Transforming a Foundation into an Institution: An Interview with Creative Capital’s Ruby Lerner

by Paddy Johnson on October 14, 2015 Interview

Ruby Lerner. Credit: Creative Capital

Ruby Lerner. Credit: Creative Capital

Every summer, when Creative Capital grantees and consultants arrive at the annual Creative Capital Retreat, President and Executive Director Ruby Lerner is there to meet them. It’s a small gesture, but I always thought it reflected the spirit of the organization and Ruby herself: warm, generous, and there for you when you want to get down to work. (Nobody goes to the retreat expecting not to work.)

In the United States, Creative Capital is the juggernaut of arts funding. In addition to their own program, they now manage the Arts Writers grant program, The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the Multi-Arts Production Fund. Their success record is insane. MacArthur Genius Grant recipients LaToya Ruby Frazier, Basil Twist, Natalia Almada and Laura Poitras were all Creative Capital grantees. In addition, 40 some grantees have gone on to win Guggenheim awards.

In many ways, Ruby’s own identity is tied up in these successes. There’s no louder cheerleader for excellence than Ruby, and perhaps no better spokesperson. Ask her about any Creative Capital artist they’ve awarded money to over the last 17 years, and she can tell you exactly what they’ve done and what they are up to now. That’s not just a lucky skill for remembering names and projects: the professional development programs and community fostered by the Creative Capital team makes sure grantees stay in touch.

This year, Ruby announced that she will step down from the helm of Creative Capital.

Given all the accomplishments of the foundation under her lead, I wanted to get a better sense of that history. With the organization hosting its fall benefit tomorrow—a homecoming ball in honour of Ruby—the timing couldn’t be better.  


Paddy Johnson: First tell me a bit about Creative Capital, how it started and what you all do.

Ruby Lerner: In the late nineties, the national endowment was no longer able to support most individual artists projects and that was of course due to all the things that happened during the culture wars. There were a few categories they were able to keep open, but for the most part they weren’t able to support individual artists any more. And I think when that happened, the private sector realized there was a vacuum and they had not taken that much responsibility for creating support for individual artists.

So, Arch Gilles, who was the president of the Andy Warhol Foundation at the time, felt like they should take some responsibility given that they wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the largess of an individual artist. His board made a tentative commitment but only if he could find other support. So he went all over the country, he talked to institutions, he talked to individuals.

Initially the idea was that they would create a regular fellowship program to replace what had been lost. But after many of these conversations my understanding was that people were like, “Well, yeah, we need something, but—”

One of the things that came up was that there is all this new thinking in philanthropy promulgated by people who were running these new businesses and who looked at traditional—what I like to call “here’s a check philanthropy” and thought well, “We didn’t build our successful businesses that way. We used a more engaged investor approach and maybe some of that could be useful in the non-profit world.”

And the other thing to remember about this moment was that it was the late nineties. This was the dot com boom. A lot of the foundations had new resources. Their investments were performing extremely well. So they could fund something that was going to be good without having to cannibalize something they were already committed to. So, we were definitely a product of that time and I always like to acknowledge that because I think it could be harder now because the economic environment now is more unsettled.

Primarily [the start up models were being applied] in the non-profit social sector, so these were people working on homelessness, education, and really thinking how to innovate in those sectors with a different more engaged philanthropy. That was the core concept. No one was testing those ideas out in the art world. So we decided that Creative Capital would be an experiment to see if you could take those ideas and apply them to artists.

What does engaged philanthropy mean?

Well, in the old system a check arrives in the mail and you file a report after the project is finished. That’s traditionally how granting works. This [new] approach was, ‘well yes we’re going to give you some money. But along the way we’re going to give you other kinds of advice. Maybe you have this great idea but have never balanced your checkbook or managed your money, so they find a business manager, you maybe you’ve got a great idea but you aren’t marketing it well or you don’t have the technology skills to actually make it happen.’ So they’re going to surround you with the people who do have those skills to give this idea you’ve come up with a better shot. And they’re going to help you meet other people who might finance the product and they’re going to promote you. So it’s not just money, it’s all the other things a good idea needs to succeed.  

I didn’t really know diddly squat about venture capital and how they worked with young businesses. I came from the art industry. But I was very interested and when I started reading even just rudimentary texts about how venture capital worked I thought, “Not only is it not weird, why haven’t we been doing this?” So I could actually see the ways that most components of the venture capital business could be translated to art.

And so it was really liberating to have a model from a totally different field. I didn’t know that’s how I’d feel about it. One thing we do a lot of in the art field is that we problematize everything. So I felt after many years of running organizations that maybe it was time to try to solutionize. I felt this had a pretty good shot at being an interesting methodology. Obviously that’s turned out to be not perfect, but it’s pretty resilient.

How has Creative Capital evolved over the years? Has the staff grown? Did you have other projects that you didn’t have then?

Yes, all of the above. We had a pretty good outline when we started. The methodology focusing on “Project, person, community, public” has held up pretty well.  What we couldn’t have seen at the beginning was the profound effect of the skills building work we were doing with our artists: Looking at short term goals, looking at time management, money management, and goal setting, and all the things that you need if you’re going to take yourself seriously as an artist over time.

I went out to lunch one day and an artist had told me she’d done a trade out with one of friends who was an interior designer. So she had walked her through the [Creative Capital] strategic work book in exchange for her friend helping her redesign her kitchen so she could use it better as a workspace.

I came back to the office and I was like, “You know what guys? There is no reason that this needs to be privatized to this small and relatively elite group of artists we’re going to be able to give grants to. Couldn’t we make this more widely available?”

We were able to raise some money. We brought some of our artists together who were the ones who had been out in the world sharing it with their friends and we started this program to provide skill building resources to a wider group of artists. A few years ago, because the technology had evolved we were able to add webinars and now there’s practically a webinar a week. It’s allowed us to have a wider impact than anybody expected when we started. Now we’ve reached more than 10,000 artists in 550 communities.


I’ve been going to the conferences for five to six years now and I’ve noticed that many of the artists funded make very socially engaged work. I wondered if that’s always been a tenant of the organization and the types of projects the organization might fund or if it’s something that’s in the air.

I think it’s the latter. We don’t make the decisions, we bring in outside panels—people from institutions, galleries etc. But just to pull back the curtain here, what often happens is that if there’s a great painter or sculptor who will possibly have a healthy life in a more commercial context put up beside somebody who has a technology change project, a social change project, or an environmental change project, panelists will vote for the latter. People say “well this person is going to get a gallery, but if we don’t support this ambitious creative project over here, who’s going to give it money?” There are also exceptions to that—like this year I would say, Brittany Nelson, the wonderful photographer we all love who doesn’t take pictures. Her work is pretty formalist.

And yet somehow she fits in perfectly. Her Creative Capital lecture this year was just as quirky and weird as any of the more unusual projects that get funded.


I don’t know what it means but you always have exceptions.

The social issue has become more and more important over the years. There’s just no question about it. When we started I don’t know that there were any masters in social practice. And now, of course, they’re everywhere.

But one of the fascinating things about the Emerging Fields category [where social practice fits] is that it changes every time we do it. It comes around every three years [in the granting cycle]. And the first year we did it, 1999 — we’ve had that category forever — it was almost all websites. And by the time the category came around again in 2002, I don’t even think there was one website. It was people doing robotics and people doing bio art and it became 1000 percent more techy. It was hilarious.

Over the next few rounds it got a little more mixed. And this time — 2013 — it became very, very social practice heavy. There were only a few technology projects that made it through. This year is going to be interesting. I think we’re seeing a mix. We’re seeing tech projects. We’re seeing a lot of climate change projects. So it will still be issue-oriented but even the climate change work will be techie.


You’re leaving Creative Capital after 17 years with the organization. What will this new person be doing? Because you’re a fundraiser, but you are also the face of the organization and there’s a creative spirit that seems very tied up in who you are too.  

Well, I think that it will be important for the next person to have a creative spirit. And one of the hallmarks and this is something I’m really proud of — of the work we’ve done to date — is that we’ve tried to stay really responsive to the artists, to their needs, to external environment and all those things are constantly changing. We created an alumni program because nobody was ever leaving. So we thought rather than looking at this as a liability, we said why don’t we look at it as an asset. And so we were now just at the beginning of hitting a lively and exciting project for our alumnus. So I think that will be a great project for the next person to really flesh out.

Personally, I hit 65 a couple years ago. That’s the beginning of when you start thinking of how you’ll either stop working totally, which I don’t know how to do or just have a transition … and 17 years is a long time to be anywhere. And certainly longer than I ever expected to be. I have a particular talent which is building things. I think I am less good at managing things once they are underway. In the parlance of the day, I am a start-up person.

And I think one of things that happens in the tech world is that when things are in that transition that often is a good time for them to step down. So that’s the feeling that I had. It’s time for this organization to really be an institution.

A lot has been achieved. By the time our next round is done we’ll have supported over 500 artists and projects and more than 10,000 people.  And this fantastic new office that we’re in with a 12 year lease — that was a big achievement. And I looked at all those achievements and I thought it’s not going to get better than this. We’re in good financial shape, we have a good board, we have a great staff. Everything was adding up to what a beautiful time to hand over things when things are really strong as opposed to what so often happens—when things start going downhill. And I thought, I want to give this gift. I’ve never been given this gift in the organizations I ran before. It was like, “Oh you want me to go run this organization that’s about to go under for $13,000 a year salary? Yes! I’m there!”

And you have a fundraiser coming up do you not? The Prom!

That’s the only way to go out. To go out silly. Can I tell you the genesis of the homecoming idea? In the early years, all the creative capital grantees all knew each other because we only had the first and second year of grantees so they met at retreats. As we went along of course because it’s not a convention we can only afford to bring together the two most recent classes of grantees. So that means that a lot of people don’t know each other, which was making me crazy. The first time I had to introduce somebody from a recent class to somebody from one of our early classes I introduced them and turned around and started crying. I just couldn’t believe they didn’t know each other. So, at that moment, I started joking about doing a homecoming dance so that all these people from different classes could come together and meet each other and be together. And wouldn’t be fun to do a homecoming dance so people corsages and all this other stuff. So that was the genesis so that all these people from these different classes could be in the same place at the same time.

Pull quote image credits of previous Creative Capital grantees, in order of appearance: Sam Van Aken’s The Tree of 40 Fruit, Jae Rhim Lee’s 2008 TED Talk, LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “Mom Me”. 

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