As a kid, Tony Grant spent his days hanging out in a big warehouse building in San Francisco, which his father, the abstract painter and sculptor James Grant, used as his studio. For Tony, the studio served as a kind of day care, a place where he could run around, play, and still have a chance to spend time with his dad. “It was just heaven,” Grant recalls. “I could kind of do whatever I wanted.”
But these days, as Tony and his wife, writer Caroline Grant, are well aware, having a studio space where children can entertain themselves for hours on end isn’t a luxury that most artists can afford. Surrounded by a large network of friends and family in creative occupations (Caroline runs the website Literary Mama and Tony is a software engineer), the couple often saw friends put their artistic work on the back burner when faced with the realities of family life.
So in 2011 the Grants decided to take some of the money they’d inherited and start the Sustainable Arts Foundation (SAF), a nonprofit based in San Francisco that provides unrestricted financial awards to writers and artists across the country with children under the age of eighteen. For the couple, who have two boys aged seven and ten, the decision was logical, if slightly unorthodox.
“Most people who decide to create a foundation are older,” says Grant, who, like his wife, is in his forties. “We decided that we cared enough about this that we wanted to put the money to use right away, when we could combine it with our effort while we’re still young enough to be hands-on.”
The couple’s personal involvement in SAF is at the project’s core: The Grants currently read each application themselves, but they eventually hope to expand and establish a jury system, possibly inviting previous award winners to help judge submissions.
To date the organization has provided funding to more than forty individuals, each year handing out ten Foundation Awards of six thousand dollars each and ten Promise Awards of a thousand dollars each. Past winners have included poet Travis Mossotti, novelist Emily Barton, and nonfiction writer William Adler. Despite the impressive pedigrees of some of SAF’s previous winners, the Grants insist that they are open to receiving applications from artists of all kinds. Applications, which are accepted twice annually, in the spring and fall, are entirely portfolio based, and the foundation doesn’t charge an entry fee, a decision that was made to keep the process as open as possible.
“Our dream is to give awards to those writers who are not published, who are doing excellent work by themselves and perhaps don’t even know it,” Tony Grant says.
Barton, a former Guggenheim fellow whose latest novel is Brookland (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), says she used the grant money to pay for child care for her son while working on her next book, which is still in progress. “That might sound mundane,” she says, “but it meant the world to me. I was able to work on my novel during that precious time when I wasn’t teaching.”
This year, the young foundation hopes to extend its reach even further by launching a two-year pilot program offering grant money to writers and artists residencies that are willing to make their programs more family friendly. The SAF program, which allows nonprofit organizations to apply for up to ten thousand dollars in funding, grew out of an initial collaboration with the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, which contacted the Grants after hosting a resident who had received an individual SAF award. The foundation ended up providing funding for one of the studio center’s prestigious fellowship slots, under the condition that the position be awarded to an artist who is a parent. They also added a cash stipend to cover child-care costs. While the inaugural round of residency-grant applications closed in January, plans are in place to accept applications annually through the foundation’s website, sustainableartsfoundation.org.
According to Caitlin Strokosch, executive director of the Alliance of Artists Communities—an organization that supports and connects artists communities and residencies around the world—currently less than 10 percent of residency programs in the United States accommodate children. Strokosch lists a number of logistical hurdles to making residencies more kid friendly, from increased insurance costs and staffing to concerns that children might upset the careful balance and intimacy of the resident community.
“These are very real challenges for organizations that exist to provide an intense, intimate community of peers in an environment that encourages risk taking, experimentation, and openness,” Strokosch says.
The SAF hopes that its residency-grant program will encourage more residencies to think about ways to confront these challenges. Tony Grant freely admits there isn’t one solution, and the SAF plans to consider proposals for everything from renovations that make residency apartments more family friendly to shorter residency terms that may be more palatable for artists with kids. “I don’t know what the answers are,” he says, “but we’re trying to offer some funding to get the whole group to think about it.”
Like the Vermont Studio Center, some residencies have already begun taking steps to create programs specifically suited for parents. The Austerlitz, New York-based Millay Colony for the Arts recently developed a program called the virtual residency, designed explicitly for parents unable to attend a traditional residency, wherein writers and artists meet only on weekends. The SAF encourages both residencies that are looking to develop new programs and those that already accommodate parents to apply for the grants.
For his part, Tony Grant says that starting an SAF residency program of its own is on the organization’s long-term wish list. He cites the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto, an urban collective that provides office space to self-employed writers, as a possible model, noting that the degree to which office space makes a freelance writer feel more official is hard to quantify. Something more rural may also be an option.
“If you get further out in the Bay Area, there are a lot of farmland communities,” Grant says, adding that a residency program doesn’t need much in the way of infrastructure—especially, perhaps, for writers.
“Writers are awesome,” he says. “They only need a little cabin.”
A cabin and, for some, a swing set.
Carrie Neill is a writer living in Chicago.