It Sure Beats the NEA

Creative Capital brings venture philanthropy--and business savvy--to the arts.

No one misses the controversies that beset the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1990s. Its funding of cutting-edge, but controversial, art exposed how outmoded the New Deal--era approach to promoting culture truly was.

Creative Capital is a private-sector response to such messiness. Bringing venture philanthropy to the arts, it has funded 242 projects with grants of up to $50,000 since 1999. But its approach is about more than money. "We look for people open to changing how they market themselves," says executive director Ruby Lerner.

To that end, Creative Capital offers artists services and strategic advice in such disciplines as public relations, marketing, and fund-raising. Lerner is exploring having Creative Capital's financial donors contribute their business expertise as well. "The goal is for artists to build a sustaining constituency," she says.

Although there's no defining aesthetic in the work Creative Capital funds (that would defeat the purpose), "there is a lot of sassiness." And outside the gallery, there's plenty of savvy. Here are four of Creative Capital's success stories.

Liz Cohen, "Bodywork"
In her conceptual piece, Cohen converts a Trabant--the egregiously plain compact car of Communist East Germany--into a tricked-out Chevrolet El Camino low-rider, and herself into both a body-shop customizer and a voluptuous, bikini-clad car model. It's an exploration, she says, of transformation and group membership. But to work with Creative Capital, Cohen first had to morph into a businesswoman. She confronted a financial budget, which "de-romanticized the art and helped me understand that I'm creating a product that is worth money."

Hasan Elahi, "Tracking Transience: The Orwell Project"
In "Tracking Transience," Elahi documents his every move in maps and images on the Web, his reaction to a six-month FBI investigation into his alleged terrorist activities. Since being exonerated, the Muslim-American artist has sought to devalue the bureau's primary asset--restricted information--by flooding the market with his own. Managing growth--he has hired two assistants--has now become a full-time job: "The venture-capital model helped me see a bigger picture, where, by bridging the divide between the studio and the business, my art can grow," he says.

Brent Green, "Paulina Hollers"
Before Creative Capital, Green's most intimate connection with private enterprise was his job as a waiter. He was fired from that. Unemployed, his business strategy consisted of sending his stop-animation short films, unsolicited, to his favorite musicians. That got some traction--but it was at a Creative Capital retreat that Green figured it out: He was targeting the wrong audience. "The film people weren't into my work at all, but the art people were digging it, and I started getting shows at the Getty and stuff," he says. "I went there thinking I was a filmmaker, but I learned that marketing is all about selling it right." Recast as an artist, he's just off a solo show in New York.

Chris Doyle, "50,000 Beds"
This summer, 45 artists will each spend a night in a hotel somewhere in Connecticut (the title refers to the number of hotel and motel rooms in the state) and, while there, make a short video or film. The results will be divvied up among three sponsoring museums and displayed for six weeks. For Doyle, all that represents a daunting exercise in logistics management: Besides overseeing 45 art projects, he has been working with the museums to come up with an overall concept and schedule, connecting with state officials, and teaming with marketing consultants to get the word out. "It has been fun to do all the parts," he says. "I feel much more confident about pulling people together behind a single project."

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