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Creative types get a bit of business schooling

As it distributes grants to artists, the Creative Capital Foundation also tries to teach them how to succeed in the wider world.

August 20, 2006|Scott Martelle | Times Staff Writer

THERE have been stumbles. A mentoring program got off to an uneven start when demand far outpaced the supply of mentors; a promotional campaign took longer to launch than anticipated, frustrating many of the artists; and deadlines for follow-up grants had to be retooled when it became clear that each artist's project was evolving at a different pace.

For those involved, though, the stumbles are just the growing pains of innovation.

The program's biggest strength lies in instilling courage to push further along artistic roads, said Maya Churi, 35, of South Pasadena.

Churi received $10,000 in Creative Capital's inaugural year for her interactive project, using fictional classroom notes to trace the lives of two teenage girl characters. The project, still online but no longer updated, was so realistic that Churi's characters had e-mail dialogues with real teens who posted comments and questions.

Churi said the grant -- $5,000 for the project and $5,000 for publicity -- affirmed her transition from film to interactive media, and emboldened her to create, an interactive novel about a nonexistent suburban development, told as a virtual slide show.

"I was still on the fence between film and the Web," said Churi, who will begin a master's degree program at USC this fall. "Creative Capital definitely helped in that sense, by their acknowledgment that this is a form of art and that it was a legitimate creative outlet."

Creative Capital does its work in shared space with the Warhol Foundation on the seventh floor of a staid-looking building on Manhattan's Bleecker Street, at the edge of Greenwich Village and the art-heavy SoHo neighborhood.

Creative Capital was born as something of a dodge around the proscriptions of Warhol's will. The Warhol Foundation gets most of its revenue from the sale and licensing of Andy Warhol's art, and under his will it can donate money only to organizations that support the visual arts, foundation president Wachs says.

In the late 1990s, after the federal NEA scrapped nearly all its grants for individual artists (it continues to issue grants to organizations), Archibald L. Giddies, then the Warhol president, helped launch Creative Capital to fill some of the gap, Wachs said.

Because Creative Capital focuses heavily on visual arts, the foundation can -- and does -- funnel about $2 million a year, accounting for nearly half of Creative Capital's annual budget.

A key component of Creative Capital's program is teaching artists the sorts of things they didn't learn in art school -- in essence, the business model for being an artist, including introducing them to such concepts as "capacity building." "Just because you have a great idea doesn't necessarily mean that you would have the skills to do all phases, to achieve all phases of the idea," Lerner said. "You might have a great idea, but you might not know anything about marketing."

Another key element is using the Creative Capital grant as seed money to attract other grants -- what Lerner sees as a version of an IPO.

"That's the whole thing about going public," Lerner said. "You get a business to a certain point and then you want to take it public where other people will invest in it."

In the case of artists, Creative Capital uses its contacts to help artists gain other grants to augment its funding, and to entice galleries and museums to consider displaying the projects.

The program is not for everyone. Early-career artists whose vision has yet to gel aren't ready for the professional guidance. Established artists often have already navigated the business part of the arts and don't need career guidance, contacts or help developing their artistic infrastructure -- conceiving, executing and presenting their works.

Los Angeles artist Ruben Ochoa is just at the beginning of the cycle. He received a $5,000 grant last year for his still-developing project "Freeway Extractions," an act of optical illusion in which he hopes to cover a portion of an Interstate 10 retaining wall with photographic wallpaper of the green space on the other side. It's part of a three-stage project that includes erecting a billboard of a photograph he took of a fake chunk of freeway retaining wall posed in a suburban neighborhood, and constructing another chunk of retaining wall this September at LAXART, a nonprofit gallery on La Cienega Boulevard.

The point: to use the freeway retaining walls as cultural artifacts to draw attention to Los Angeles' class divides, Ochoa said. But to paper over the freeway wall he needs permission from both the city of Los Angeles and Caltrans, which he is in the process of obtaining.

Ochoa believes the grant gave his project enough credibility to gain the attention of public officials whose blessing he needs, and the Creative Capital retreat he participated in helped him in his discussions. "As cheesy as it sounds, it gave me a sense of empowerment that I came back with that, as an artist, I could negotiate," Ochoa said.

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