Of the dozens of cash grants Artist Trust hands out each year, the Artist Innovator Award (AIA) is the most prestigious: Two Washington state artists get $25,000 each and the finalists get resumé-enhancing bragging rights.
By comparison, the Betty Bowen Award, administered by Seattle Art Museum, is $15,000 plus an exhibition of the artist’s work at the museum.
But this year, a blowup around the AIA has become a kind of referendum on Artist Trust, the 33-year-old nonprofit that supports Washington artists and distributes nearly half-a-million dollars in awards each year.
Given the strong response from the arts community in the past few days, it seems like Artist Trust had been leaking gasoline for years, and this year’s AIA process — during which the Artist Trust board invited a panel of artists to select AIA winners and finalists, and then unexpectedly rejected all the panel’s suggestions — lit the match.
On Monday, a group of artists, including three of the five AIA panelists, published an open letter accusing Artist Trust of being “inequitable, opaque and unresponsive to community needs” with “long-held practices that have unjustly impacted Black, Indigenous and otherwise racialized peoples.”
By Tuesday afternoon, over 150 arts workers had signed the letter, as well as 11 former Artist Trust staff members.
Signatories include individual artists (musician and composer Benjamin Hunter, writer Stacey Levine, painter and curator Anthony White, artist and musician Clyde Petersen) and arts administrators (Northwest Film Forum director Vivian Hua, On the Boards artistic director Rachel Cook, Jacob Lawrence Gallery curator and director Emily Zimmerman).
The letter levies three main charges: a “toxic” work environment at Artist Trust that has pushed out “womxn and/or people of color”; the sudden cancellation of the 2020 Artist Fellowship Awards (around eight awards of $10,000 each), which were supposed to be announced in June; and the Artist Trust board’s refusal to accept its own panel’s recommendations for the 2020 AIA awards.
Shannon Halberstadt, CEO of Artist Trust, said she welcomes the community letter and whatever public dialogue comes next.
“I’m really excited about this opportunity, to talk about what we’re doing, and how we can change and improve,” Halberstadt said. “This is what every organization wants, right?”
Halberstadt said the 2020 Artist Fellowship Awards hadn’t been canceled, merely postponed until winter; since March, she explained, Artist Trust has focused all its energy on COVID relief. (To date, she said, the organization has raised $650,000 in emergency funds, and distributed them to nearly 400 artists.)
That unannounced postponement is a particular frustration, as other merit-based grant programs — like those at Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture — have been put on pause for COVID relief, shutting off yet another income stream for artists.
Paired with accusations of a toxic work environment, the letter calls for a fundamental restructuring of Artist Trust’s board and staff, beginning with public forums to address grievances, as well as a public, community-vetted auditing process.
“We absolutely want to have a series of public meetings and public accountability,” Halberstadt said. “That’s an exciting and interesting way to talk about Artist Trust and be in dialogue with our community.”
But Halberstadt said she could not yet discuss the AIA controversy, nor why the board vetoed the panel’s selection of winners. “This process is currently open and active,” she said. “We want to respect the privacy of all the artists involved, so we don’t generally talk about the internal details until after the award is announced, out of respect for the artists.”
Normally an AIA process goes like this: Artist Trust opens applications for the AIA awards. (This year, 127 people applied.) Then it invites a panel of artists to select two winners, one alternate — in case one of the winners turns out to be ineligible — and a handful of finalists. (This year, there were eight.) That work typically takes months of application reviews and interviews, plus three days of in-person deliberations. The panel sends its selections to the board, which typically votes to approve them.
“In my six years at Artist Trust, I don’t recall the board ever not approving a panel’s recommendations for award winners,” said Zach Frimmel, a former program coordinator at Artist Trust who left in February and who signed the letter. “That was surprising.”
Why the rejection? Because the board says it learned one of the panelists had an undisclosed conflict of interest with one of the winners.
“This undisclosed conflict creates a violation of ethics and undermines the integrity of the panel’s selection,” Artist Trust board member Cezanne Garcia wrote in a Feb. 26 email to an AIA panel member, which was shared with The Seattle Times. “We regret that the Artist Trust board did not vote [to] approve the artists your panel recommended.”
The AIA panelist in question, Anida Yoeu Ali, as well as fellow panelists Shin Yu Pai and John Feodorov, told the board the conflict-of-interest accusation was baseless. Ali, they say, disclosed the potential conflict in writing back in January, and the conflict itself was indirect and small: Ali’s husband had worked as a contract cinematographer on one of the winner’s films a few years ago. (The identities of AIA panelists and winners are supposed to be secret until the award is announced — but, because of the controversy, Ali, Pai and Feodorov have gone public about their participation.)
“It’s a very baffling decision,” said Pai, who also served on an AIA panel for Artist Trust in 2014. “After the board met with us and understood there was no conflict of interest, why weren’t our recommendations honored and restored? At the very least, why weren’t the other artists honored, and the alternate winner selected?”
Pai, Ali and artist Satpreet Kahlon, who helped draft Monday’s letter, point out that four of the five AIA panelists were people of color.
“The board thought they got good information about the conflict, then couldn’t correct that for face-saving reasons and now it’s a giant mess, unfortunately,” Ali said.
“Artist Trust clearly has a culture that emboldened them enough to discredit our entire panel without fearing repercussions,” she added, echoing an email Kahlon had written in a thread about the AIA process. “As artists of color and especially as women of color, we are part of communities that are under-resourced and overcommitted and Artist Trust probably counted on us not having the energy to deal with it.”
The letter gave Artist Trust a deadline of July 13 to respond.
Halberstadt, the CEO, said she’s looking forward to whatever comes next.
“This is a chance to listen to and respond to our communities,” she said, “and to be a model for the arts world overall about how to be in dialogue and take opportunities for accountability.”