Interviews with Experts: Stacy Tenenbaum Stark, Foundation for Contemporary Arts

Stacy Tenenbaum Stark always knew art would be an integral part of her life. What she couldn’t have foretold was how serendipity would lead her not only to a well-suited job but also to a person long admired. She grew up on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Weekends, her parents, both professionals, took her to the Metropolitan, MoMA, and performances at Lincoln Center. She studied art history in college, then got her master’s in the same subject at London’s Courtauld Institute of Art. She didn’t want to work at an art gallery or auction house. Nor did she desire a life in academia. She wanted to help artists. “I wasn’t interested in the commodification of art,” she says. “As a 22-year-old, I didn’t know the foundation world existed. Otherwise, I might have come to it sooner.” She finished grad school during a recession. Art jobs were scarce in New York City. For the next fifteen years, she worked on the corporate side of the cosmetics industry. Still, she lectured at the Metropolitan and gave talks at MoMA on special exhibitions and the modern and contemporary collections. She started an art-consulting business, connecting collectors to emerging artists. In late 2004, she heard about a position at the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, a fundraising endeavor created in 1963 by artists Jasper Johns and John Cage. FCA seeks to foster and support artists working in dance, music, performance, poetry, and visual arts through the donations of work from artists, as well as through other contributions. ArtBase sat down with Stacy to learn more about FCA, what she does, and the upcoming FCA Benefit Exhibition.

Q: Describe the Foundation.

FCA is truly an artist organization; it was founded by artists and is still led by artists. For the first thirty years, Jasper Johns ran it out of his studio with no staff--you could stay it was a labor of love for Jasper and John Cage, and the other artists on the board. In a nutshell, visual artists come together to make grants to other artists. We are one of the few foundations to make large unrestricted grants to individuals. We also make small emergency grants: last-minute funds for artists who don’t have the money to take advantage of an opportunity. We are the only organization of our kind, to be founded by artists to support other artists.

Q: What’s your position?

Executive director. The first time there was a director was in 1993. I came in as the second in 2005. Things were a bit sleepy; it was just me and one other person on staff. The artist community was very much involved in supporting the organization and the grants that FCA made, but the general public and the foundation world were not. My mandate coming in was to expand the fund-raising and build a community of non-artist donors alongside the community of artists, with the goal of growing the grant programs and making a bigger impact on the field.

Q: What does your job entail?

I am responsible for overseeing our grant programs, administration, and fund-raising. In addition being out in the community and supporting as many artists as we can, I try to see a lot of work, and expand the community of artists who are involved with our programs. The fund-raising takes many forms: benefit exhibitions, behind-the-scenes events with all types of artists, a new membership group. Within administration, we manage a collection of donated work that is available for sale. I am also the de facto CFO, the HR director, the operations director, and I wear other managerial hats typical in an arts organization.

Q: Tell us about the fund-raising.

We organize periodic benefit exhibitions. We have one coming up at Gladstone Gallery that opens November 29. Over 100 artists are donating works, and the proceeds benefit our grant programs. Benefit exhibitions are a big part of the effort here, but we also raise funds from individuals, foundations, and the city government. We spread the word to art collectors, philanthropists, and people who support the arts who might be interested in our programs. Collectors might come to a benefit exhibition and buy a work, or even make a donation. We write lots of grant proposals and we meet with foundation program officers to encourage their support. We receive funds for the Emergency Grants program from the Department of Cultural Affairs. A year ago, we started a membership group called the FCA Friends. They underwrite one Grants to Artists award through their dues. It’s a very exciting and direct form of philanthropy. The first FCA Friends grantee, Carissa Rodriguez, was just selected as part of this latest grant cycle. Carissa had a show at SculptureCenter last winter, and the group was invited to a walk-through with her.

Q: How long have the grant programs been around?

The current programs were both were founded in 1993. In the early ’90s, with the retrenchment of the NEA supporting individual artists, our board felt it was important to continue to support individual artists, but in a bigger way than we had done previously. Before this, during the first thirty years of the organization when it was truly artist-led, things were more ad-hoc. An artist would write a letter and say, “I need money,” or “I have a hardship,” and the board of artists would come together periodically to review these requests. Then you would get a check in the mail, usually signed by John Cage.

Q: And now?

We have worked hard to grow the programs over time. Today we make over $1 million in grants. We only disbursed $18,000 in Emergency Grants in 2004, and this year it will be $250,000. We will probably receive about one thousand applications for Emergency Grants by the end of 2018 and will make about 180. It’s very competitive. The Grants to Artists are large, unrestricted $40,000 awards, and we make eighteen a year now—over $750,000. My dream is to raise enough funds in the next few years to increase these to $50,000 each.

Q: How do the Grants to Artists happen?

These grants are life-changing. They occur through a two-part confidential-nomination and selection process. We invite a group of artists and arts professionals, and each person proposes one artist for whom they think the award would be transformative. Then a separate group, the selection committee, reviews all of the nominations. They look at the artists’ work samples and c.v.s. They read articles, reviews, and interviews. Then they spend several days deliberating before selecting the recipients. There are about fifty artists nominated each year, and it’s completely confidential.

Q: The artists don’t know they’re being selected. Is there a schedule?

Yes it’s an annual cycle. By June we have all of the nominees proposed and the recommendation letters from the nominators. We spend the summer researching each nominee, and by September we’re putting together a big panel book, which goes out to the selection committee. The selection meetings take place in November.

Q: Who is on the committee?

Our board of directors—ten artists and three non-artists—and then we invite a specialist in each field that we support: dance; music/sound; theater/performance art; and visual arts. Those experts could be practicing artists themselves, curators, or arts presenters. Sometimes they are past Grants to Artists recipients. Poetry is handled separately: There are two advisers who are asked to read the work of the nominated poets and make recommendations to the selection committee. Each grant cycle has a different set of advisers, and the same holds true for the selection committees: The board is a constant but the outside experts change.

Q: Are recipients both emerging and established artists?

It’s a range. There have been recipients in this program who were 26 and others who were 86. “Emerging” is a very elastic term for us. A poet in her seventies may still not be financially secure. Or a composer may have been working in obscurity for a long time and never received any kind of grant or recognition before. It’s less about established than under-recognized.

Q: How do the benefit exhibitions take place?

Artists oversee and curate the installation of the shows, so they are beautifully installed, up for a few weeks, and really proper exhibitions. FCA doesn’t auction the work; we sell it. We tend to get good works because it isn’t being auctioned for a fraction of its price. The shows are periodic—not every year—because they’re so massive. This will only be our sixteenth in fifty-five years.

Q: The one opening on November 29 at Gladstone Gallery. What can you tell us?

We’ve invited the artist Adam McEwen to curate it. Adam came up with a list of artists to invite. Curating a benefit show is hard—artists want to be generous and give a work, so one can’t dictate, “Give me this work and not that work.” There will be over one hundred artists, and Adam has asked the contributors to respond to a particular work by Jasper Johns, and a work by another of our Board members, Glenn Ligon. These two works serve as Adam’s tent poles for the exhibition. That is about as much as I can disclose.

Q: What happens when something doesn’t sell?

Because we don’t auction the work, it often doesn’t sell, which means we have an incredible collection of donated art, some of it dating back to our first benefit in 1963. It is all on our website and available for sale. It is just as useful and important to FCA when a work doesn’t sell, because we might sell it two or ten or twenty years later, and we are still raising money from that donation. One person on staff manages the collection full time. She serves as the registrar, fields sales inquiries and viewings, and she acts as an art handler too. She is working closely with Adam on our benefit exhibition. We sometimes consign work to galleries. Here and there we’ve had art consultants come in to find works for clients.

Q: What makes your job rewarding?

One of the most exciting things is calling the Grants to Artists recipients to tell them they were nominated and selected for an award. We are changing somebody’s life on a phone call. More often than not I’m told the award couldn’t come at a better time. I don’t know how that happens so often, but an artist is sitting there thinking, “I don’t know how I can go on,” or “I can’t pay my rent.” Then they get our phone call and the news that they are getting $40,000, and that helps them continue on. We also hear about the importance of peer validation. A lot of artists are isolated in their studios and not getting the support they need from other artists, so a Grants to Artists award is like the community of artists and arts professionals is saying to you, “You’re worthy and should continue what you’re doing.”

Q: What makes your job fun?

Working with artists. The Emergency Grants are decided by a group of volunteer artists, and they come in once a month. We look at work all the time, and that’s really exciting. Because we are multidisciplinary, we have a sense of what’s going on in all the different fields. Every day is different. Once a month we might have an Emergency Grants panel meeting, and with a volunteer group of artists, we make our way through dozens of applicants and come out at the end with the feeling that we did good work and supported a dozen worthy projects. Other days I might be working on fund-raising—could be a grant proposal, an appeal letter, or planning an event with an artist, or planning for the benefit exhibition. I also spend a lot of time in front of spreadsheets, developing our operating budget and strategizing and planning how we can grow our programs and help more artists.

Q: What’s the most challenging part?

We’d love to be able to grant more than we are able to but we are limited by the size of the staff. Emergency Grants has been a hugely useful program. We are getting more and more applications every year and are at a point where the staff can’t handle more, but the need is there in the community. We are grappling with, how do we grow a program where there is a great need but don’t have the staff capacity to handle it?

Q: What makes your job easier? Any tricks of the trade or tools that help on a daily basis?

ArtBase. It’s a trick—and it’s a tool. Because we are not an art gallery or an artist’s studio, our needs for a database program are different. We’ve been really lucky to work with the ArtBase team to have a very customized version. We document everything into ArtBase. We don’t have separate grant-making and donor software as most nonprofits would, so we can house all of our data under one roof—not only donated work past and present, but also grantees, applicants, donating artists, and non-artist supporters. Often there’s overlap. An artist who is a grantee may have already donated a work or applied for an Emergency Grant. Or I can think of an artist on our board who has served on a benefit-exhibition committee, donated work, donated funds, once served as a nominator, and once served on a panel. If we didn’t have ArtBase, we wouldn’t be able to look at that artist’s record and say, “Oh, he is connected to FCA in all these ways.” We would have to look in four different databases otherwise. We’ve created many letter templates. That’s a huge time saver. We now have grant acknowledgment and grant agreement letters and other notification letters all set as form letters that can pull data from different fields within ArtBase. In the time I’ve been here, we’ve probably had three meetings with ArtBase to say, “Here’s our wish list of how we’d like to customize it further.” And Adam is such a pro that he always finds a way to check every item on that list.

Q: What helped you find success in the art world?

A business background. I worked in the corporate world for fifteen years, doing marketing, brand management, finance, and communications, all things that feed into my job every day here. That’s been critical. And, believing in experimental work, that artists push our culture and society forward. I’ve always been interested in experimental and avant-garde work. This job dovetails with my own beliefs. It’s about helping artists, whether it’s to continue to do their work or get their work exposed.

Q: Do you have an all-time favorite artist?

It actually always was and still is Jasper Johns. Long before I came here, he was my favorite artist, and I always followed his work. I was able to travel during college to Venice to see the 1988 Biennale the year he was representing the United States. I went to college in Philadelphia, and Jasper had a retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art while I was an undergraduate. I attended a daylong symposium about Jasper’s work, and John Cage was there and performed. So the connection to Cage and Johns goes way back for me. It really is extraordinary that I wound up working here.

Thanks, Stacy!