25 Years of Pew Fellowships in the Arts: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Annabeth Rosen, 1992 Pew Fellow. The Big Studio, installation view at University of California Davis, 2010. Photo by Christopher Woodcock.

In conjunction with the 25th anniversary of the Pew Fellowships the Arts, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage’s executive director, Paula Marincola, and Pew Fellowships director, Melissa Franklin, reflect on a quarter-century of direct support to artists—how we got started, how the program has evolved, and what we’ve learned.

Since 1992, the Fellowships program has invested annually in the Philadelphia region’s most talented artists working in all disciplines. Fellowships, currently $75,000, are awarded each year to 12 artists working in the five county Philadelphia region. To date, the Center has awarded over $17.2 million to 323 artists and artist teams.

Paula Marincola: Twenty-five years—a quarter of a century—is quite a milestone in supporting individual artists. The Pew Fellowships in the Arts was founded in 1992 by the late Ella King Torrey when she was the program officer for culture at The Pew Charitable Trusts, and was shepherded through the board process by Marian Godfrey, Pew’s former senior director of cultural initiatives. The program is deeply indebted to them, and to the faith and great generosity of Pew’s board in continuing to invest in the Center and its programs, and in the ecology of Philadelphia’s arts and culture sector. You’ve been with the Fellowships program since its inception, Melissa, and have been the program director since 1995. Given your unique vantage point, can you trace how the program began and how it was situated within the context of individual artists’ support at that time?

Melissa Franklin: The program was originally established by The Pew Charitable Trusts as a three-year pilot. At that time, there were only a handful of programs around the country that offered direct support to artists: The Bush Artist Fellowships in Minneapolis, Artist Trust in Seattle, and the New York Foundation for the Arts were three influential programs. Then there was the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the program with the longest lineage, having been established in 1925 to support not only artists, but promising scholars and scientists as well. There was also the MacArthur Fellows program which came into being in the 1980s, offering the largest unrestricted monetary support to individuals across a broad range of fields and disciplines, including artists. Of course, the National Endowment for the Arts was also offering artist fellowships at the time, though it was a period when the NEA was under attack, during what has been referred to as the ‘culture wars.’

PM: How was the Pew Fellowships program structured at the starting point?

MF: The Pew Fellowships program was modeled on the Bush Artist Fellowships. As we were setting up the program, we worked very closely with Bush and the New York Foundation for the Arts. I had the opportunity to visit both organizations and to observe their panel processes, which was extremely informative. It was really exciting for us to be able to establish all aspects of a new program—from figuring out how the entire selection process would work and writing guidelines, to buying furniture, and having letterhead designed.

At the beginning, we accepted applications from artists working in four different disciplinary categories, which rotated each year. Applications were reviewed by panels of recognized national and international artists and arts professionals, and Fellowships were awarded following two cycles of review. The first cycle of review was conducted by specialists in a particular discipline. They selected the most distinguished applicants in that discipline as finalists to move on to the next round. Subsequently, an interdisciplinary panel composed of one representative from each of the preliminary discipline-specific panels, along with two additional experts, selected the fellowship recipients from among the finalists. We awarded 16 Fellowships each year to artists at any stage of development, from emerging to mature.

In the first year, applications were received in the areas of choreography, craft arts, music composition, and sculpture. The disciplines reviewed in other years included design, painting, poetry, script works, fiction and literary non-fiction, media arts, performance art, and printmaking and photography.

Sarah McEneaney, 1993 Pew Fellow. When You Wish, 2015, acrylic on linen, 48 1/2 x 72 1/2 inches. Photo by John Carlano.

PM: Our grants were generous from the program’s inception: $50,000 at the start—and they’ve grown since then to $75,000. We believed they should be substantial as part of their intended impact.

MF: That’s right; the original idea was to treat artists with the same dignity and respect that other professional disciplines enjoy. It was about providing artists with the resources they needed to focus on their work.

PM: We know that artists form the foundation of any cultural community. Can you articulate how we see the role of the Pew Fellowships program within the wider landscape of how artists are supported in making their work—from grants awarded specifically to them, to the varying ways that institutions might support artists, even if indirectly?

MF: The opportunities for contemporary artists in the United States to concentrate on the development and creation of art are extremely limited. Artists are not alone, but perhaps “lonelier” than individuals in other fields, such as scientific research or humanistic scholarship, when it comes to the availability of direct support. Small artists’ grants, residencies, commissions, etc., are all essential ingredients to a healthy cultural infrastructure, but in addition, it is paramount that artists are also afforded significant long-term support.

Arts institutions are, for the most part, devoted to the presentation and preservation of artworks, rather than the support of contemporary artists. Those institutions that do support the creative process most frequently do so on a short-term or commission basis, which can sometimes restrict experimentation. Many artists are also affected by marketplace pressures that may preclude artistic investigations that are not immediately seen to be commercially viable.

The assertion that creative ideas need time, concentration, and freedom in order to flourish is not frequently challenged. Nor do many find fault with the assumption that creativity and its results—new products, new visions, new solutions—are critical to the survival and development of culture. Even though it’s generally accepted that one of the most effective ways to advance a particular field or discipline is through the advancement of exceptional individuals within that field, in the United States we have historically been reluctant to embrace the application of these beliefs when manifested in the form of significant and direct financial support for artists.

Our approach allows individual artists to engage in longer-term creative investigations, without the pressure of having to relocate or to produce specific outcomes, or commit to a binding course of action. This is some of the thinking that is behind the Pew Fellowships program and why we are structured the way we are today.

Geoff Sobelle, 2006 Pew Fellow. The Object Lesson at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of Center Theatre Group.

PM: The Fellowships have been adjudicated by an interdisciplinary panel and still continue to be so to this day. We’ve chosen to use panelists from outside the region, as we also do in the Center’s project grant program, and we continue to invite distinguished experts from the various fields to serve as our adjudicators. Why did we initially make that choice, and why do you think it continues to be the appropriate one?

MF: It is imperative that our fellowships selection processes are fair, consistent, and objective. All of the applicants are entitled to be considered fairly on an equal footing with the other applicants. Outside panelists mitigate the potential for unfair biases, while contributing the expertise necessary to engage with the selection process in an informed way.

I think the interdisciplinary process certainly continues to have relevance today, especially given that many artists are working in hybrid and interdisciplinary ways. In 2010, when we redesigned the program, we were seeking a non-discipline specific approach as a response to the way artists were working. Our hope was to expand the definition of what a creative practice is and can be, and we were looking to artists to lead us there. In this context, the interdisciplinary panel functions most effectively. It also generates rich conversations and new insights into artists’ work among our varied discipline specialists.

PM: Yes, and those conversations often benefit our work at the Center in larger ways, by keeping us close to what are the priorities and best practices in the fields that we fund. So there’s an indirect benefit to us from the panel process as well.

What were some of the important milestones and changes as the program developed?

MF: One structural change occurred in 1996, when we transitioned from 16 to 12 Fellowships, and from four to three categories being reviewed annually. In terms of milestones, I would say that the increase in the grant amount was significant. In 2008, we moved from $50,000 to $60,000, and then in 2014, we increased the Fellowship to $75,000.

PM: We wanted the award to retain its prestige and its relative value.

MF: Hitting our first 100 Fellows in 1998 was also an exciting milestone. Another important development was creating a category for folk and traditional arts in 2000. We had always included folk and traditional artists in our other categories such as sculpture, choreography, crafts, and music composition, but we didn’t have the expertise on the panels to speak to these practices in a truly informed way. By creating this category, we were able to bring together experts in folk and traditional forms to make the initial selections, and then have this expertise on the final interdisciplinary panel as well. It expanded our pool of applicants and opened us up to a broader range of artists, many of whom became Pew Fellows.

Lastly, the program underwent a redesign in 2010, which prompted us to remove discipline-specific categories and expand individual support to encompass all fields.

Tokay Tomah in performance at World Café Live, Philadelphia, 2015. Photo by JJ Tizziou.

PM: Let’s talk more about the updated program structure. We went on for 18 years with an open application process and the disciplinary rotations. We had a lot of success, but we also, as time went on, began to feel the need to refresh the program. So, in response to the Fellowships’ contextualization within the Center’s work as a whole, and to artists’ changing practices, we worked with consultant Cynthia Mayeda on revising and updating the program’s structure.

MF: Yes, in 2008, we began an intensive year-long process of critical re-evaluation. Our primary goal was to establish a refreshed strategic focus for the program. We had just marked our 18th year, as you say, and the program had essentially operated the same way over that time period. In rethinking the Fellowships, we wanted to respond to the shifts since the early 90s in how artists had been practicing and the fact that many artists were increasingly working in and across multiple disciplines.

Our previous four-year rotation of disciplines meant that each year applications were accepted from artists working in only three categories, and those artists had to wait four years to apply again to the program in their discipline area. In addition, our focus on certain disciplinary categories did not always make room for artists working outside of these established categories.

We saw these issues as an opportunity to be proactive, and we therefore abandoned the notion of categories and decided to entertain artists in all disciplines every year. Given the larger applicant pool that this shift made possible, we also decided to move from an open application process to a nomination process, so that we could administrate the program effectively.

PM: Another important factor in the program’s redesign was that the context for our grantmaking had changed. When the Fellowships was first established by The Pew Charitable Trusts it was one of two initiatives focused on supporting work being created in our region. Over the years, six other initiatives were established: all of them project-focused and discipline specific.

Then, in 2005 Pew established The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and brought all of us together in one space, to take advantage of the synergies that could occur through the co-location. And my work as executive director since 2008 has been to steadily move the Center forward as a single organization with the shared goal of enriching the cultural life of the community and raising Philadelphia’s visibility as a hub for dynamic cultural experiences. Part of the re-evaluation of the Fellowships had to do with aligning it more closely with the Center, our criteria for making grants, and our work as a whole.

Shall we touch on how and why, when we were rethinking the program, we more clearly defined our criteria for awarding a fellowship? We wanted them to be consistent with our other criteria for awarding grants, but also to be thoughtfully focused on what is relevant in evaluating individual artists’ work.

MF: Developing our three criteria (artistic excellence, broadly conceived; evidence of serious commitment to practice & ability to use grant effectively; and impact) was crucial to the establishment of a renewed strategic focus for the program, and also critical for our evaluators and panelists as guides for navigating the difficult determinations that they must make. Not only are we funding artists working in a wide range of disciplines, we are also funding artists at any point in their career, from early to mature. We tried to articulate indicators within each criterion that are expansive and yet rigorous and consistent—together allowing for a wide range of artists with various aesthetics and practices to be awarded Fellowships. The criteria help us support distinctive voices that demonstrate a real commitment to practice and continue to have generative potential.

During the program’s redesign, we also considered the fact that the general environment for artists had become ‘noisier,’ and to be successful as an artist required an expanded skill set beyond being in the studio. We recognized this reality, and wanted the opportunity for a deeper engagement with the Fellows, to extend the impact of our grant. We wanted to surround them with the additional resources they would need to push their practice forward.

PM: Yes, we responded to the new environment for artists by expanding the professional development opportunities offered to Fellows, in addition to the monetary award. Can you talk about the resources that we provide to support artists in developing sustainable careers?

MF: We’ve created a strategic set of opportunities, and have partnered with other organizations that support artists to offer resources to our Fellows. To kick off the fellowship period, new Fellows attend a weekend professional development program here in Philadelphia, designed by the New York-based Creative Capital. Workshop leaders present intensive hands-on workshops and consultations that focus on professional skills and artistic goals, including self-management, strategic planning, fundraising, web strategies, verbal communication, and promotion.

We also embarked on a new relationship with the Alliance of Artists Communities to offer a limited number of fully supported residencies for Pew Fellows. Our residency partners, who each provide one space for a Pew Fellow each year, currently include the MacDowell Colony as well as a consortium of residency programs: the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming; Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, CA; and the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada.

These residencies have been one of the most successful aspects of our professional development work. They’ve offered Philadelphia-area artists valuable opportunities to step out of their workaday lives, and reflect on their artistic practice, while engaging with other artists nationally and around the world. These exchanges among peers expand the Fellows’ horizons and stimulate their thinking. And then they bring that knowledge back to the Philadelphia artist community. In addition, the visibility of Philadelphia and the many talented artists working here is lifted through the residencies’ networks.

Director Heidi Saman and actor Waleed Zuaiter on the set of Namour. Photo by TK Anderson.

Other more practical resources we have put into place to assist Fellows include financial and marketing advice. For many artists, the infusion of the grant monies into their income stream represents its own challenge, over and above the creative incentive it provides. We see that the grant is an opportunity for artists to observe their financial lives side by side with their creative work, and to determine what, if any, changes could be made to plan for the most effective use of the fellowship dollars. To this end, Fellows have the opportunity to meet with a financial advisor to seek expert advice before beginning their fellowship period.

Finally, to focus on raising awareness of Fellows’ work, the Associate Director for Communications at the Center is available to guide them towards realizing imaginative ideas for engaging audiences with their scheduled performances, projects, and exhibitions.

PM: The Fellows gain substantial knowledge and skills from these workshops and consultations, and have, as we’ve noted, important opportunities to network with their peers outside the area through the residencies—but they also have opportunities to engage with one another. You’ve worked to foster a sense of community and build relationships within the community of Fellows as well. Could you say why that’s important?

MF: We strive to create a strong cohort of Fellows through a variety of convenings to exchange ideas, information, and explore commonalities across disciplines. We often invite an artist from another community to join us, share their work with the Fellows, learn about them, and engage in a lively conversation on issues that are at stake in their lives and practices.

PM: So we hope to build a more deeply connected and vital artists’ community. It’s gratifying work, isn’t it? And a great privilege. I go back to the exceptional generosity of the Pew board in supporting the Fellowships program so steadfastly for a quarter of a century. In closing, Melissa, what are your thoughts about the Fellowships program going forward?

MF: I believe it is critical that we do our best to remain responsive and flexible to the changing needs of artists and the ways in which they practice, to resist complacency, and to continually evolve our program. I hope to continue to explore partnerships and collaborative relationships with other organizations that work directly with artists, nationally and internationally, to leverage our joint resources to support artists in innovative and substantive ways.

>>Learn more on our special anniversary page for the Pew Fellowships in the Arts at 25.

Grants & Grantees

The Philadelphia Museum of Art presented the first full-scale exhibition of the artist’s work in more than 30 years.

Collaborators & Colleagues

Christopher Mekal specializes in strategic planning and implementation, nonprofit organizational development, and financial management.

Grants & Grantees

Basekamp is a loose collective of artists and attenuated artist networks that produces, manages, and stewards projects outside of the art market and established arts institutions.

Grants & Grantees

In 2005 the Center awarded Pew Fellowships to 12 Philadelphia-based artists, and grants to 66 dance, music, theater, and visual arts organizations and practitioners in the greater Philadelphia region.

Grants & Grantees

Trapeta B. Mayson is a poet and a 2002 Pew Fellow. She serves as the executive director of Historic Germantown.

Grants & Grantees

Crossroads Music presented a 24-hour marathon concert of Hindustani (North Indian classical) music, featuring leading musicians from India and the United States.

Designer Jenny Sabin’s PolyMorph is on display in France and bandleader Marshall Allen performs at Lincoln Center on October 5, 2013.

Grants & Grantees

In 1992 the Center awarded Pew Fellowships to 16 visual arts, dance, and music artists in the greater Philadelphia region, including Odean Pope and Judith Schaechter.

Collaborators & Colleagues

Mike Ladd is a poet, performer, and librettist.

Pew Fellow Yolanda Wisher leads a workshop exploring creative reflection in conjunction with the Center-funded Elephants on the Avenue, presented by Historic Germantown.

Grants & Grantees

Thomas Dan is a multimedia artist and a 1995 Pew Fellow.

Grants & Grantees

In 2000 the Center awarded Pew Fellowships to 12 Philadelphia-based artists, and grants to 47 dance, music, theater, and visual arts organizations and practitioners in the greater Philadelphia region.