Meow Meow Meow, Pew*

Cats at a bar! Image by Annette Monnier_small

I first met Annette when we were in a show together at Little Berlin in 2011 called VASST.info. It was focused on science-inspired art, and Annette’s contribution was to make artisinal hydrogen in tiny little jars that people could take home. Since then, I have been a big fan of Annette’s writing on art, especially when she was doing “One Review A Month.” I love her honest and witty approach, she always has something smart to say and she doesn’t tread lightly. Annette does a variety of great things, she has been a key member of the Philadelphia art scene for many years. Annette is one of the Co-Founders and Curators at Practice Gallery and she is also the current Director at The University City Arts League.

-Angela McQuillan, curator

A couple of instances combined over the course of a few months to lead me to the brilliant conclusion that your correspondent would love to interview a Pew Fellowship Top Secret Nominator (let’s use PFTSN from now on) for her Curate This rumination. The first instance was that over drinks with civilians (here meaning people not strongly connected to the arts community in Philadelphia), I became aware that not many civilians actually know what a Pew Fellowship is. The conversation went something like this. I was explaining that so and so was a notable artist in the community and as part of my description fell back on “they won the Pew,” and the rest of my party replied, “huh?” This led directly to the second instance, which was my becoming aware that I use the Pew as a yardstick to measure notable artists without being all that conscious of doing it, a method I found to be not exactly scary but a little suspect. The third instance was that artists who have been nominated to apply for the Pew Fellowship this year were just informed of their status in December and the 2016 applications were due on January 22nd. This means folks were just nominated by the PFTSNs.

A little history and background: The Pew Fellowship is an unrestricted award given directly to an artist in the sum of $75,000 (people often make a comparison to the much better known MacArthur “Genius Grant”). The award has been given to about 12 artists a year since 1991 in a range of artistic disciplines, including (but not limited to) poetry, visual art, theater, dance, performance, film and craft. At its inception the application was open to any artist who was a resident of the five-county Philadelphia area, but in 2010 Pew changed to the secret nominating process. This year there were 30 secret nominators and each of them nominated two artists. Those 60 applications will be evaluated by a group from outside the region and given a ranking. Applications that are ranked highly then go on to a review panel, composed of people who are also from outside the region. The review panel comes up with the final 12 who get the award money and professional development opportunities.

Important to note: The PFTSNs are the only part of the selection process that may reside in the five-county Philadelphia region. According to the Pew Fellowship application guidelines they are “. . . nominators with a deep knowledge of artists working in this region and representing a wide range of expertise, experience, and points of view. . .”.

All this leads to what this article is about, which is 30 secret people—living and breathing among the artistic community, 30 secret people whom the general populace don’t even know or care to know exist—get to give an amazing gift to an artist. Any artist who has left the cushy enclosure of art school knows that art can be a lonely path, devoid of feedback or recognition or anyone giving two shits. Unsolicited recognition is pretty much unheard-of, so for an artist to be told, without asking for it, that they have been nominated . . . one imagines that must feel pretty good. (One of the irritations of this are the stories about those artists who get nominated every year—one story I heard had an artist receiving two nominations in one year, after being nominated once in the previous year—and never receiving the award. This would be fine if there was no work involved in being nominated, but every nominated artist must send in a lengthy application for consideration.)

In order to interview a PFTSN, one must find one, and your correspondent found a handful—which was no easy feat, requiring a vast amount of slightly ridiculous e-mails and an awful lot of swearing of secrecy. No nominator I talked to took their position lightly, and all were wary of disclosure, having signed some forms (some made the forms sound very lawfully binding and others shrugged them off), but most were just concerned that if they were discovered to have talked, they would never be asked to nominate again. In order to protect my sources to the best of my ability no one in this article will be named.

Perhaps it goes without saying that the largest percentage of people I talked to had never been a PFTSN; those who were, however, often expounded with a great deal of vitriol about the Pew in general, which gives out a great many grants—most of them to arts and cultural organizations—of pretty sizable chunks of money, enough so that they have a lot of power and influence over the sector. One of the most recurrent criticisms concerns this power, and the fact that the Pew waves it around pretty ham-fistedly, basically telling organizations what they want from them, which leads to the organization shaping themselves into the mold the Pew creates, instead of the Pew allowing the orgs to present their own individual ideas. One person I talked to said Pew came to their organization and basically told them what they would fund and encouraged them to apply with that idea. The overall picture presented is of a funder who lives high up in an ivory tower who sort of Eye of Saurons everyone into creating clone armies.

This evil-empire bit fits into the PFTSN narrative because all of the TSNs I talked to genuinely believe the Pew is all-seeing and the very fact of 30 TSNs hanging about means that artists have a good reason to believe this as well. Aside from them being top-secret, interviewing a PFTSN turns out to be a bit of a non-story. The whole process seems pretty fair and basically banal. A nominator gets to nominate two artists by answering a couple of questions in writing about why this artist fits into the Pew Fellowship criteria. The main point of this criteria seems to be that you are judging the merit of the art created, not the artist that created the art. The nominator cannot be related to the person they nominate nor can they have any conflicts of blood, sex, or money. One of the difficulties of the nomination process is that you have to write a great deal about an artist without contacting that artist about their work. Nearly everyone struggled with this part, having to rely on what they already knew and what they could find on the internet. As compensation for the good deal of time it takes to write one of these nominations, the PFTSN receives a stipend of $200-$250 (this varied from story to story). Once the nominator turns in their nomination they hear nothing else from Pew. They are informed of the winners the same way the general public is. No one I talked to had been asked to nominate more than once.

The most interesting part of this whole thing is, all-seeing Pew or not, absolutely no nominator I talked to has kept their status 100% secret. They always told a trusted civilian, roommate, wife or husband (who wouldn’t?). Everyone received a great deal of satisfaction out of being able to nominate someone whose work they respected—especially those whose artists actually won. Everyone also received a great deal of frustration from not being able to tell their nominees they had nominated them, but were sort of ultimately happy to stay anonymous. Being a nominator of a successful Pew winner is a lovely thing, but having all your friends wondering why you did not nominate them is not.

By way of conclusion this leaves us just about nowhere. The Pew is a foundation with a great deal of power and influence and they may be guilty of not listening to Peter Parker’s surrogate father**. Any organization that sends out 30 TSNs into the world can expect to be seen as somewhat shadowy, but the TSNs themselves seem to be great friends to artists, often claiming to have picked people they doubt the Pew would have any interest in. Perhaps the shadowy network we should be more concerned about is that star chamber of evaluators and panelists from “outside the region.” Why put an emphasis on these folks coming from the outside? Wouldn’t a mix of perspectives be more valuable during each part of the process?

Ultimately $75,000 to an artist seems good for building the caliber of art in this region, it would be even better if we could be sure the Pew wasn’t Pygmalion, falling in love with only their own creations.

*Please note that I would never use the word “meow” lightly.
**”With great power comes great responsibility”

Illustration by Annette Monnier.

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