February 3, 2023

Elise Bernhardt on Funding Artists

To the Editors:

As the director of Jerusalem International Fellows, a cultural residency program in Jerusalem, and the former CEO of the now sunset Foundation for Jewish Culture (FJC), I have avidly followed SAPIR’s issue on Culture. The breadth of topics and range of voices, from Allegra Goodman to John Podhoretz to James Snyder, is truly impressive, and the focus on culture is so important.

Felicia Herman’s interview with Mem Bernstein and Shayna Triebwasser was a standout for me because I know well the struggles that so many Jewish artists and cultural organizations face to find the funding they need to keep their work alive.

Herman beautifully contextualizes the conversation: “Some fund the arts for their aesthetic power and because they believe in the value of art for art’s sake. Others do it to promote specific values and ideas they want to see out in the world, knowing the unique power of arts and culture to educate, inspire, and make change — to open minds, touch hearts, and broaden our understanding of the world.”

Yet as Triebwasser notes, much of what holds people back from this important area of funding is the risk it entails. She’s quite right that “we don’t know where projects will wind up.” Moreover, in the arts, the metric of “excellence” she refers to is always subjective. The institutions I’ve run have tried to mitigate these risks by putting experts in the field in their respective selection processes. Practitioners, curators, and presenters can more readily identify who stands out, who shows promise, whose process will lend itself to a stated goal. This approach has the added benefit of organically creating networks of artists, which is another way to reduce risk. Providing artists—especially emerging artists, particularly in the field of Jewish content—with connections and cohorts is the best way to give them long-term support.

It is heartening to see a growing number of Jewish foundations joining in the effort to support Jewish arts and culture. When I asked a longtime philanthropic leader why she thought this was happening now, her answer was simple: “Shtisel.”  As Liel Leibovitz notes in his piece in this issue, the impact of this show, a mainstream success that humanizes Hasidic Jews, cannot be underestimated. Hats off to Mem Bernstein, who was an early supporter of it—that must have been precisely the kind of leap of faith Triebwasser mentions is so critical to funding the arts.

But it is essential for funders, and the Jewish community at large, to accept that not every investment in an artist or cultural organization will result in such a slam dunk—and that that’s okay. We need to keep experimenting and giving ongoing support for the creative ecosystem as a whole, so the next Shtisel can emerge. Investing in culture is a long game.

I applaud SAPIR for starting this critical discussion, and I pray that this emerging focus on culture in the Jewish philanthropic community will continue to gain momentum and last for generations.

Elise Bernhardt

Brooklyn, NY