Grants help Southern California artists make work in the social sphere

A new grant-making organization @SPArtLA is supporting artists who work in social practice

An art-making project with former prison inmates, an interactive broadcast at a Los Angeles swap meet and a collective that will create a new space for women to learn and create. These are three artist projects selected to receive $10,000 grants from SPArt, a grant-making organization based in Los Angeles.

Now in its second year, SPArt's annual awards are specifically designed to support three Southern California artists actively making work in the field of social practice  — by definition, art that is socially engaged and requires the participation of its audience. This year's recipients are: Misael Diaz, one of the founders of the cog*nate collective, a group that has staged mobile broadcasts and happenings tied to cross-border issues; Gregory Sale, whose practice has involved working with inmates; and the Women's Center for Creative Work (WCCW), a group that organizes activities for women, from skill-sharing events to story-telling workshops.

"We were really impressed with the character of the artists and the work that they've proposed," SPArt founder Alexandra Shabtai says. "These are artists who have established what they want to do and this will help them fund the next step."

Last year, the organization gave similar grants to three artists who undertook projects related to subjects that varied from conflict resolution to communal cooking.

The organization is small — consisting principally of Shabtai, who operates under the fiscal sponsorship of the Pasadena Arts Council — but its aim is to support artists working in this growing area of contemporary art. 

Shabtai, who has worked in short-term positions at arts organizations such as the Hammer Museum and Machine Project (she also helps operate a private family foundation), was specifically interested in supporting social practice because it takes art into the public sphere. (Last year, social practice made headlines when artist Rick Lowe, of Project Row Houses in Houston, was awarded a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.)

"It really met my interest of social impact and art crossing paths," she says. "Artists can be change agents."

Early last year, she raised funds for a series of modest grants to be awarded annually. Artist names are submitted to SPArt by a group of 10 anonymous nominators who work or are affiliated with the arts. Roughly two dozen nominees are invited to submit formal proposals. The final three winners are chosen by a committee that includes Shabtai, as well as artist Andrea Bowers, Hammer Museum education adminstrator Sue Bell Yank, ForYourArt founder Bettina Korek, and John Spiak, director of the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.

Diaz and Amy Sanchez, founders of the cog*nate collective, say that the grant couldn't have come at a better moment. The pair, both of whom grew up around Southern California and Tijuana, are working on a project titled "The Mobile Agora," which aims to stage a series of interactive events at the swap meet in Santa Fe Springs. This includes an oral history project and a mobile broadcasting unit that will transmit their programming on a hyper-local frequency. Their aim is to work with and bring together the immigrants who work in this commercial space.

"We were already working towards doing this with no budget," says Sanchez. "So this came at an exciting moment."

"We're pretty frugal, so it means that we can really work with this — we can really make it count," adds Diaz. "It will really expand the scope of our work and our research."

Shabtai says she already has funding in place for next year's grants. Which means that three more Southern California artists currently working on social practice projects may just find themselves with funding they didn't expect.

"We don't come in and tell the artists what to do," says Shabtai. "They're doing it without us. We just help make it a little easier."

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