suspicious of how well they know or have gotten to know the borough’s full spectrum of local artists.

    (3) The newer COAHSI administration, being made up of a different group of people with a different social networking range, has been able to uncover and reach out to artists who weren’t on COAHSI’s radar before. Hence, there have been grants applications coming from new quarters. When grants were awarded to these new and less locally-known artists, local artists who have been here a long time may have felt they were elbowed out. (In my opinion, they had better get used to it. New artists will always be coming up. And monies will always be limited.)

    (4) Ginger may have been able to reach a broader range of grants panelists to serve. Since long-standing local artists don’t know who these people are, they are suspicious.

    (5) No doubt there is the same old friction between “traditionalist” and “non-traditionalist” art practitioners. This isn’t an age thing. It’s a philosophy thing—and a media thing. There are many artists on SI who believe that if it’s video, it ain’t art. Or, if it’s been created on a computer, you’ve cheated. That’s just outdated thinking, like those who used to believe photography wasn’t an art. Nevertheless, you will never convince a traditionalist that a sculpture that brews beer is worthy of the grant money they could have used to put on an exhibition of paintings. This is not to say that all painters are resistant to new art forms or that all beer-brewing sculptors are avant garde—but the tensions between different art philosophies is real and passionate, and will always be there.

    The bottom line: the old COAHSI administration did its job under the scrupulous leadership of Laura Jean Watters. The older and newer COAHSI regimes share some of the same range of prejudices and problems regarding the grants process. The current COAHSI administration, with the wonderful Melanie Franklin Cohn at its helm, must do everything it can to demonstrate it’s openness to both older and newer arts enclaves and artists. This means making sure that appearances match up with the process, and that grants application review panel rules are following closely.

    P.S. Re: the polarization thing, I agree that it is happening and it is disheartening. Let’s listen to our better angels and drop the anger. Life’s too precious to waste in this way.

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