The garment maker Sky Cubacub, the dancer Jerron Herman and the filmmaker and sound designer Jim LeBrecht are among the winners of the first Disability Futures initiative, a new fellowship established by the Ford Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support disabled artists.
After a yearlong research study in conversation with disabled people, the initiative has named 20 artists, filmmakers and journalists in its first class of fellows, each of whom will receive a grant of $50,000 administered by the arts funding group United States Artists. The 18-month initiative not only pledges financial support, but aims to foster a creative community across mediums and generations.
Margaret Morton, the director of creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation, said that the idea came from a desire to engage more deeply with disabled people, in addition to funding organizations that they lead. But the first step was to make sure the needs and experiences of disabled artists were heard and met in a thoughtful and collaborative way.
“I realized I needed to learn much more, we needed to learn much more as a team, about language and about how to engage,” Ms. Morton said in a phone interview.
To do that, the Ford Foundation reached out to Deana Haggag, the president and chief executive of United States Artists, to work as a consultant and lead a small team in a year of research. Upon its completion, Ford approached the Mellon Foundation to jointly establish the fellowship.
“I remember the team, they were asking for feedback early on, and I mean this has been a year process even before they sent out the invitations,” said Mr. Herman, one of this year’s recipients, who dances with the company Kinetic Light in addition to working on solo projects. “Even that in and of itself is a change of focus and prioritization, of getting it right.”
That feedback helped to create a grant program specifically targeted to the needs of the individual artists, from an accessible application process to flexible compensation options for the grant money.
“The idea that, ‘Oh, well, we’re just going to give you a $50,000 award and you should be so happy,’ well, that’s not so easy,” Ms. Morton said. “There are so many complicated issues for them around medical costs and federal benefits that complicate their taking monetary support up to a certain amount.”
Because some federal health benefits are tied to a person’s earned income, the grant money can be distributed in one lump sum, in payments or even be deferred, depending on what works best for the artist. Additionally, the money can be tailored to each winner’s needs, whether to help pay for the art itself or support the artist.
For the painter and author of “Golem Girl,” Riva Lehrer, another of this year’s fellows, that meant the possibility of more ambitious projects and new studio space. For Sky Cubacub, the money helped to keep their inclusive clothing line, Rebirth Garments, operational through a global pandemic.
“I was able to use the money from the fellowship to pivot to mask making,” the designer said, including face coverings specifically designed for people across the disability spectrum. They added that they were also able to hire additional full-time employees, which will allow Cubacub to take some time to focus on their mental health.
But more than just offering monetary support, the fellowship is also focused on fostering community among its winners and elevating their work collectively, with a public gathering tentatively scheduled for July 2021.
“I’m more excited about the community and the cohort and the collaboration that we can have for each other,” Jim LeBrecht, a fellow and one of the directors of the documentary “Crip Camp,” said in a Zoom call from his home in Northern California.
Artists can bring “thoughts and pleasure and meaning” directly to our homes, Mr. LeBrecht said, adding that a fellowship of this size, focus and prestige affirms that “disabled artists can do the same thing, and it’s not just for the benefit of them, but it’s for the benefit of society in general.”