Careers and Ed: Look Ma, no grants

How one independent filmmaker scored alternative arts funding

Starving is overrated. No matter how romantic your notions of the long-suffering, misunderstood artiste, it's hard to get around the fact that you'll never get that big one-person show if the rain reduces your paintings to gesso mush because you don't have a roof to put over them.

Enter the grant provider. Part john, part pimp, and possessing all the bureaucratic zeal of the most exacting mafioso, a grant foundation can seem like an ambivalent overlord to struggling creative types: while most artists want and need grant money, they may find expectations frustratingly impossible to meet. When you factor in an ever-increasing conservatism in the arts-funding world, it's enough to make anyone wonder how to take artistic risks while still being kept in acrylic paint and photo fixer, much less food.

"That's the thing about the arts these days. It's so hard to get your project off the ground," Chesley Chen, a 38-year-old independent filmmaker, says over a piece of Safeway strawberry-rhubarb pie ("It's surprisingly good") in his Sunset District flat. "The vast sum of money goes to sustain these megalithic art houses rather than nurturing local artists." Chen points out that because of today's conservatism, most organizations are looking for safe projects to fund — ones lacking controversy and with an obvious social relevance.

It's ironic, then, that Chen's latest project is about as socially significant as it gets and yet he's still struggling to secure meaningful funding. After being moved to tears by a piece in Harper's last year written by a Ugandan woman suffering from AIDS, Chen began an e-mail relationship with Beatrice Were, an HIV-positive Ugandan mother who started the Memory Book Project for similarly afflicted women. Shunned by their communities because of the AIDS stigma, these mothers are given the chance by Were's organization to share their thoughts and dreams for and with their children.

Chen soon realized what a powerful documentary the story would make. Problem was Chen found that most funding groups require a pitch reel to give an indication of what a finished project will look like — a logistical impossibility given Were's location. But for Chen, abandoning the project wasn't an option, so he was forced to look for alternatives.


Some organizations do offer seed money for projects, but these grants are extremely competitive and definitely for those who don't mind plenty of demands and hand-holding. Creative Capital ( is unique in that it views its funding model not as a philanthropic effort but as a venture capital investment. Founded in 1999 and offering grants in multiple disciplines, the organization usually works with its artists over a period of three to four years and offers advisory services, continuation funds, and even a yearly retreat. In return, each funded artist agrees to share a small percentage of profits with the group, which is used to fund other works — but only if their project turns a profit. The average grant is for $35,000, but out of roughly 3,000 applications a year, Creative Capital only awards about 50 grants.

For filmmakers, the Independent Television Service ( offers research and development funding on an ongoing basis in conjunction with PBS. The grants cover expenses such as travel, script development, and the crucial fundraising reel. The group concedes that these funds are "extremely limited and highly competitive," but for those lucky chosen few, the ITVS offers something no other grant provider can: a "comprehensive public television launch" that provides marketing, publicity, station relations, and outreach support. In other words, people actually get a chance to see your work when it's done.

For the record, Chen has been turned down for both.

Also from this author

  • Emotions in motion

    Climb aboard Michel Gondry's high-school drama 'The We and the I'

  • Little runaways

    Wes Anderson's new film may be charming, but it's domesticated to a fault

  • Tribute: A force of nature and Force of Habit