First Year, First Impressions

Lou Cove
The Hebrew transliteration of “CANVAS” and the starting point for our logo design by Ella Ponizovsky Bergelson.

Who would be crazy enough to launch a fund supporting Jewish arts and culture in March of 2020? To our own amazement, we did.

It’s been barely a year since we made our first grants to Jewish arts and culture networks. Since then, CANVAS has committed more than $1.4 million to the encourage and strengthen modern Jewish creativity in North America.

We’re just getting started.

But before we look ahead, we’d like to take stock of what’s happened thus far.

Meeting a Need, Filling a Gap

We founded CANVAS based on the belief that a Jewish cultural renaissance is taking place before our eyes, and that this renaissance is central to the lives and identities of 21st century Jews. At the same time, our creative “exports” build understanding and connection with the broader world, particularly at a time when antisemitism is on the rise. 

We also believe that Jewish arts and culture do not exist in a vacuum—they’re not a separate interest area disconnected from “more urgent” philanthropic priorities. As in physics, we see a kind of Unified Field Theory, in which creativity is inseparable from everything we are as Jews. And when we nurture this field, when we encourage excellence and beauty, we see an immediate and lasting impact in education, community engagement, and cross-cultural understanding. 

We started CANVAS because the challenge was clear: there are perilously few funders making coordinated, meaningful investments in this field. We could say this about the arts world in general, but the Jewish arts world faces even more existential challenges: 

  • No dedicated national support agencies (i.e. NEA, NEH)
  • No dedicated regional support agencies (i.e. state cultural councils)
  • No dedicated foundations (i.e. Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts)         
  • Anemic income and individual donor support  

The pandemic has only accelerated the crisis, in both immediate financial terms, and in lasting ways we are only beginning to fathom. 

The good news is that as we conclude our first year of grantmaking, we are more convinced than ever that the Renaissance is afoot. Jewish arts and culture are flowering. The powerful and motivated core of the field is now better defined and more coordinated. 

Yet in a year when the pandemic has decimated the creative economy, the need is greater than when we began. 

Strengthening the Field   

The first phase of our work was devoted to getting funding into the arts and culture ecosystem quickly and efficiently. This required identifying partner funders, staffing the project, defining a grantmaking process, and establishing a grants Advisory Council.

Proposals to CANVAS were (and are) by invitation only and must demonstrate a commitment to, and articulated strategy for: 

  • Ideas or themes inspired by Jewish religion, history, tradition, ritual, or culture 
  • Prioritizing artistic excellence worthy of (inter)national recognition 
  • Meaningful engagement with Jewish community (audiences/distribution networks) 
  • Meaningful engagement with the larger community (audiences/distribution networks) 
  • Measurable impact (as defined by the grantee and agreed upon by CANVAS) 
  • Financial sustainability and capacity-building   

Total CANVAS commitments to the field have exceeded $1.4 million to-date, including $736,000 in unrestricted funding of Jewish arts and culture networks: 

We can’t encourage you enough to follow, subscribe and — most of all — experience the work of these organizations which, collectively, represent more than 2,000 professional Jewish creatives.

Grants to networks were unrestricted, but grantees were encouraged to focus on: core operations (strengthening and growing its primary network or distribution channel), and/or the organization’s capacity-building plan.  

CANVAS also made a strategic pivot at the outset of the pandemic, releasing $180,000 in emergency relief to artists and creatives economically impacted by COVID-19. Leveraging the power of our grantee networks, we were able to quickly identify and distribute these funds to those who needed them most.

Funds were allocated proportionally to the five networks based on their relative grant awards. As a result, 130 creatives received grants averaging $1,385—although each network was free to set the award amount. Reboot, for example, employed ten out-of-work individuals for projects like DAWN, paying them an average of $5,000 each. Asylum offered $1,000 to artists. CAJM supported out-of-work curators to continue efforts like:

Coordinated Funders, Coordinated Field

Coordinating funders and making strategic grants was a first step in supporting an ecosystem. As I’ve often said: you don’t get a Renaissance without a few Medicis.

But real change and growth comes when the field is empowered.

Almost immediately after funding our first cohort of network grantees, we brought the group together for monthly meetings. They were all aware of one another. Some had worked on projects together. Yet the potential of the group had never been explored in this way.

While it was not a specific goal of CANVAS to develop a collaborative cohort among its grantees, we have been genuinely thrilled to see the mutual interest, support, and creative energy that has flowed between them. The evidence can be seen in their monthly meetings, their collaborative writings and cross-promotions, their shared wisdom and learning, and their collective proposal to stage a COVID-safe, coast-to-coast exhibition called Dwelling in a Time of Plagues, for Sukkot 2020 and Passover 2021.

This initiative, supported and guided by CANVAS—with a total commitment of $241,000—commissioned world-class Jewish artists to design pandemic-friendly exhibits for the outdoor spaces available at several major Jewish museums and other sites around the U.S., including Boston; Tucson; Portland, OR; Charlotte, NC; New York City; Toronto; and Los Angeles. 

Even before the exhibits went up, the work was receiving fantasticnationalcoverage — a signal that the coordination of funding, the strategic support of the backbone infrastructure of the field, and the combined efforts of all parties does indeed have the potential to make everyone greater than the sum of their parts.

Media coverage is an important next step for CANVAS in terms of ensuring that the tremendous work of our grantees and other creatives in the field finds its way to the widest possible audience.  

To that end, we recently distributed an additional $257,000 in media grants to increase the volume, diversity, and sophistication of the coverage of Jewish arts and culture in media outlets like The Forward, Alma, and HyperAllergic. We’ll discuss this strategy in more detail in a future issue of the CANVAS Compendium.

Giving with Gratitude

We are extraordinarily grateful to serve these outstanding Jewish organizations, and we’re particularly proud of supporting so many artists. The Renaissance of Jewish art and culture is a fragile one, but through the structural support of CANVAS we hope to reinforce and grow its foundations for years to come. 

Naturally, none of this happens without partnership. In our case, the “first family” of the 21st century’s Jewish cultural Renaissance is made up of these visionary grantmakers who see clearly how essential a healthy Jewish arts and culture ecosystem is to a healthy Jewish community: 

  • The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies
  • The Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation
  • The Jim Joseph Foundation
  • The Klarman Family Foundation
  • The Howard and Geraldine Polinger Family Foundation
  • The Peleh Fund
  • The Righteous Persons Foundation 

Additional support for CANVAS has come from the John Pritzker Family Foundation and the Donald and Carole Chaiken Foundation. 

We’ll have more to say about our partner’s thoughtful approaches to funding the arts in future issues — they are inspirations to us. 

Most importantly, we will be dedicating this space to upcoming profiles of the grantees themselves. You’ll learn firsthand about the dedicated people and organizations leading the charge in a renaissance of modern Jewish creativity.

In the meantime, wishing you all a summer of good health. The CANVAS Compendium will return in the second half of August. Don’t forget to take time out to experience and support all the amazing artists among us! 

Lou Cove
Founder, CANVAS

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