Arts as social change: The Fields Artist Fellowship

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Jerry Tischleder

After three years of volunteer service with the Oregon Community Foundation (OCF), artist James Lavadour shared a transformative idea. He related how support from an individual patron early in his painting career provided the means to explore his artistic boundaries, increase his impact and move his work forward faster than expected. What if, Lavadour wondered, we could create a similar, new model of support for emerging artists, giving them time and space to explore social issues? Could their creativity provide us with insights that illuminate solutions to some of our most intractable problems?

In philanthropy, we are accustomed to making grants that fall neatly into buckets, categorized and measured in areas such as “environment,” “education,” “arts.” Lavadour’s inspiration opened an opportunity to consider innovating a granting solution to support individuals in artistic practice, working on solutions for critical issues facing our society.

OCF approached Oregon Humanities (OH) with Lavadour’s idea and recommended a partnership opportunity – sparking the creation of the inaugural Fields Artist Fellowship.  In May, the organizations announced a two-year, $100,000 grant to four individual artists, with guidance that they use their creativity and resources to respond to Oregon’s “opportunity gap.” The opportunity gap refers to widening disparities in life outcomes for children born into poverty and for children of color. For these children, the income level represented by their zip code can predict their future life outcomes with disturbing accuracy.

Building a new model

The Fields Artist Fellowship is a first for Oregon Community Foundation and new territory for philanthropy in general. While we regularly fund local nonprofits focused on arts and culture, we had never funded individual artists, let alone asked any arts grantee to focus their work on a particular issue. And while it felt unconventional to ask an artist to focus on a social issue as important as the opportunity gap, we went into the process willing to take a risk, knowing that mustering the creativity of talented artists could lead us to new insights and possibly even new solutions to support our work in this area.

As a community foundation we work on the front lines with nonprofits who are directly impacted by many pressing challenges experienced within communities. Philanthropic capital is patient capital—investing in areas that government or the market cannot or will not.  OCF’s strategic investment in areas where the outcomes are undefined opens opportunities to learn, innovate and scale new ideas and approaches. 

How will we evaluate success? OCF and OH set an expectation that these artists advance their careers and work connected to the opportunity gap, while retaining flexibility to learn throughout the fellowship and adapt their strategies on the fly. We plan to convene these fellows regularly and collaborate on definitions of success, identify needed technical assistance, and celebrate achievements.

The Fellowship announcement delivered an outpouring of response from talented artists across the state – practically overwhelming the selection committee with both the quantity of applicants and quality of represented work. A majority were already creating art reflecting an interest in social issues, including poverty and access to opportunity for people of color and those from low-income communities. We kept the application process deliberately simple—a series of questions about the artists, their art and how they could address the opportunity gap.

Although the outcomes are unknown, Oregonians are eager to follow the progress of these artists helping us tackle disparities in a unique way. This is the very definition of community engagement and collaboration – a perspective we embrace at Oregon Community Foundation.


Jerry Tischleder is the Program Officer for Arts and Culture for the Oregon Community Foundation.

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