Set design by John McBurney, 2007 awardee. Photo courtesy Artist Foundation.

The Artist Foundation of San Antonio will raise funds for its ongoing grant program for local artists by transforming BRICK at the Blue Star Arts Complex into a fantastical winter wonderland, complete with guests dressed as elves on Dec. 4.

The Elf Ball, 7-11 p.m., includes a silent art auction featuring works from some of San Antonio’s most respected artists as well as performances by aerial artists group Aerial Horizons and music by DJ Arturo Cuellar. Food will be provided by local restaurants Stella, Hot Joy, Starfish, FOLC, and Bakery Lorraine.

The Artist Foundation (AF) was created in 2005 when Patricia Pratchett and Bettie Ward found themselves as panelists on a cultural arts board making recommendations regarding the state of funding for the arts in our city. Phil Hardberger was the newly-minted mayor. The SA2020 goals were years yet in the future. Pratchett and Ward didn’t know each other.

“All that existed were the institutions,” Pratchett recalled. “But there was no voice or seat at the table for the individual artist. That’s what was missing. Were we optimistic? Definitely naive. We just had this idea – a dream.”

Julia Langenberg, 2013 Tobin Grand Prize for Artistic Excellence. Photo by Sandy Carson, courtesy Artist Foundation.
Julia Langenberg, 2013 Tobin Grand Prize for Artistic Excellence. Photo by Sandy Carson, courtesy Artist Foundation.

In this season of giving, AF is one of San Antonio’s best kept non-secrets, marking its ninth cycle of grantmaking in 2014. Since 2006, the organization has made more than $500,000 in 92 individual grants to professional artists living and working in San Antonio and Bexar County. By the advent of this current cycle, more than 100 artists will have been funded to the tune of almost $600,000.

This nonprofit is what is known as a “pass-through organization.” This means that AF takes funding that is raised in the public and private sector and redistributes it to individual artists based purely on the quality of their grant submission – their artistic excellence. The application process creates an opportunity for the artists to articulate a body of work.

“We put money directly into the hands of artists. They have control over that money and they can do what’s in the deepest parts of them. They can do art,” Ward said. As simple as this may seem, it is a profound gift. And for many, a stepping stone to ultimate professional solvency.

The jury process is an extensive operation, with the opening of the grant cycle window lasting two months. The nonprofit must get the applications into the hands of the out-of-town jurors and then see the process through to fruition, culminating in the annual awards. The single individual in the AF organization who holds the common thread through this process is Elizabeth Ciarfeo. She is, in a sense, the “wizard behind the curtain.”

"Worn by the Sun" (detail) by Kelly O'Connor, 2011 Rick Liberto Award for Visual Arts. Photo courtesy Artist Foundation.
“Worn by the Sun” (detail) by Kelly O’Connor, 2011 Rick Liberto Award for Visual Arts. Photo courtesy Artist Foundation.

Attending the application workshop in 2013 and again in 2014, it is apparent that AF is invested in the success of each individual applicant. They want artists to succeed. Ciarfeo makes clear that she is available to help out with any stumbling blocks and to make sure that each application is uploaded correctly in order to assure the best shot at a positive outcome.

The process is a challenge, and it is meant to be. Each award is in the amount of $5,000, and is made for the creation of new, original work. This proposal must be completed by the end of the grant period of one year. Each winner signs a contract with AF that specifies responsibilities that are intended to ensure that the funds awarded are used in a manner that is compliant with the Foundation’s charitable guidelines. It is notable that in the history of AF’s grant-making, no one has ever skipped out on a grant.

It is also significant that these award decisions are made by anonymous jurors from outside San Antonio. It had to evolve that way. Anyone who has spent quality time in San Antonio understands the small-town nature of our big city. After the first several years into the process, it became clear that AF needed to do something to broaden the pool of professional jurors.

“The process was too insular. We were even turned down for a grant because of this,” Ciarfeo said.

Today, digital files are made available for jurors, primarily from outside Texas, around the country and internationally, to “live with” for a period of six to eight weeks.

“This has been a really good thing to raise the awareness of San Antonio artists with people in Los Angeles, New York, England, Italy – all over. These jurors bring a world of experiences to bear,” Ciarfeo said. “It’s baby steps, but if you get the buzz going and people talking about this great program in San Antonio, Texas, it just makes the whole city and our artists look better and it is just very encouraging for our artists.”

The first award payment in the sum of $2,500 will be made to each recipient beginning January 2015.

It is anticipated that there will be ten $5,000 awards in categories including Literary Arts, Visual Arts, Media Arts, and Performing Arts. There is also The Robert L.B. Tobin Grand Prize for Artistic Excellence, an additional $7,500 award for which the winners from each category will be considered. Once an artist is a winner of one of these coveted awards, he or she must sit out for five years before being eligible to apply again.

Perhaps the truest reward at the end of the application process is that the artist has a detailed working proposal. As artist Renee Garvins stated in her exit interview with AF, “I want to thank you. I didn’t win, but I thought through my process and made my goal happen anyway.”

Margaret Mitchell, 2010 Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Costume Design. Photo courtesy Artist Foundation.
Margaret Mitchell, 2010 Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Costume Design. Photo courtesy Artist Foundation.

There are many success stories among grant recipients. AF grants have nurtured some of the best and brightest of our city, setting these visionaries free to pursue new ideas, to create. It is also a fact that AF has one of the biggest archives of San Antonio artists with more than 600 applications since 2007. There are so many stories, each important in its own way, that we must settle for just one.

Justin Parr shared his experiences with AF during the October grant application workshop. “I had been working as a photographer for the Current pretty steadily,” he said. He had a lot of ideas for projects he wanted to do.

“But what I needed more than anything was to be able to pay my bills and have that time to dedicate to a beautiful project,” he said.

Ultimately, Parr received an AF grant in 2007 that allowed him that time and space to work on his new media project about San Antonio, combining still photography and video.

Fast-forward five years, and Justin is involved in exploring a variety of media over those years. He is also interested in getting into the world of public art. Looking for the right project, Justin requires one that is truly meaningful to him as an artist. This is his way. Otherwise, he simply can’t feel passionate about the project.

“It so happened that the Houston airport put out a really kind of vague idea of what they wanted for a video project thing, and I saw it and thought, ‘Hey, they’re talking about my work!”’

Considering that Parr had never done a public art commission before, he used the proposal that he had submitted to the AF in 2007 to pitch his idea for this $72,000 project at Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. His idea was a hit, and Parr was selected to carry out this major commission.

“It has essentially changed my entire world, my career, everything. And I owe all of that to getting the Artist Foundation grant.”

That is fairly heady stuff. And, again, Justin Parr is not alone. The impact that the AF has made upon the lives of numerous San Antonio artists is meaningful and transformative. You can search the history of past AF award recipients here.

"Highway 1" by Sara J. Frantz, 2012 Graham Weston Award for Visual Arts. Photo courtesy Artist Foundation.
“Highway 1” by Sara J. Frantz, 2012 Graham Weston Award for Visual Arts. Photo courtesy Artist Foundation.

At the end of the day, it takes a great belief and passion to make an organization like this hum. The AF still finds itself on a shoestring budget with no “bricks and mortar” home or staff. Ciarfeo essentially operates as a executive director, but she is a contract worker, paid when there is a grant to compensate her. More often, there isn’t. This is one of the organization’s greatest challenges.

There is a very supportive board of directors, a group of people willing to make the commitment of energy that a grassroots movement like this requires. However, this kind of drive and energy burns bright and is a real balancing act to maintain. A board like this does some heavy lifting.

“The people involved since the beginning are those who are passionate about this initiative that creates a place where artists can rise,” Pratchett said.

There is a revolving door of granting organizations that lend support. The Linda Pace Foundation, The Tobin Foundation, The Rick Liberto Award, The George Cortes Award, The Alan Beckstead Award, The Department for Culture and Creative Development, the city kicking in $30,000 in the next fiscal year, and there are more. There is an ebb and flow of support. Graham Weston was a contributor at one time, The Elizabeth Huth Coates Charitable Foundation, at another. AF needs meaningful financial support to maintain its gains and to take its dream to the next level.

As Ciarfeo points out, “The Artist Foundation culture is to nurture artistic excellence, whatever that may be.”  Can San Antonio not only continue to sustain, but also to grow a vital organization such as this? If so, then the city may quite honestly be “on the rise.”

Time will tell.

Tickets for The Elf Ball are $125 per person (tax deductible) and can be purchased online here, or by calling (210)262-8653. Attire is your elfin best, but hey, this is an art event, so as long as you’re having fun, anything goes.

*Featured/top image: John McBurney, 2007 Robert L.B. Tobin Award for Costume Design.  Photo courtesy Artist Foundation.

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Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...