It is a good year to be an emerging artist in Boston. As part of its ongoing Boston Creates program, the city has started an annual Artist Fellowship that awards $10,000 per person to five local artists working in a variety of media. The winners were chosen by a jury of local arts leaders from a pool of 304 applications submitted from all across the city.
This year’s recipients were announced on October 11 and included Roslindale trumpeter and composer Jason Palmer, documentary filmmaker and Boston University professor Mary Jane Doherty, Roxbury artist Michelle Fornabai, performance artist Marilyn Arsem, and Dariel Suarez, a Brighton-based author who is currently working on his second novel.
Suarez, age 34, thinks he heard about the Artist Fellowship from one of his fellow staff members at GrubStreet, a creative writing center located in downtown Boston. Suarez works there full-time planning writing courses and often picks up teaching gigs on the side to make ends meet and continue writing his own work. He is hoping that this award will allow him to take a step back from teaching and focus on his novel, which will deal with the intersection of political dissidence and art in his native Cuba.
“It’s a huge help because I’m a writer with a full-time job,” Suarez said. “This really reduces the amount of extra work that I would have to take on in order to focus on the actual writing. Otherwise I would have to claw and scrape to find time to write.”
One of the biggest goals of the Artist Fellowship was to make it accessible to as many people as possible, no matter their specific discipline or background. According to Julie Burros, Boston’s Chief of Arts and Culture and the main organizer of the fellowship, the application process was specifically designed to place each distinct genre of art on a level playing field and designate at least one grant for each discipline. In an effort to make the process more inclusive, applicants were only required to have lived in Boston for three years in order to be eligible for the award. The city also accepted applications in six different languages and allowed applicants who were not fluent in English to submit a video of themselves describing their work in their native language in place of a resumé.
Suarez, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba in 1997, is excited that the city is recognizing the talents of all of its inhabitants.
“I noticed there were different language options and there was a lot of focus on different neighborhoods in the city, and I think that’s really important moving forward because Boston has a lot more diversity than people think,” he said. “I’m really glad they’re putting the tools out there for people to get access to this kind of support.”
Unlike many grants of its kind, the Artist Fellowship is not specific to any particular project, but rather leaves it up to the artist to decide how they spend the money. Mary Jane Doherty, another recipient of the fellowship, is planning on using the funding to get a professional sound mix on a film she is working on about the Boston Children’s Choir. She feels that getting a professional sound mix is one of the largest barriers of entry for independent filmmakers, and the higher production value would allow her to get more exposure at festivals than she has for most of her thirty year career.
“No filmmaker can afford the equipment that you need for a mix, and most filmmakers are not engineers, so there are a lot of arcane things you have to deal with,” Doherty said. “I’m excited to use this for a project where sound is the storyteller.”
The framework of the fellowship is the result of years of careful planning by the city’s Office of Arts and Culture.
“We looked at the structures of several different kinds of fellowship grant programs and decided that we wanted to have as few strings attached as possible,” Chief Burros said. “In the end we’re not funding a project, we’re funding a person.”
The award’s only stipulation is that each artist is responsible for collaborating with the city on bringing their work to the people of Boston in some way.
“The idea for Boston is, ‘How can we support our artists, and how can they support us?’” Doherty said. “So there’s an expectation that you’ll take your work and find ways to engage with the public, particularly kids and young people.”
Dariel Suarez feels that the city’s loose approach to the award is a huge vote of confidence for struggling artists starting out in Boston. For many, this kind of fellowship program is a welcome change of pace from the typical world of arts funding that is so dominated by museums or big foundations like the National Endowment for the Arts. There are very few opportunities for emerging artists who are independent from those organizations to get funding. According to Burros, one of the foremost goals of the Artist Fellowship was to combat this problem and make funding accessible to talented creators in the city who are not necessarily attached to a big name foundation or museum.
“If you can prove your dedication to your art, I think it’s important for the city to say, ‘We want you to stay here, we want you to produce work here, and we want you to succeed as an artist,’” said Suarez. “And the way that we pay that back is by representing the city in our work.”
“There is almost no funding for individuals, and that’s often where the really cool things come from,” Mary Jane Doherty said. “The fact that you don’t have to prove your connection with another organization is a very rare gift.”
Burros says they have the funding to continue the fellowship for the foreseeable future, and they have no plans to stop. She hopes that the Artist Fellowship and other programs like it can encourage new artists to develop their craft here and show them that Boston will continue to support them for as long as they are making art.