August 12, 2022

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The Value of the “Anchor Artist” 

4 min read

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Just as no two artists are alike, every arts community is defined by a distinct matrix of identities, perspectives, histories, and economic conditions. In order to be successful at any level, arts funding must respond to these conditions. This is why our organizations teamed up to create The Rainin Fellowship, a program tailored for the arts communities of San Francisco’s Bay Area (the home of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation), developed alongside United States Artists, which has supported artists across the country for nearly 20 years.

In designing The Rainin Fellowship, we viewed this challenge as an opportunity to fully appreciate what makes the Bay Area unique. We discovered that at the center of the arts in the San Francisco Bay Area is the anchor artist: someone central to their community who inevitably pushes the field forward. Not only are these people deeply rooted in today’s arts landscape, but they have also long been involved in the social movements that have defined the Bay Area for centuries — from the Black Panthers to the organic food movement and gay rights: “legacies that are in the fabric” of this place, as Fellow Brett Cook puts it, and cause “art to exist through a social lens.”

Brett Cook, “THE BLACK (W)HOLE” (2020)

By supporting anchor artists, the Rainin Fellowship aligns with and preserves this unique history, which is just another thing we risk losing if artists are not properly supported. At every moment in our history, the arts and artists have played an integral role in these social movements, including the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the American Indian Power Movement. But in a time of crisis, stoked by forces of displacement, gentrification, and inflation that are pushing out the constituents of these social movements, the urgency of our challenge becomes clear: How to preserve our communities, and culture, and how to do it swiftly, and sustainably? One answer, we have found, is to support the artists at the centers of these movements, allowing them to keep making work in their communities.

To consider the respective practices of our 2022 Rainin Fellows is to reflect upon different ways that artmaking can serve its surrounding communities. Expanding upon the traditions of relational aesthetics and creative placemaking, place keeping, and place knowing, the 2022 Fellows have spent years developing work that cannot be separated from the lives that run through it. For instance, NAKA Dance Theater explores the traditional divide between performer and audience. One of their most recent projects, Y Basta Ya! is a multidisciplinary and multilingual performance project that highlights the stories of Indigenous and Latinx immigrant women. These types of community-led projects are made possible in this case by Circulos de Aprendizaje (Collaborative Learning Circles) – groups of women who come together to creatively research and resolve problems affecting their communities in the Bay Area.

Still from Labor (2021), short film, 3:41. Oakland, Center for Cultural Power, written by Ryan Nicole Austin and directed by Niema Jordan.

Similarly, Film Fellow Maria Victoria Ponce understands the purpose (and power) of storytelling when it comes to historically excluded communities. When asked about her work, Ponce points to the lack of positive narratives when it comes to the suburbs of San Francisco, especially her Mexican-American community in Richmond. Her work often centers around coming-of-age stories and girlhood in particular, and these interests led her to create an after-school filmmaking program. Her practice asks: How can we lend permanence to our stories?

And pivoting on that notion of permanence, Public Space Fellow Brett Cook seeks to activate cultural institutions, embedding himself within the local community and public and civic spaces, in order to build relational, rather than transactional community art projects. His process-based project THE BLACK (W)HOLE exemplifies this approach, using performance to create public rituals for community mourning and healing. And finally, Theater Fellow Ryan Nicole Austin embodies the Bay’s long history of art activism. Austin founded the Haven Project, a cultural media production initiative for housing justice, aimed at local Bay Area voters. By engaging members of local communities to share their experiences and perspectives on housing justice, Austin’s practice pushes toward real-world policy change.

From audience engagement to storytelling, institutional critique to social activism, the 2022 Fellows represent various ways that artists affect their communities far beyond what was once considered to be the role of art. This fellowship structure of direct support matched with additional stipends aimed at supporting artists holistically, works for the Bay Area community, but can also be replicated in other communities across the country. And that’s the moment this becomes a national model. We hope that peer organizations across the country will begin implementing similar programs and forms of recognition in their communities. From New Orleans to New York to Milwaukee to Memphis, arts communities grow out of distinct histories. To successfully support artists moving forward, funders need to first consider how those communities came to be, and who has long been at their centers. We’ve found that if you go looking for an anchor, you find an artist.

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