SAM EASTERSON was beginning to think his idea for depicting the world from unexpected perspectives -- by strapping mini video cameras to animals and plants -- had about run its course. He wasn't even sure the concept worked that well.
But just as his confidence was flagging, the New York City-based Creative Capital Foundation e-mailed that it liked what he was doing and kicked in $5,000 in 2001 to help with the next phase -- a buffalo cam to go along with his frog cam, tarantula cam, tumbleweed cam and the ever-popular armadillo cam.
"I don't know if I would have continued after that project, quite frankly," said Easterson, of Studio City. "It meant a lot that there were people across the country who were thinking about this, understanding what you're trying to do. It wasn't just me in a room in an apartment, which is so defeating."
Since its founding in 1999, Creative Capital has delivered $5 million in similar shots of adrenaline to nearly 250 artists, and in the process is creating a new template for private arts funding, using a mix of old-style grant-making and post-dot-com venture capitalism to re-imagine the relationships among artists, funders and markets.
The program has helped fill a void created when the Clinton administration ended the National Endowment for the Arts' grants programs for artists, leaving private groups, such as the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, as the main sources of such grants.
"We basically were looking to find a way to bring new support for artists in America," said Joel Wachs, the former Los Angeles City Council member who in 2001 was named president of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which helped launch Creative Capital.
Rather than drop a check on a project and wait for a year-end report, Creative Capital targets "catalytic" moments in artists' careers, then signs on as a combination guidance counselor and business partner.
"They don't just give them a fish, but they teach them to fish," said Mark Murphy, executive director of the REDCAT performance space at Walt Disney Concert Hall. "Sometimes people consider the business of art to be an oxymoron, but the artists, with rare exceptions, would love to have a chance to build a bit of infrastructure."
Creative Capital has helped filmmakers, performers and cutting-edge experimenters refocus their work, propelling some down new avenues of creativity that have slowly begun to seep into the central currents of American art.
Scores of its artists have gone on to place projects in galleries and museums small and large, little known and famous, including L.A.'s Mark Moore Gallery and Telic Arts Exchange, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art.
Musical pieces have premiered in noted venues, including at Disney Hall in the "Minimalist Jukebox" festival. Films, such as Sam Green's "The Weather Underground," have screened at Sundance and other festivals. Lisa Kron's play "Well" debuted at New York's Public Theater two years ago. But it's the less visible elements that have fed Creative Capital's success. The organization acts as a professional network host, drawing together artists from disparate disciplines in retreats with gallery owners, museum curators and consultants. And it holds clinics across the country for non-grantees that have drawn more than 1,000 artists, said Alyson Pou, who runs the professional development program.
All of Creative Capital's efforts are directed at one goal: helping artists become self-sufficient.
"Businesses are not built overnight or within a calendar year," said Ruby Lerner, founding director of Creative Capital. "To make something successful, you have to be willing to make a long-term commitment. We expect a three- to five-year relationship with a project."
Lerner describes herself as an evangelist spreading the concept of investing grant money in projects, and Creative Capital's internal reports are filled with such lingo as establishing a "cohesive system of support" that creates a "chain of opportunity for the artists," which has "helped people with project planning as well as career and life planning."
That bureaucratic tone obscures the cutting-edge nature of much of the work, such as Marie Sester's "Access," an interactive installation that explores the effect of surveillance by using Web-based controls to capture unsuspecting pedestrians in a cone of light and sound, and Amelia Rudolph's Bay-area Project Bandaloop troupe, which in 2001 performed its west-to-east "Crossing" dance over the Sierra Nevada in what was likely the world's first alpine aerial dance hike.
For artists, the grants are akin to accepting a not-so-silent limited partner. If a project makes money -- so far, few have -- the artists pay dividends back to Creative Capital. But making money is far down the organization's priority list. The focus is on nurturing talent and trying to create a community of creative minds across disciplines.
C'mon, let's see some courage