On Aug. 13, the leaders of two small Buffalo cultural groups received an email announcing that each had won a surprise $30,000 grant from the New York City-based Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.
“It is not junk mail, it is not a hoax,” the email promised. “Your community believes you do good work and we want to recognize it with unrestricted support for the next three years.”
Dana Saylor-Furman of Emerging Leaders in the Arts Buffalo and Aimee Buyea of the art collective Sugar City, whose organizations are barely big enough to show up on the radar of local foundations, were incredulous.
“I thought it was a scam,” said Saylor-Furman, the lead organizer of the popular City of Night festival at Silo City. “I made a phone call to the Rauschenberg Foundation right after receiving it, and I got this English woman answering the phone. I was so perplexed, but they reassured me that it was real.”
The surprise grants, which were announced by the Rauschenberg Foundation on Wednesday, are part of a very real, two-year-old program designed to boost fledgling organizations in communities where cultural philanthropy is drying up. In its latest round of funding, the foundation’s “SEED Grant” program awarded $30,000 grants to 16 organizations across the country to be disbursed in $10,000 increments over three years.
Sugar City and Emerging Leaders in the Arts Buffalo, which organizes City of Night, were nominated for the grants by anonymous members of other Buffalo-based cultural organizations.
While some larger organizations routinely draw in national grants in the $30,000 range, it is extremely rare for organizations as early in their development as Sugar City and ELAB to receive such a large windfall. Sugar City opened its Wadsworth Street location in 2009, and ELAB was established the following year.
“Early-stage support at this level is uncommon,” said Risë Wilson, the Rauschenberg Foundation’s director of philanthropy and author of the email that so alarmed Saylor-Furman and Buyea. “And so, how do you promote, facilitate, support emerging organizations? How do you support good work at its earliest stages? How do you support innovation? People have to start somewhere.”
For Sugar City, an itinerant arts collective that left its home of three years in Allentown in 2012 and has since organized art and music events in other spaces around the city, the steady flow of grant money will aid the group in its search for a permanent home.
“It just came out of nowhere,” said Buyea, who is still trying to process the news along with the rest of her organization. “It made us feel legitimate now, finally. Even without a space, we’ve survived for a year. I think we’ve made our presence known, and having this group in New York City give us money is amazing, just to get recognition. And it’s also opening new doors as far as how we could grow.”
For Saylor-Furman, the grant provides some unexpected recognition for the hard volunteer work she and other members of ELAB have poured into City of Night and a way to ensure the festival’s growth. She said she believes the money will be largely used to subsidize the yearly festival.
“I definitely see it as validation in a lot of ways,” Saylor-Furman said. “I think what it says is that people are hungry for the types of projects that we’re creating and that Buffalo has a lot of connections to the larger cities around us that we may not even recognize or realize are so strong.”
Another $30,000 grant went to the Central New York-based organization Signal Culture, whose members have occasionally exhibited their work in Buffalo. The remaining 13 grants went to groups in Boise, Idaho; Cleveland; Kansas City; and Phoenix.
Wilson characterized the unorthodox approach of funding young and sometimes unproven organizations as an experiment in venture philanthropy, which has been popular in other areas but slow to make its way into the arts.
It’s an attempt, she said, to make sure that organizations “don’t have to cross their fingers that someone somewhere might take notice, and if they volunteer for 10 years, that somehow maybe they will be sustainable. There has to be a stronger innovation economy in cultural philanthropy, and there has to be a stronger early-stage economy as well.”