The Art Matters Timeline

Art Matters began as the brainchild of philanthropist Laura Donnelley, who wanted to assist artists struggling to say something with bite and punch, artists who made “art that mattered.” Incorporated in 1985 as a non-profit private foundation, Art Matters’ mission was to support experimentation in art, both in media and ideas. Donnelley assembled a board of professionals in the field with breadth and diversity of knowledge, and provided the operating and grant money for the first six years.

Art Matters gave fellowships to individual artists and, to a lesser degree, funding for the organizations that sponsored and presented new work, most often the alternative and artist run spaces. The foundation tried to make it easy for artists to apply by eschewing lengthy applications, and made the turn-around time for receiving funds as short as possible. Art Matters chose to give small grants to many artists rather than larger ones to fewer. Need was simply assumed, and promise, rather than accomplishment, was the issue.

David Wojnarowicz, Untitled, 1990. Photo courtesy of the Estate of David Wojnarowicz and PPOW. Art Matters grant recipient, 1989, 1990, 1991.

When conservative groups started taking pot shots at art in 1989, their wrath was often directed toward precisely the younger, more experimental and more vulnerable artists that Art Matters had been funding.

Art Matters responded to the government defunding and threat of censorship by making particular effort to aid artists who message was endangered by the chilling effects of the culture wars. Art Matters became a participant in the activism of the late 1980s, supporting strong statements and actions intended to protest and to produce change. The foundation gave seed money to a number of organized efforts that directly challenged the government’s position on cultural funding and AIDS, including the National Campaign for Freedom of Expression and Visual AIDS.

Krzysztof Wodiczko, Soldiers and Sailors-Boston, 1988. Photo courtesy of Gallery Lelong. Art Matters grant recipient, 1988.

Although Laura Donnelley understood the foundation’s ardor and stood by it, the oppositional stance that Art Matters forged during that time was difficult for her. In 1991, she refocused her giving and turned the foundation over to the board, leaving it with an endowment to support ongoing work.

Though a tremendous act of generosity, the endowment wasn’t large enough to sustain Art Matters on its own. The foundation sought additional monies for its fellowships by encouraging foundation colleagues to use Art Matters as a conduit for making grants to individuals if they were neither mandated nor legally structured to do it themselves. Additionally, it sought contributions from the broad public, initiating a number of professional mass mailings, inviting contributions of any size.

As these ventures produced only limited success, Art Matters decided to respond to the public sector challenge to non-profit organizations to adopt the practices of the entrepreneurial world. In 1994 Art Matters invested its endowment in the creation of a mail order catalog of artist-made objects to raise the revenue necessary to maintain and even expand its grants program. Many artists designed a wide range of products that Art Matters produced. Though the initial mailing of 1.2 million copies of the Art Matters Catalog made impressive returns, the income was insufficient to capitalize the new business for ensuing seasons and outside investors were hard to find.

Back page of the Art Matters Catalog 1995.

Due to lack of funds, Art Matters went on a hiatus from grant making starting in 1996. By that time, the foundation had given over $2 million to almost 2000 artists.

In 1997, with help of the Lannan Foundation, the foundation produced the book Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America, a collage of pieces addressing art in the 1980s and ’90s.

Cover, Art Matters: How the Culture Wars Changed America, 1997.

In 2005, Laura Donnelley and the board decided to reignite Art Matters’ grants program. Since 2007 the foundation has again been supporting a broad range of artists who are pushing aesthetic and social boundaries. During this period, Art Matters has given over 300 grants to US artists for fellowships and collaborative projects all over the world.

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Performance view of Rafa Esparza,  2014 Art Matters Grantee, building: a simulacrum of power, 2014, on the site of Michael Parker’s The Unfinished (2014), at the Bowtie Project, Los Angeles. Whitney Biennial.

With the onset of the pandemic in 2020, the Board of Directors and the staff of Art Matters eliminated the application process altogether. Art Matters swiftly diverted funds towards emergency financial support for past grantees and community-based mutual aid. We reaffirmed our belief that artists are among the first to respond to their communities in times of crisis. 

The challenges of the pandemic—and national reckoning with anti-Black racism—marked another inflection point for the Foundation. Art Matters committed to rebuilding the program from the ground up, with a renewed focus on justice and anti-oppressive practices, coalition-building, and cultures of care. 

In 2021, we met with past grantees to learn how this new program could truly empower artists. Through close consultation with Art Matters artists and other arts organizations, Art Matters embraced a more expansive definition of the word “artist,” one that would include culture workers and organizers, whose work is often under-supported in the current philanthropic landscape.

Together with the artists on the Art Matters Board, Director Abbey Williams proposed a complete transformation of the program: rather than facilitate a competitive application process, Art Matters would turn over the nomination process to artists themselves. In this new program—Artist2Artist—Art Matters would select artists to both receive a grant and designate a grant to another artist. From then on, grants to artists would be unrestricted. 

With robust support from the Board, Art Matters launched the pilot year of the program in 2021. Since then, we have witnessed artists broadening and deepening their most supportive relationships, giving to long-standing peers and past collaborators; to artists they’ve admired from afar; and to artists at critical junctures in their practices. 

Centering artists’ first-hand knowledge—and commitment to their peers and communities—this program has transformed the kind of support we are able to offer our grantees. Looking towards the future, we remain committed to being as radical in our giving as the artists we support. 

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Viva Ruiz, Thank God for Abortion, Vaticano (2019).

​The Arts Forward Fund

In 1991, Art Matters was involved in the conceptualization of the Arts Forward Fund and subsequently provided programmatic administrative support for it. Thirty-six New York City funders cooperated in this effort to bolster self-sufficiency among struggling arts organizations, many of them focusing on new art and facing the decline of government assistance. A strong assumption behind the Fund was that old fundraising and administrative structures no longer worked well enough and that fresh thinking was needed if organizations were to thrive (or in some cases, even survive) in the new climate. Financial administration was provided by the New York Community Trust, though the pooled resources that represented the Fund were controlled collectively by all thirty-six participants. The program was open to any arts group in the five boroughs of New York City. The Fund intended to send a positive and encouraging message to the arts community in New York City in a time of financial crisis, to change the nature of the dialogue between grant-makers and arts organizations, and to foster innovative collaborations. During the course of the Fund, thirty-six planning grants totaling $681,500 and seventeen implementation grants totaling $1,026,425 were awarded.