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By Matthew Nash

On Wednesday, August 6th, LEF Foundation announced some major changes in their funding programs. The two most significant changes include increased funding for independent documentary film, and the end of the Contemporary Work Fund (CWF). To say that this will have a large impact on the arts in New England would be an understatement.

LEF Foundation has been a strong supporter of contemporary art, film and the performing arts in New England for many years now, and their grants have allowed a number of non-profit spaces to grow, institutional programs to expand, and individual artists to flourish. Between 2001 and 2007, they gave about $4.1 million1 to the arts of New England, and they were one of the only foundations to give money directly to individual artists, via the CWF.

The letter read, in part:

"We have seen that deeper investments in artists and their projects can lead to work that brings about critical learning for individuals and communities. With this perspective, LEF has decided to implement a new approach for the next phase of its work and concentrate on the production of work in one artistic discipline - independent film. The initial strategy will be to focus solely on the documentary form."

The letter also stated that LEF:

" . . .will shift away from our current granting structure with 2008-2009 acting as a transition year. The Contemporary Work Fund, in its last year, will transition into a final open call for projects in the visual arts and new media."

The net result is that, after the 2008-09 grant cycle, there will be no more Contemporary Work Fund. This annual grant has supported a number of individual artists, non-profit organizations, and institutional projects. Their 2007-08 funding is a good representation of the diversity of the artists and organizations served, which include The Berwick Research Institute, Axiom, MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies and List Visual Arts Center, Musee Patamecanique, The ICA's "Momentum" series, Mass MoCA, Portland's Space Gallery, as well as individual artists Dirk Adams, Nell Breyer, Brian Knep, the TEST performance art group, and numerous theatre and performing arts groups.

I need to mention here that LEF has provided funding for Big RED & Shiny since 2005 (but not via the CWF), and it appears that this change will affect us as well. This column comes out of a number of conversations I've had since the announcement, with artists and organizations that will be directly affected. I also spoke with Louisa McCall of LEF on the 7th about the changes, and it is clear that she understands the impact of the changes, but is also looking to the future and where LEF can have the most impact.

McCall said that the changes have been a long time in the making, and began with the creation of the Moving Image Fund in 2002. One of the first groups funded was the Alliance for Independent Motion Media (AIMM), who have been instrumental in pushing for the governmental incentives that have led to the recent boom in Boston filmmaking. By funding independent documentary films, LEF feels that they can have a direct impact on a specific group of artists in New England, and follow up on work begun by the creation of the Moving Image Fund. Closing the Contemporary Work Fund is a way to concentrate funds toward that goal.

In the days after the letter, though, arts organizations that have relied on LEF for some or all of their funding were already looking ahead past the 08-09 funding cycle. Bonnie Bastien, of The Berwick, said via email: "My heart dropped a little upon hearing the news. We have been mentally preparing ourselves for such a loss and are looking on the bright side of expanding our funding horizons."

At Axiom on Friday, I spoke with Heidi Kayser, who had a similar response. She told me that Axiom has already begun the process of creating a fund-raising board of directors, and is making a transition into a larger, more cooperative model of operation. Many of these changes were already in the works, precipitated by the departure of Axiom co-director Phaedra Shanbaum, but the LEF announcement accelerated the process. Kayser pointed out that LEF funding has been about half of their annual budget, so the end of the CWF will require a more aggressive fund-raising strategy.

Here at Big RED & Shiny, we have been working toward being self-sustaining for a while now, mostly through limited advertising sales. LEF funding has increasingly been applied to expansion projects, such as our print annual and a forthcoming book by Tom Marquet. The impact on our project will hopefully be small, although certain side projects may be put on the back burner.

While arts organizations, who have overhead costs to meet, are looking to the future and strategizing around the change, individual artists are acting less concerned. This, it seems, is due to the fact that only a small number of artists receive LEF funding each year, and artists are used to rejection (in terms of grants, shows, etc).

Jeff Warmouth wrote me via email:

"I applied for LEF funds four times for different projects and was rejected every time. Twice for Contemporary Work Fund and twice for film/video. One of the Contemporary Work applications was for Art Show Down. So clearly the "funding goals" of LEF don't really support my artistic interests/direction, and the decision to close the fund is a bit of a relief because I won't feel the pressure to futilely apply yet again to a fund that probably won't support me."

Big RED editor Micah Malone took a hard-line:

"I have to say though... I don't think the presence of healthy granting agencies necessarily correlates to making or having interesting art. Which is only to say, most artists who get more money don't make better work. It often just becomes expensive work. Film is a different story because even a small budget documentary is much more expensive than any hideous installation."

Artist Chris Nau emphasized the impact funding can have on the growth of an artist's work:

"The LEF Contemporary work fund was a respected, and sought-after grant that was very helpful to a city of talented and motivated artists. Its financial support proved crucial for many artists and arts organizations to get a boost when they needed it the most: at the moment when idea transformed into real practice or actual project. The artists and organizations that won these awards have more often than not blossomed and also stabilized at a higher level of production and engagement with both the arts community and the public. It is a shame that the LEF has made this sharp turn without even exploring a phase out of repeat grant winners, or a policy of alternating years between moving image and contemporary work. It's their money, they can do what they want, but contemporary work is underfunded in Massachusetts."

Ultimately, I think it's important to recognize how much LEF has done for the arts in New England, and acknowledge that their funding programs have done a great amount of good. At the core of the shock surrounding the end of the CWF, I think, is the awareness of how necessary such funding is within our arts community. LEF is moving in a new direction, and clearly it is based on long-term investment and consideration on their part.

Surely the loss of this reliable source of funding will have broad impact, but any arts community that cannot survive the loss of a single funding source should be asking some tough questions of itself. We need to seek other avenues for generating revenue, create interest and support for the contemporary art throughout New England, and bring in outside investment. The end of the CWF will usher in a new era for arts funding in New England, that is certain. Are we up to the task?

[1] - This estimate of $4.1 million is derived from several pieces of information. For an interview in Big RED #63, LEF provided the information that "[b]etween 2001 and 2006 they funded 368 projects, giving $3.8 million in support to the arts of New England." Their website states that their funding for the CWF in 2007 was $300,000, and the two totals are the basis for the $4.1M figure. It should be noted, however, that the LEF website does not provide any information about the Moving Image Fund for 2007. Furthermore, LEF has also funded some projects (such as Big RED & Shiny) via separate funds that are neither CWF of MIF, so it would be fair to say that this number is far lower than the actual amount LEF has contributed to the arts in New England since 2001.

LEF Foundation
A summary of the changes at LEF Foundation can be found here.

About Author

Matthew Nash is the founder of Big Red & Shiny. He is Associate Professor of Photography and New Media at the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University and was the 2011-12 Chair of the University Faculty Assembly. Nash is half of the artist collaborative Harvey Loves Harvey, who are currently represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston and have exhibited in numerous venues since 1992.

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