Reflecting on Ten Years of Rocket Grants with Julia Cole

To talk about the ten year anniversary of Rocket Grants is to understand the way that the arts landscape has changed in Kansas City throughout that time. In 2009, “social practice” frequently wasn’t even recognized as a legitimate art form. So, while the requirement for a Rocket Grant project was that innovative work should be presented in a public, non-conventional venue, most of the projects were still extensions of artists’ individual studio practices. In the past several years though, the projects have tended to be much more collaborative and social practice oriented—reflecting a shift in both the vision of applicants and the preferences of selection panelists. 

More important, though, has been the demographic shift during this time. “Our first year, I think there were only two artists of color among all the teams who received an award,” reflects Julia Cole, Program Coordinator for Rocket Grants, “but that was also a reflection of the city’s fundamentally white art scene at the time.” That discrepancy is still being reinforced by a “pipeline issue” today: poorer, predominantly black and brown schools get their arts programs slashed and as a result many students don’t learn to see themselves as either artists or arts audiences. Also, artists without a formal arts education often don’t have the professional practice skill set to write an artist statement or a grant proposal required by mainstream opportunities. Beyond the logistical gate-keeping there is a cultural one as well. The definition of what is “excellent” within the arts scene is dictated by art school culture and, well, art school tends to be very white.

Julia Cole, Rocket Grant Program Director

In those early years Rocket Grants made efforts to counter the lack of racial diversity in applicants.“We had lots of one on one meetings with artists, encouraging them to apply,” says Julia, “and we held workshops to teach the professional practice skills needed to complete an application.” These efforts along with broader changes in the art scene have evened the playing field somewhat; demographics for racial and ethnic diversity among applications now exceed those in the city as a whole. Still, the Rocket Grants program makes a conscious effort to welcome fresh art proposals that reflect all kinds of experience and perspectives, with the goal of continuing to shift the broader arts landscape in Kansas City beyond a familiar “art school stamp.”

At its inception, Rocket Grants was a satellite program of Charlotte Street Foundation and the Spencer Museum of Art at KU, the third of its kind in the US. Now, it is deeply embedded in regional culture and there are fourteen (and counting) other grant programs like it across the country, all funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation. The changing Kansas City arts scene will continue to shape the Rocket Grant program as it enters its second decade. Julia says she’s not sure what to expect over the next five years. “The arts scene is shifting so drastically here. We’re looking at the first big wave of artists being displaced from the city due to gentrification.” Artist spaces—like The Drugstore and Front/Space which are both moving this year—are being developed or becoming too expensive to maintain in central locations. Art school, studio space, and even affordable living space has become more and more inaccessible in Kansas City. 

She hopes that Rocket Grants will continue to receive and provide support, even if the way they fund artists changes. In some cities their program’s footprint has shifted: San Francisco now primarily funds artist projects in Oakland and beyond because that’s where artists can currently afford to live and work. Others fund artist spaces rather than individuals, which often have a stronger ripple effect in the arts community. Because of the expansive, public-facing nature of the Rocket Grants program and the progressive views of the Warhol Foundation, Julia sees the grant as an opportunity for artists to fight back. “I hope this program continues to encourage artists to be creatively provocative, and—especially as art is increasingly tamed for economic purposes—to explore alternative ideas and activities that may not otherwise receive approval or financial support.”

Drea DiCarlo, June 2019

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