The definition of not-needy: James Franco, right, and David Shields, center.
The definition of not-needy: James Franco, right, and David Shields, center.

In December, Artist Trust and the Frye Art Museum announced jointly the 2015 winner of the largest award they give to an artist. It's the James W. Ray Distinguished Artist Award for $50,000, and it went to writer David Shields.

The announcement brought on a spell of cognitive dissonance, which I'll explain.

The $50,000 originates from an unusual source: a five-year gift of $1.1 million from the local Raynier Institute & Foundation to be given to artists through the Frye and Artist Trust (who organize the selection process).

The reason it's unusual is that the Raynier Foundation is a social-services supporter whose founder cared about poverty and homelessness in addition to art and culture. His name was James W. Ray, and the foundation's executor, Ed Gardner, said the creation of the Raynier Artist Awards would have pleased Ray because it was based in "the concept of supporting artists to meet their basic needs in life."

The person who really thought up the concept for the awards was Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, the director of the Frye Art Museum. When the awards were announced in 2013, she said,

"We have spectacular artists living and working in the city who are struggling, who are very concerned with the day-to-day issues of life and at the same time maybe performing in New York or being flown to Sweden or being recognized in Iceland," [Birnie Danzker] said.

"I said there needed to be an integrated approach to how we support artists, to provide artists with enough funds so that they don't have to worry for at least a year about how they're going to pay the rent and meet their most basic needs—so that they could do their work. Another thing I found was that the grants available to artists are very modest. You get down to whether you're going to pay an artist 100 dollars or 200 dollars in order to perform—and this is not how it should be. In a city of our wealth and advantages, how could we set up a structure so that exceptional artists can advance their work?"

The theme of addressing economic inequity through the awards was at the top of Birnie Danzker and Artist Trust Executive Director Shannon Halberstadt's joint statement in last month's announcement of the winners.

"Especially in these times of growing income inequity, artists need the support of their communities," their statement read. "We hope these awards will have a positive impact on the careers of these artists and the communities of which they are a part."

I asked Halberstadt and Birnie Danzker to talk by phone after that, and both of them willingly complied. When Halberstadt got on the phone, I laid out the problem as succinctly as I knew how.

"Shannon, did you know that [award winner] David Shields is in a movie with James Franco bragging about making $200,000 a year?"

"Oh, no, you're kidding," Halberstadt said. "Oh, that's not good."

We laughed, and then started serious-talking.

It turns out that neither Halberstadt nor Birnie Danzker knew how much money Shields made. They hadn't seen the movie or read the book it was based on. (Paul Constant documented Shields's forthcomingness about his $200,000 yearly income from his endowed writing professorship at the University of Washington plus other gigs, and last month explained precisely why funders should "Stop giving cash awards to David Shields." Hint: For the love of god, he doesn't need them.)

But more importantly than whether the funders knew that David Shields is among the literary-Seattle 1 percent (or something close to it)—most importantly—they had not wanted to know how much money he makes.

To them, this made perfect sense.

They stressed that the awards selection process was income-blind, and that this was the way it ought to be.

Anything else would be a violation of privacy, they explained.

Birnie Danzker, the inventor of the awards, was immovable on the point.

"I don't think [income/economic class] should be one of the criteria," Birnie Danzker said firmly. "I feel that our decision to really focus on the excellence of the work, the projects themselves, is the right one."

I told her I thought that was a red herring. That excellence and need are not mutually exclusive.

If they were, if there were no excellent artists who are poor, then who would these awards be intended for, anyway?

"If you’re trying to raise a general discussion around that issue, then it is a tough one," Birnie Danzker finally consented.

I realized only then that I was trying to raise a general discussion around the fact that there arts funders—that I know of—don't take financial need into account when deciding who gets their money.

I'm not talking about making need the decisive factor. I'm talking about making it one factor among several. One of the tie-breakers, like gender or race. I'm talking about not excluding class.

"We aren’t a social service agency," Halberstadt maintained in our phone conversation. "We are here to support artists in their creative practice. That’s what we’re here to support. We’re not here to address needs outside of that."

How do we say that money matters outside the granting room but doesn't exist inside the granting room?

And if we do insist on income-blindness, then we can't be surprised when a wealthy man wins an award intended to help artists be "free" to create by taking care of their "basic needs."

Still, it's not that simple.

There's a broader context. Artist Trust exists to give money to individual artists because after the culture wars of the 1990s, the government stopped funding artists. Now, the National Endowment for Arts gives money to institutions that show art and culture, like museums and theaters, but not to the artists themselves.

So Artist Trust's entire existence is about addressing the financial needs of the whole socioeconomic class of artists (if such a thing can be said to exist), in other words. (If such a thing does not exist, then why do artists need grants?)

"Throwing economic status into the mix—it’s not something that we’ve ever done before, and I don’t know who has done that," Halberstadt told me. "I don’t know how you can do that with integrity without feeling that you’re being invasive into the artist’s lives."

Asking artists to document their income even to be considered for awards could keep away artists who barely have the capacity to make their work and sign their name to it in the first place. Said Halberstadt, "having the extra hurdle seems to me to have more probability of creating a barrier to access rather than building more equity."

But given what happened with Shields, I was unsatisfied with leaving it there, and actually, so was Halberstadt.

"So I see what you’re saying," she said, "and… if we were to take into account economic need we’d need to do it in a way that’s very thoughtful."

I'm not pretending this is a clear problem with an obvious solution.

It's not a new problem, either, but demonstrable progress has been possible in other demographic considerations. In 2013, Artist Trust gave two $25,000 awards to white male artists.

One of them was David Shields.

(Not trying to pick on you, David, but... maybe stop applying for money you don't need. I emailed Shields to ask him to talk to me for this story, but no reply.)

In 2013, I asked Artist Trust, which was touting its diversity, how it measured itself against its own claims.

Then-executive director Margaret Rankin told me that Artist Trust didn't even ask its applicants to disclose their gender on granting application forms. Race? Forget about it.

And anyone wondered why Artist Trust needed scare quotes around "diversity"? (I also addressed in that post how we choose The Stranger Genius Awards every year.)

Halberstadt said this is a new era at Artist Trust.

"We do ask for gender and race demographics now," Halberstadt said. "When I was considering this position, that’s one of the things that I really dug into, looking at the way that Artist Trust pays attention to that sort of thing or doesn’t. I honestly believe that there’s been a great transformation in this organization, and that the staff and the board who are here now are very very much behind making sure that we’re tracking race, ethnicity, gender, and making sure that we are really truly reflecting a broad variety of culture in our grantmaking. It would be disingenuous not to. Art reflects culture and culture is broad. And there’s no way to get around it, you have to track it. You won’t know if you don’t. If you look at recent award cycles, you’ll see that there’s a lot more diversity, and it starts from the very beginning of making sure you’re encouraging a lot of different communities to apply. And Artist Trust is 100 percent completely behind it, board and staff."

Maybe Artist Trust will be able to implement policies that begin to address inequity in the final leg in the big triumvirate of gender, race, and class. I'd like to say that funders could simply instruct panelists to consider financial need without asking for data, but assuming somebody's income is a horrible idea. What to do? Government agencies can't really be experimental, but nonprofits can, Halberstadt said, sounding a note of hope. She, and I, also wondered if anybody out there is tackling this already.