Ford and Mellon foundations expand initiative for artists with disabilities

The Disability Futures initiative, a scholarship established by the Ford and Andrew W. Mellon Foundations last fall to support artists with disabilities, is gaining momentum. The foundations announced Friday that they will commit an additional $ 5 million to support the initiative until 2025, which will include support for two more cohorts of 20 fellows.

The scholarship, which was created by and for people with disabilities, was designed as an 18-month initiative. It has provided 20 selected artists, filmmakers and journalists with disabilities across the United States with unrestricted grants of $ 50,000 administered by the arts fundraising group United States Artists.

But Margaret Morton, director of creativity and freedom of expression at the Ford Foundation, said it was clear from the start that it couldn’t be a one-off business.

Projects undertaken by members of the First Cohort will be showcased at the first Disability Futures virtual festival, Monday and Tuesday, with a lineup from some of the nation’s top artists, writers, thinkers and designers with disabilities. It is free and open to the public.

Highlights: A session on the portrait of disability with filmmakers Jim LeBrecht and Rodney Evans, painter Riva Lehrer and journalist Alice Wong; a conversation exploring the links between climate justice and justice for people with disabilities led by Patty Berne; and a virtual dance party hosted by clothing manufacturer Sky Cubacub, with music by DJ Who Girl (Kevin Gotkin). Also on the program are evening performances on the catwalks of models wearing Cubacub’s Rebirth Garments items and a meditation experience with the Black Power Naps initiative, starring Navild Acosta and Fannie Sosa.

“It was really deep for me to see how interested the fellows chosen in the first cohort were in uplifting others in the community,” said Emil J. Kang, program director for arts and culture at the Foundation. Mellon, in an interview on Thursday.

The next batch of fellows will be announced in 2022. They are chosen by peer advisers who are themselves artists with disabilities.

But the comments from First Class, Morton said, were blunt: to do even better in the selection process.

“One of the guys challenged us,” she said, of the fact that there was only one Native American. “And we enjoyed that and were challenged to do it right and make sure we have a deeper pool.”

Grants offer flexible compensation options. The money can be distributed as a lump sum, in installments, or even deferred, depending on what works best for the artist.

The scholarship “has made an incredible difference in my life and career,” writer and photographer Jen Deerinwater said in an email. “It allowed me more financial freedom, without risking losing my disability and health care services, to pursue more artistic pursuits such as music. “

The pandemic has made foundation leaders “deeply aware” of the challenges facing professionals with disabilities, Morton said. In the United States, about one in four adults has a disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We have gained a deeper impression and perspective on what it is like to navigate the world,” she said.

The overarching goal of the program is to help artists make connections, Morton said.

“Our biggest dream is visibility,” she said. For the public to see artists and for funders they “need to start investing in practitioners with disabilities.”