Last week, in an attempt to contact the Bellingham artist Christian Vargas about winning a 2016 Creative Capital Award, I googled him, left a congratulatory voice mail, and shortly got a phone call back.
"I'm not the right Christian Vargas," said this Christian Vargas. "I wish I was!... That award—it's life-changing, from what I hear."
This Vargas #2 happens to also be an artist. Along with the rest of his graduate school class in Tennessee, he's all but got the Creative Capital application pulled up in his browser waiting for the day after he graduates.
Creative Capital is such a big deal in the world of art that it even affects the lives of artists who don't get it.
This grant-making organization, based in New York but serving artists nationally, was created in 1999 to counter the economic loss to artists when the National Endowment for the Arts killed the majority of its individual artist grants.
But Creative Capital is also a repudiation of the entire Reagan-era anti-social-services doctrine, and the condescending criticism in the 1990s from the Jesse Helms faction, who made the recipients of NEA grants sound like disgusting, freeloading children.
Creative Capital is a twofold initiative, then. It locates talented, deserving artists to support, and it recognizes that support consists of more than just money. The "more than" includes what can be thought of as ambition instruction, or giving artists the tools to think of themselves as something other than hopeless losers with a knack for making things—you know, full-fledged, contributing adults in a culture that regularly infantilizes those not wearing suits and making six figures.
And in Seattle, where money, attention, and the permission to be ambitious have always been scarce or viewed with skepticism, Creative Capital has made even bigger waves.
Case in point: "It wasn't just a major turning point in my artistic life to get that call," Paul Rucker, Creative Capital Class of 2012, told me. "It was a major turning point in my life."
Creative Capital has a solidly 21st-century philosophy based on balance, sustainability, validation, and customization. It's a school of funding-thinking, like a movement: Creative Capitalism.
One of its founders, Lewis Hyde (still a board member), is author of the 1983 book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Hyde wrote about art's double existence as gift and commodity, and about navigating the reality of market domination.
The president and chairman of the Andy Warhol Foundation were looking for new funding models and stepped into the audience at a talk given by Hyde one day in 1996. They approached him all fired up afterward, and together the three formed Creative Capital in 1999, with indefatigable founding director Ruby Lerner, as a practical response to the problems raised in the book.
Creative Capital supports artists for at least three years. It asks them to budget fair value for their own time. In return, grantees "agree to share a small percentage of any net profits generated by their profits with Creative Capital, which then applies those funds toward new grants," Hyde explained, in his afterword to the 25th anniversary edition of The Gift.
"Potential profitability is not a criterion for funding awards at Creative Capital; as with other arts funders, we ask our panels to look for originality, risk-taking, mastery, and so forth; we respond especially to projects that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. That said, the principle of sharing the wealth is essential to the Creative Capital model. It makes explicit the assumption that all who have succeeded as artists are indebted to those who came before."
Creative Capital has not yet, Hyde added, found its A Chorus Line—the hit musical that for years funded lesser-known works in another unusual funding ecosystem, the Public Theater in New York. Instead, today Creative Capital has a few large funders and hundreds of smaller ones.
Over the last 16 years, the organization has spent $40 million in cash and support for 511 projects representing 642 artists in visual arts, performing arts, writing, film/video, and emerging fields. Each project is funded up to $50,000. (I have a little experience with Creative Capital myself, though not with the large Creative Capital Awards given to artists. In 2009, I won a onetime Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant of $5,000 to write about land art in the Northwest. People I met through the grant still help me contextualize what I write about, and how.) Of those, 22 were Seattle-area artists including Rucker, Lead Pencil Studio, SuttonBeresCuller, Susan Robb, Trimpin, Degenerate Art Ensemble, Byron Au Yong, Ahamefule J. Oluo, and Christian Vargas. To them, Creative Capital is union, friend, support group, financier, professor, confessor, and parent.
"They want you to start 401(k)s, they want you to be a normal functioning person in society," said Annie Han, a member of the duo Lead Pencil Studio, Creative Capital Class of 2005.
When artists, upon winning, first attend the now-legendary Creative Capital retreat outside of New York, they meet their cohorts as well as up to 200 curators, writers, gallerists, and other arts organizers. "You can't hear yourself think because they're all talking so much," said Sean Elwood, Creative Capital director of programs and initiatives and a former Seattle arts administrator. "It's as though they've met their tribe."
THE "POOR ARTIST MENTALITY"
One of Paul Rucker's ambitions is to become what Creative Capital calls a payback artist. Those are grantees who pay back all of their $50,000.
"Every single dime they've given me, I want to give it right back to them," he said.
When I first met Rucker, he was a cellist displaying his first-ever experiment with visual art in a dark room at the top of some creaky stairs in Belltown. A video of him playing the cello could be controlled by passing a hand across a theremin-like box; you could play him playing. It was 2007, and he was not sure he was an artist at all.
Today, Rucker lives part-time in Seattle, part-time in Baltimore. Last year, he showed at the Baltimore Museum of Art, won Baltimore's most prestigious art award, for $25,000, won a $25,000 grant from the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and finished the second year in an artist residency that was supposed to last only a year but was extended for him. Since winning the Creative Capital Award, he's become represented by Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco, he's been awarded public and private commissions in Seattle, Baltimore, and Cincinnati, and in April alone he has paid speaking engagements in five different cities.
Those are the quantifiable wins, yet they aren't what Rucker talks about when I ask about Creative Capital. He talks about the retreats. The presentations he learned to give. The mentorships, the five-year-plan workbook, the habit of thinking bigger. A mentor told him to price his work as high as he possibly could without laughing. He found that it was actually practical advice.
Rucker compares Creative Capital to a 12-step program, curing him of the "poor artist mentality," or the belief that he didn't deserve to be paid for his work.
About a month after Rucker's first big exhibition in Baltimore, Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man, died in police custody and Baltimore, like Ferguson and New York before it, exploded in protest. Rucker makes sculptures, installations, and animations around issues of racism, mass incarceration, police killings, and slavery. His second big exhibition in Baltimore, at the Baltimore Museum of Art, happened after Freddie Gray's death. The coincidence was terrible, and Rucker said he'd prefer to be put out of the business of making art about racist violence—but those Baltimore exhibitions, coming just at the right time, drew attention from writers locally and nationally and meant something to a struggling city and nation.
"There were people who'd lived in Baltimore all their lives who'd never been to the art museum who came," Rucker said, explaining, "I'm talking about people of color."
If Rucker's career were a tree, he said just about every branch would lead back to Creative Capital. His new public sculptures marking a trail of historical slave merchants in Baltimore, for instance. His work creating an art program for the Central Station building project in the Central District in Seattle.
His ambition now is to open two small facilities with storefronts in Seattle and Baltimore to manufacture and distribute a food sauce he's concocted. It sounds a little wacky, until you remember that he's dreaming as big as he can without laughing—and also that he plans for his facilities to be job providers for former prison inmates, following right along with the work he's been doing in sculpture and installation.
"YOU CAN PUSH BACK?"
Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, or Lead Pencil Studio, say they weren't ready for their Creative Capital Award when it came in 2005. They were too green.
Still, they parlayed it beautifully.
For their Creative Capital Award project, Maryhill Double, the artists built a full-scale double of the actual Maryhill Museum of Art using blue netting on a stretch of open grassland across the Columbia River gorge from the museum. Their ghost of the museum—itself a ghostly, remote historical landmark—stood for a summer across from the museum, gleaming aquamarine in the sun and collapsing the scale of the imposing, mostly uninhabited landscape. The pilgrimage to Maryhill Double became part of the lineage of American land art.
"I can say with confidence that we got the Rome Prize based on Maryhill Double," Mihalyo said. The Rome Prize meant a year with artists from around the world at the American Academy in Rome, followed by invitations for some 10 museum and gallery shows and 20 lectures, and the invites keep coming.
Creative Capital provided a lawyer for Lead Pencil Studio last year when they were faced with a 35-page contract they didn't understand on a complex art project. The pro bono attorney rewrote the contract and sent it back, which was not only a help but a lesson: "We were like, you can push back on this?" Mihalyo said. "A lot of artists don't push back, just say yes, and then have to deal with it later," Han said.
After the Rome Prize, Lead Pencil Studio, who are architects as well as artists, stopped advertising noncreative architecture work and focused entirely on art and art-related architecture. Maryhill Double still comes up. "We just got an architecture project, and the client said, 'I hired you based on the Maryhill Double project,'" Han said. She told him, "You're crazy." He said, "Yeah, I am kind of crazy."
The Creative Capital Award hasn't landed any Seattle artists in the Whitney Biennial or a blue-chip gallery. But Lead Pencil Studio's ambitions have changed since their 20s, and now Han's ideal situation is to make art strictly in venues where "it's uncompromised all the way through." Mihalyo adds that he wants "people working together to push themselves and the culture forward." Lead Pencil also give back to Seattle. They were responsible for connecting Creative Capital artists Sabrina Raaf, Liz Cohen, Kerry Skarbakka, Jennie C. Jones, Olga Koumoundouros, and SimpArch to Seattle audiences through shows at Lawrimore Project and Open Satellite. Both venues are now closed, but all the artists are still active.
Han sees Creative Capital from the inside, because she joined its board of directors in 2014. Each board member "absolutely has to love the artists and love the art—odd, weird, or controversial, you just have to completely support the artists, there's no compromise." Lerner announced last year that she's stepping down, so the board is now searching for her successor.
FROM ARTISTS TO LANDLORDS
Before the artist trio of John Sutton, Ben Beres, and Zac Culler—SuttonBeresCuller—won their Creative Capital Award, they'd showed major promise in Seattle.
They came together in 2000 as students at Cornish College of the Arts, and by 2005, they had a King County public art commission. They built an elaborate, fully functional diorama of a suburban living room placed on a trailer, and then parked it in various suburban neighborhoods and interacted with the people who lived there.
The piece was called There Goes the Neighborhood, and it was funny, simple, and a big idea about art's place among various American subcultures. They quickly became local heroes.
Every year, some 3,500 artists or artist teams apply to Creative Capital, but only around 40 will win.
SuttonBeresCuller won on the third try, in 2008. Their proposal was to create Mini Mart City Park, a temporary installation in a defunct gas station or convenience store. They'd landscape the interior, cut a hole in the roof, and call it a city park for a while. It would be open maybe six months.
At the retreat, Beres said, "you go over an elevator pitch and a website, and you meet so many people. Amazing people. The first woman I sat down with was Laura Poitras, who made [the 2014 Edward Snowden documentary] Citizenfour. Eve Sussman [filmmaker and 2004 Whitney Biennial artist] was in our group."
Very quickly, Mini Mart City Park ballooned. Another Creative Capital artist suggested the piece should be permanent. SBC came back to Seattle, found a decommissioned gas station, and dreamt of creating a lasting land artwork. They planned to turn the abandoned site across the street from Boeing into a small arts center sitting under a false little hill that people could climb to sit on a pocket park on top. The idea referenced Boeing, which during World War II built false neighborhoods on top of its factories to fool enemy planes flying overhead, so the piece would memorialize local history as well as reclaim the polluted site.
But things are not going to work out that way.
Instead, SBC has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars working with government agencies that have come out with trucks and hoses and chemicals to test the building and land—for eight years.
In order to transform the place, they had to buy it, which entailed forming a nonprofit organization. Recently, they won a $200,000 facilities grant from 4Culture, part of a one-time pot of money devoted to New Cultural Destinations. They money is slated to help them go forward with plans to tear down the gas station and build a small, multiuse community center that seals and treats the pollution in the soil through a microdigester system. It's a more modest, less artful idea. (And they still need to raise almost as much money again to complete it.) They hope to show art and host events there for a year or two until they can pass it to another local entity they hope will do the same.
At this point, the big idea that won them the Creative Capital Award has made them landlords and project managers more than artists. You could say that this is a shame, but it also could be a reflection of the larger ethic of giving back espoused by Creative Capital. Most of SBC's early projects included a prankster element, but this one demonstrates what the artists do when they are faced with the real-world conditions of an actually toxic piece of land. They've worked with architects, Georgetown Community Council, King County Brownfields, the Environmental Coalition of South Seattle; at one point, they even found themselves giving a talk about redevelopment of contaminated lands to the national conference on brownfields. They have already lost a great deal of money and even more time. What they haven't done is decide that if the art can't be the way they want it, they will give up and walk away.
Meanwhile, their Creative Capital education and connections have earned them residencies and exhibitions at MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, MASS MoCA in Massachusetts, GUSFORD gallery in Los Angeles, with the City of Toronto, and in Oklahoma City, Louisville, Kentucky, and Shenzhen, China. They're headed to Serbia soon, and a residency at Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood this summer. (In Seattle they show at Greg Kucera Gallery.)
The Frye Art Museum recently invited SuttonBeresCuller to make a work of art representing what it felt like to be an artist in Seattle now. They made You Always Leave Me Wanting More, a series of large, bright-red casino-style signs in the shape of arrows with flashing lights on them. Each arrow looked as though it broke the museum's floor where it burst through. While the arrows all pointed upward in a monument that both satirized and embodied unchecked aspirations, the arrows all also pointed slightly different directions, like the artists themselves.
Beres: "I would love to show at the Tate. At the Guggenheim. I still have those goals."
Sutton: "The institutions are less important to me than the relationships and trust. I would love them to say, 'We love what you do, we want you to create something new for us.' We work so much on a proposal basis"—and they often want to do projects that exceed the provided budgets, which means they often pay the overages themselves.
For instance, now the artists are working on a gateway sculpture to mark Capitol Hill as an arts district of Seattle the way the International District is marked by the Chinatown arch. They've been given a budget of $70,000. What they're proposing would cost more like $150,000. Yet they're reluctant to scale down too much. "We live here. Our history is up here. The goal is not to lose money, but we're not going to make much money," Culler said.
Culler and Beres both rent apartments on Capitol Hill, and have for 20 years. Given its gentrification, "at any moment, the rug is going to be pulled out from beneath us," and they'll have to move, Culler said. "I think it's gonna happen right after we make the gateway. That would be the ultimate irony."
Culler says a life goal for him is to show at the museum that's around the corner from where he grew up: the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. He's happy not to have to work construction anymore and to do art full time, "and I remind myself to be thankful for that, but it's hard at the same time when I'm still drowning in debt."
The three artists remember well the day they won the Creative Capital Award. It was sunny. They were in Miami. Culler took the phone call, and then they all started hugging and jumping up and down.
"We were like, 'We made it!'" Beres laughed, and the other two joined him.
These three artists have been together for 16 years, longer than most bands and many marriages. Even when things didn't work out as planned, they've had the support of Creative Capital for fully half that time. Without it, who knows what would have come. Today, they may not be making money. They may be saddled with debt and even facing displacement. But if the Capitol Hill gateway is the last thing they make—and I don't believe it will be—there is still more SuttonBeresCuller art in the world, period, because of Creative Capital.