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Celebrating Our Renamed Artist and Culture Bearer Fellowships.

An Invitation to Shift Culture.

بواسطة باو فاي

We are made from words, stories,
infinite chances through which
we imagine ourselves.  

-excerpted from “The Naming” by Karenne Wood 

Along with many immigrants and refugees coming from a country where a non-English, non-Romance language is the norm, I’ve long been forced to reckon with the power of names in America. A name can simultaneously be a tribute to ancestors while leading to mockery on the playground. It can be both a signifier of a culture, and the lack of a call back for a job interview. A name can be an invitation, a burden, an argument, a beginning. 

As the Arts team launched a strategic refresh in 2021, in sight of the goal to catalyze the power, creativity, and leadership of Minnesota artists, there were a number of curiosities, perhaps most significantly: who was missing? Who does McKnight seek to be in service to? As we continue to grow the artistic ecosystem in Minnesota to advance a more just, creative, and abundant future where people and planet thrive, we rigorously examined where our support goes. A long, relational process involving community members, partners, and multiple McKnight staff identified the fact that some creative leaders from certain cultures, such as Native American and Hmong, do not often use the word “artist,” but who center the transmission and preservation of cultural lifeways. McKnight wanted to create a bigger aperture, specifically to support historically marginalized and underrepresented groups whose practice may occur outside formal settings and rigid Eurocentric framings.  

A New Name to Expand and Embrace Culture Bearers

In 2022, the Arts Program, the longest running program at McKnight, changed its name to the Arts & Culture Program. The name change was both an invitation and a challenge: an invitation for the culture at large to reimagine our definition of who an artist could be, and an internal challenge to continually identify barriers, and break down those barriers, especially in service to underrepresented populations. 

Following the lead of its parent program, the Fellowship program has changed its name to the McKnight Artist & Culture Bearer Fellowship. Awarding $25,000 to 49 Fellows in Minnesota across 15 different disciplines annually (see the 2023 fellows), it is one of the largest individual unrestricted grants for artists in the nation. The change from Artist Fellowship to Artist & Culture Bearer Fellowship more accurately reflects the diverse array of disciplines and cultural practices that make Minnesota such a vibrant place. In addition, the language invokes our focus on the person creating the art and enacting the cultural practice rather than an object or result.  

There’s a popular adage: people want art, but they don’t want to pay artists. Along those lines of thinking, we know that culture bearers are often undervalued. The strategy of the Fellowship program has always, simply and critically, focused on providing support to the people working at the center of arts and culture. If you don’t help sustain the lives and practice of artists and culture bearers, you don’t get arts and culture.  

Fellows and guests at the 2023 McKnight Foundation fellows celebration watch a video honoring cherished community elder, artist, and 2023 Culture Bearer Fellow Nothando Zulu.

Supporting Artists and Culture Bearers as Leaders for a Better Future

But why fund artists and culture bearers when there are so many other critical areas to support? In this historical moment of never-ending informational streams and societal fragmentation, many in philanthropy as well as outside the sector have identified the necessity of narrative change. To change the world into a more just and vibrant one, we need to shift culture. As historian, journalist, and narrative change leader Jeff Chang states, “politics and policy are where some people are some of the time, but culture is where most people are most of the time.”  

Artists and culture bearers are critical to the cultural change we need to envision a more just and abundant society. They are both holders of history and leaders into a better future. For example, Delina White, a 2023 Fellow in Textile, melds Native American beadwork onto contemporary runway design, and whose unusual and revolutionary process involves meeting and working with the models before she designs for them. And Dr. Artika Tyner, a 2022 Fellow in Children’s Literature, is a well-known lawyer, thought leader, and social change agent, who imbues those qualities into her children’s books. 

“Artists and culture bearers are critical to the cultural change we need to envision a more just and abundant society. They are both holders of history and leaders into a better future.”

—Bao Phi, Arts & Culture Program Officer

McKnight’s work could not happen without the important partnerships we’ve developed with nonprofit organizations who curate and administer the Fellowships according to genre. Our valued partners include Minnesota Center for Book Arts (Book Artists), Northern Clay Center (Ceramic Artists), The Cowles Center (Choreographers and Dancers), American Composer’s Forum (Composers), Pillsbury House Theatre (Community-Engaged Practice Artists), Indigenous Roots (Culture Bearers), Textile Center (Textile Artists), FilmNorth (Media Artists), MacPhail Center for Music (Musicians), The Playwrights’ Center (Playwrights), Highpoint Center for Printmaking (Printmakers), Minneapolis College of Art and Design (Visual Artists), and the Loft (Creative Writers). Some of these partnerships stretch back more than four decades, and some are less than five years old. 

As a child, I would often walk down the halls of many beautiful museums, or see a play, or read a book, and wonder if art created by people like me, or the various people in my community, would ever be valued.

—Bao Phi

Boa Phi with his family around 1975.

A Powerful Step, A Continued Inquiry

Changing our name to the McKnight Artist and Culture Bearer Fellowship is a powerful and important step, broadening our reach and breaking down outdated notions of what philanthropy in the arts has to look like. But our work is not done. Along with our partners, our sector, and our communities, we need to continually ask, who is left out? And what do we want to help grow in this work? 

Many years ago, as a child who loved all forms of art growing up in an economically poor and multi-racial area of Minneapolis, I would often walk down the halls of many beautiful museums, or see a play, or read a book, and wonder if art created by people like me, or the various people in my community, would ever be valued.  

Just a few months ago, I attended the celebration honoring the 2023 Culture Bearer Fellows at Indigenous Roots. One of the Fellows, Ginga da Bahia, a dancer, choreographer, and dance teacher who is trained in Modern, Technical, Afro, and Jazz dance, did something different in lieu of giving a traditional speech. He invited everyone to dance with him. And the multitudes of people there, of all ages and from all walks of life, got to their feet and joined him. I thought, that’s the type of world we want to grow into. 

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