As told to Sara Wintz, 3937 words.
Tags: Art, Business, Beginnings, Inspiration, Process, Income, Education.
On finding funding for artists, but why money won’t save youWriter and consultant Beth Pickens on the path that led her to a career in grant writing, the value of mentorship, and how art can literally save your life.
At the beginning of your book, Your Art Will Save Your Life, you write about growing up in the Rust Belt in Pittsburgh as a queer teen, finding yourself and your community by listening to records, and the way that an arts organization like the Andy Warhol Museum improved your overall quality of life. When you started graduate school in Missouri, did becoming a counselor feel like pursuing a vocation, or fulfilling a calling?
I just wrote this whole history of my educational choices for my new book. I have a chapter on education. I write about all of my choices and how they’re shaped by being the first person to go to college in my family, and what it’s like to be an 18-year-old with no information about how college works or how careers happen. But anyway, when I got out of college I had a health scare, and I needed to get a job that had health insurance. This was years before the Affordable Care Act, in 2001. I found a full-time job at the women’s center at my university where I had worked as an undergrad, as a work study student. I was really lucky. It just happened that there was a full-time job open and I was really excited.
Then, while I was there, that women’s center had a strong partnership with the counseling psychology department on campus. We always had these feminist therapists who were getting their PhDs seeing clients. My best friend who worked there was getting her PhD in counseling psychology, and the director had been a counseling psychology student, so it had this really strong counseling undercurrent. When I was working full time at the women’s center, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school but I didn’t know for what, because I knew I needed something that led to a job. And I realized I felt a natural pull towards counseling, because when I was kid I thought maybe I’d be a psychiatrist. I didn’t really know what that meant but, in my family, my mom was really mentally ill. She always had a therapist. So I knew what it was. My brother was very troubled. So I was like, “Maybe I’ll be a psychiatrist.”
The more I learned about counseling from all the women who were working at the women’s center, the more I thought, “That sounds great! That is totally a vocation I would have a job.” It is transportable, and I love studying psychology. I love studying interpersonal communication, and it fit in so well with all my feminist and queer activism.</em> I got a tuition reduction because I was employed at the university, so I got a Master’s degree while I was working at the University of Missouri.
You earned a Master’s Degree in Missouri and then you spent time in the Bay Area?
Yeah, I left Missouri in 2007. By then, I had been there for almost 10 years and I really wanted to move to San Francisco ‘cause I wanted to be among all the queer content that I was always importing through programming. I was always bringing it to town.
There was a small queer community in Missouri, but this was also, again, the early internet days, so if we wanted interesting queer things or queer people to have sex with you, in the town, there was nobody. My friends and I… it’s really true that during that era in Columbia, I was a part of helping organize 90% of the interesting young queer things that were happening, and that was awesome, but I also wanted to not have to do that. I just wanted it to be available to me.
I’d visited San Francisco a couple times during Pride month, and had so much fun going to all the Queer Arts Festival events. I had this goal of, “I’ve just got to move to San Francisco. I don’t know how a person does that, I don’t know anybody there,” but I just made a decision, and after I finished grad school, as I was getting close to being done with my remaining classes, I knew I needed to leave and move there. So I started applying for jobs, and then I got offered one. It was a horrible job, but it got me to San Francisco, and I only worked there 10 months. It was a terrible, failing … it still exists, but it was at a miserable non-profit in health and human services. I was directing a breast cancer program, and I hated it, but it got me there and as soon as I got there, I started immersing myself in queer arts worlds. I got a mentor who taught me this—
Wait—how does one find a mentor?
I think you just ask. It’s like an underused thing now, or maybe it always was, but mentorship is the best way to learn anything you wanna learn. It’s like having a personal trainer in any subject you love. It’s like a relationship in exchange. There’s this old fag, Jeff Jones, who was like my gay dad. I am forever indebted to him, and so are many people in my life, because he set the stage for queer arts funding to be available to queer artists in the Bay Area. He came out of AIDS fundraising, and he wrote the first grant to publicly fund the AIDS foundation in the very early pandemic years in San Francisco. He had multiple lovers die of AIDS early in the pandemic years, and he was very involved in the structural fundraising side of it.
I knew him through the Queer Cultural Center, whose programs I always went to. He was a mentor to other queer writers, including my friend and now-wife, Michelle Tea, and we had been house- and plant-sitting for him so I knew this man, and I knew that he was a grant writer for the arts. I just approached him and I said, “I really wanna learn how to do this, specifically for the arts. Would you teach me?”
He said yes, because nobody had ever asked him before, which I think is what happens with a lot of people who have a skill or really amazing knowledge to pass on. It’s just, nobody’s asked them. He sat me down and started this insane diatribe about how he approaches fundraising and grant writing like Proust, which has nothing to do with fundraising, but it was so crazy. He’s such an important figure in my life.
And you ended up getting a job where he worked?
Yeah. The Queer Cultural Center. It was a virtual nonprofit. They didn’t have offices, but but they did a ton of Queer Art fundraising and programming. I approached the artistic director, another lesbian, Pam Peniston, another important figure in my life, and said, “I love what you do. I’ve been coming to your programming for years and when I lived in Missouri I’d come out here to see your events and then take the ideas back to mid-Missouri so the queer people there could have the same cultural content. If you ever have anything open, I would love to come work for you.”
She’s like, “Well, as it happens, our managing director just quit, so sure, let’s give you a job.” She hired me immediately because they needed somebody, and then two weeks later, Michelle Tea contacted me, and said “Jeff Jones told me to hire you as my managing director for my queer literary organization.” I was like, “Okay!” It was serendipity, and, I think because so few people express interest in fundraising and grant-writing, if you love it and are good at it, you very quickly find jobs.
Can you talk a little bit about the similarities and differences between counseling psychology and grant writing?
Grant writing, doing counseling work, doing therapy with somebody: it’s all grounded in relationships. The relationship is what creates the container for change, for the client. It’s not related. I didn’t do any writing related to my degree either. It was all practicum work, and seeing clients. Grant writing was a skill I had to learn from the ground up, and it’s not an art. It is a skill. It is technical writing that you get better at by doing. That’s it.
I was very lucky to have this mentor who helped me by telling me a lot of pitfalls right away and saying, “Look for this, this, and this. This is what makes a good grant, this is what makes a garbage grant.” And most importantly, where to find them. Where to find things that my clients would be eligible for, and how money is political. He taught me about how making money available for queer artists in San Francisco was a political task he’d taken on for 20 years, because so little money had been made available to marginalized artists in the Bay Area. He was part of a coalition in the ’90s that made available something called Cultural Equity Funding in San Francisco, which then became a model for the rest of the United States, but they were the leader.
The San Francisco Arts Commission created this funding that was only for queer and trans artists, women, immigrants, artists of color, and artists with disabilities. That’s it. You have to have one or more of those identities to be eligible. That was revolutionary.
That hadn’t happened before?
No, never—not anywhere else in the country, so Jeff Jones was the leader in that. He was part of the coalition that made that happen, because there were all these queer artists who weren’t getting any funding for anything, and most of the city’s arts funding was going to the symphony, ballet, and opera, which was … it’s called the SOB’s. It’s a joke, the SOB, it’s the symphony, opera, ballet. That was serving largely older, wealthy, white patrons. And arts money is all taxed income, so our tax dollars were not representing the community who was paying into them.
They really created a smart coalition to lobby city officials to say, “Our tax dollars aren’t actually paying for work that the communities are using.” They created this incredible initiative that then got replicated all over the country. My training in grant writing and fundraising for the arts was steeped in this understanding of how money was political and that money doesn’t become available for marginalized people just because somebody was nice. They have to lobby for it and work really hard, and shame and demand. That’s how change happens—you have to shame people in power. Now that’s great because even though so few people from those groups still live in San Francisco, the ones that do have access to great arts funding.
A common sentiment I hear from artist friends is that they feel like they aren’t entitled to money, or struggle to articulate and see why their work matters. What would you say to that person?
I think a lot of the artists I know, especially my clients, have been socialized to believe they’re not entitled to anything. They and we have been socialized to believe that asking for something is entitlement and that’s not the same thing. The reality is artists need and deserve all kinds of resources, including money, to make their work. We live in a culture that really devalues art and artists. It really wants content, but devalues the people making it. One way that happens is through money and financial structures. Our federal government gives pennies to the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s a joke how little federal funding we have for the arts, and then it varies state by state.
When artists tell me they don’t think they should get something, like “Somebody else deserves it more,” I always counter with, “First of all, that’s nonsense, because we don’t live in a meritocracy. You excusing yourself from the race doesn’t mean somebody who deserves it is gonna get it. If you don’t apply for the thing, some asshole you hate is gonna get it, so why didn’t you apply?”
There is nothing in capitalism that means if you bow out, that somebody else does better. That’s not how the financial system works. Just let go of that idea immediately—that somebody else needs this more, and that the needing is gonna result in the getting. That is not true. And, the artists I work with, of course they deserve the thing. Why wouldn’t they deserve the thing?
The second piece is about how you have to present yourself to get funding, and how you have to talk about it. People hire grant writers all the time because it’s just a technical skill and an artist doesn’t have to know how to do that stuff to still access funding. They can also learn. I teach grant writing classes to artists all the time, so people can learn, “This is how you do this thing.”
It’s so basic, but following directions is the biggest hurdle for a lot of people. It’s filling out forms and following directions. It took me years to get really good at that. Years, because a lot of grants have unnecessarily long and complicated forms and 30 pages of instructions for nothing. It’s like learning how to just be really clear in what you’re saying.
You’ve been focused on this particular issue within a volatile capitalist system for a long time. What has stood out most along the way?
There is so much money. There are so many resources. I live in Los Angeles now, and I’m so much more in close proximity to extreme wealth. Not just wealth, but extreme wealth. Something I love about LA is it is really about conspicuous consumption. People are showing you how rich they are, or how wealthy they want you to believe they are, which was not a value in San Francisco by the time I left. It was really hidden. I appreciate that about LA, the overtness about money.
I think what surprises me is that there is more than enough of everything to go around for everyone, but we have to take it and we have to convince people to give up some of what they have for it to be redistributed. We have to help people understand that absurd amounts of wealth and property aren’t going to protect them from dying. We’re all still going to die, so why not think about your value system and have some resources go outward instead of hoarding so much?
That’s the thing that’s really tripping me out as of late: seeing people in LA, a place that has the largest houseless population in the country—now established as a crisis level—seeing the incredible poverty juxtaposed in the same neighborhoods with people who have so much that they couldn’t possibly spend it in their lifetime, and their kids couldn’t spend it either. Just imagining what would happen if everyone’s financial value system changed, even just 10%? Just 10%. I think that’s sort of what trips me out now, because I am obsessed with thinking about how to redistribute money all the time. What are effective ways to get more money to more people, because there’s plenty of resources. Just think about the United States. This is such a wealthy country, with more waste than we can even deal with. There’s just no reason for anyone to be hungry or without a home here. There’s very little I can do as a grant writer in the art world. I’m not even a grant writer anymore, because now I’m just writing my next book, but it haunts me, this idea.
Also, there’s a level of organizing that would have to happen, too, in order for redistribution to occur.
A consciousness shift. We don’t have to look too far into the history of the US to see the way the ultra wealthy have hoarded resources. We see their names on buildings everywhere, and their grandchildren going to Harvard. Or ten generations later going to Harvard. You can save up, you can have as many houses and boats and cars as possible, and we’re still gonna die. This is now moving into my obsession with death acceptance, but if we culturally could start to shift more toward the idea that money’s not gonna protect you. It can make life a lot easier and more convenient, but it won’t keep you from dying, and it won’t make you happy.
Even if it’s not a structural system imposed on people who are resisting it, how could there be a value shift where more and more people think, “Why not have more redistribution?”
In the book, the statement that “art is a form of self care” resonated with me. The value shift that you’re talking about is what’s reminding me of this moment in the book. I wonder how you see art as an activity and a product that holds value. How does art make life better—not just for artists but for everyone around them?
It’s not an exaggeration that my book is called, Your Art Will Save Your Life. That was the title that Michelle Tea—who was the editor, and the initial person who selected the book—came up with, because I kept coming up with terrible titles that would have two parts to them and were just lots of text. I was like “Nobody is gonna buy this book.” She was like, “Just call it, Your Art Will Save Your Life.” I was like, “Brilliant! So bold!” And it’s really true. Art has saved my life so many times.
For every weirdo freak artist I’m friends with, which is everybody in my life, the existence of art has kept them around and sane. This is the theoretical underpinning of my consulting practice—that artists are people who need to be in a creative practice in order to be well. That makes them different from people who don’t need that. Bodies are different. Humans need different things to have a connection to themselves and something beyond themselves, to have their spiritual interior feel well.
How does that affect everyone around them, too?
When artists stop making their work or they get distanced from it or they feel disconnected from it, their quality of life goes down. That can manifest in so many different ways, but of course it’s going to affect their relationships. I’m married to an artist, and I know, if she just goes into her studio at home and paints and writes for a couple hours, I will have a much more pleasant person on the other side to talk to. I think that’s true for all my clients. All the artists I know, when they do that thing that artists have to do, when they just have that time with themselves or with their work, they just feel more grounded and they feel more like themselves. They feel connected, they feel more available to be in the world.
Everyone has to do things for their body and their mind to feel well. For artists and writers, you also have to do that thing. That’s not true for everyone. I think that’s what interesting distinction. Not everybody needs that. I think artists, because they’re in their brains and probably most of the people who they know are artists, they think it’s ubiquitous in everyone, and it’s not. My father does not need to write or make art to be well. He needs Absolut vodka and a smoke, and then he’s fine. Bodies are different. He would never in a million years do anything creative. He would be appalled at the idea. No one in my family seems to have any kind of creative practice or anything, but now all of my chosen family are people who need that in order to survive.
What’s your favorite word? Or words, if that’s easier.
I use a lot of 12-step slogans, because I’m in an anonymous 12-step program. All of those slogans are really short and simple, so I tend to love them. What are a few words? I really like, “You’re not responsible for your first thought.”
What does that mean?
It means our brains just tell us bullshit all the time, and mean things and judgmental things and we’re not responsible for the first thought. That’s just the chatter. We’re responsible for the second thought, which we can counter that first thought with. I bring that up with my clients all the time, as they start to notice their thought patterns, their cognitive distortions. There’s always a tape of chatter happening in my mind. I’m always sort of identifying it and listening to it, then being horrified, usually, by what it’s saying. Then the next step is to understand that’s just your brain chattering. It’s just fear and socialization and your dad, and all kinds of other things, but you don’t have to have any attachment to that sort of thought. You can respond to that with a second thought. We can just let the bad thoughts go by.
Beth Pickens Recommends:
I have a trip to China coming up. When I was an undergrad, I studied there for a semester. Then I went back a few years later, but I haven’t been there since 2006, and it’s changed a lot. Besides getting a Mandarin tutor so I can get some of my language skills back, I have a self-imposed rule: I made up this study time, where, for a year, I’m reading 50 books about China. I’m on book 22 or 23 now. Some fiction, a lot of nonfiction, mostly about 20th Century and early 21st Century China. So, here are five books about China that have blown my mind in the past year:
One Child Policy by Mei Fong blew my mind about the consequences of the one child policy in China which was from 1980 to 2015.
One of the best books about China I ever read, by Leslie T. Chang, is called Factory Girls, and it’s about young women and teens who leave their villages to go to the cities to work in factories. That book was fucking incredible.
Leslie Chang’s husband, Peter Hessler, who also comes from Columbia, Missouri where I used to live, he’s written a number of books about China, and he wrote a great one called Country Driving, that’s all about the car boom in China over the past 20 years.
There’s a really cool book of essays called China in Ten Words, and it’s by this Chinese essayist, Yu Hua, and he writes about Chinese history, through these 10 essays, picking maybe one word. So one example, the word “leader,” and it’s all about Mao and how Mao changed the country, and what happened after the party took over.
The last one, number five, is called Corpse Walker. It’s this book of vignettes, nonfiction stories about people from the margins of Chinese culture. One of the stories is about people hired as corpse walkers, meaning they physically carry a corpse from one place to another for it to be buried. They have to be shielded from human visibility by cloaks, so it looks like the corpse is walking. It’s an incredible book of essays.
So please read all of these books, they’re so good!