How one independent filmmaker scored alternative arts funding
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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 (www.creative-capital.org ) 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 (www.itvs.org ) 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. "With the exception of walking my dog, I don't think I left my home for three or four days," he remembers. After the initial bout of earth-shattering depression, he decided that if he had to, he would shoulder the whole $60,000 budget himself and just go into debt. "Bankruptcy is not the most desirable thing, but there are worse things to go bankrupt for."
Chen decided to get a fiscal sponsor, a strategy he used to help fund his documentary Sandman, which aired on KQED last year. On paper, fiscal sponsorship seems like a counterproductive measure the artist ends up actually paying the sponsor, not the other way around. But sometimes it makes real financial sense. Because of a sponsor's nonprofit status, any person or organization making a donation will be able to write it off come tax time. Donations are made to a foundation under the project's name, the foundation processes the paperwork, and then it gives the money to the artist less a fee. Essentially, the artist is piggybacking on the organization's charity status. Any nonprofit can offer fiscal sponsorship, but it's a good idea to go with one that knows what it's doing this will involve the IRS, after all. Another big benefit: sponsorship allows the artist to apply for grant funding that is usually only available to tax-exempt organizations.
For Memory Book, Chen is partnering with the San Francisco Film Arts Foundation (www.filmarts.org ), which takes 7 percent of funds raised for its fee. This is higher than the 4 or 5 percent fee some foundations charge, but Film Arts makes up for it with a speedy turnaround time. Instead of having to wait for his money for up to seven or eight months, Chen will get it "as soon as the checks clear." Attaining a Film Arts sponsorship can be an arduous two- or three-month process, but the organization's criteria are based more on fiscal feasibility and sound planning than inherent artistic value. If your fundraising outline consists of, as Chen puts it, a "cupcake sale every Saturday," you've got problems.
For fiscal sponsorship for all disciplines, check out the New York Foundation for the Arts (www.nyfa.org ), which sponsors artists nationwide, offers assistance in everything from fundraising and budgeting to bookkeeping services, and has a detailed online database of available grants, NYFA Source.
Now that you're nonprofited up, what's the next step? For Chen, that was the $60,000 question. First he made sure his current lifestyle wasn't going to siphon any money away from his project. "I cut out all luxury items," he says. "I stopped going to movies." He budgeted $20 a week for groceries (including pie). "I let my hair grow," he continues. "People wanted gifts for weddings. That wasn't going to happen. Their present was me not starving."
Then Chen talked to a friend who mentioned she had experience arranging benefit dinners for various causes and asked if he was interested. "It was such a foreign idea," he says. "But she took care of almost everything." That included securing a private chef (who donated his services and provided his home for the feast), contacting retailers such as Mission District specialty grocery Bi-Rite Market (which donated the meat and produce), and convincing wine wholesalers to donate three bottles of vino per course. Students from City College's culinary department volunteered to serve the 16 guests, who each paid a minimum of $250 to attend. From the dinner alone Chen raised $3,500. It might not sound like much, but put it in perspective: the Uganda hotel for his crew of four will cost $2,000 for the 21-day duration of the shoot.
Chen soon realized that directly soliciting in-kind donations might be the way to go. "Once I got over that initial reluctance, it was actually quite easy," he says. The dinner invitations were sent via e-mail, but Chen snail-mailed subsequent requests for cash for a more personal touch. First he sent requests, complete with self-addressed stamped envelopes, to the wealthiest people he knew, followed by the mere well-off, and finally, friends who may only be able to pitch in $10 or $20. He figures he'll have raised upward of $10,000 before heading to Uganda this month.
Soon he'll have his precious fundraising reel, which he plans on using in pitches to the Sundance Documentary Project and possibly HBO. Then, who knows? Maybe he'll splurge and treat himself to a haircut. *
For more information on Chesley Chen's Memory Book documentary or to make a donation, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.