CREATIVE EXPERIMENTS: What About Money?

Supported by McKnight Foundation Fellowships
1992 – 2000

The Project
Wendy’s Personal Re-Granting Program
I distributed $5 in crisp, new bills to hundreds of individuals and small groups with the request that they spend the award in any way that supports their creativity. My criteria for selecting grantees were random and inconsistent. I arbitrarily chose some grantees (i.e., the wait staff at a reception), while I handpicked others out of my address book. I asked grantees to send me a postcard, if convenient, describing how they spent the money. I incorporated these postcards into a free, private, performance-based dialogue about creative process at Patrick’s Cabaret.

Inquiry
I intended What About Money? to be a catalyst for me, and for others, to reflect on the question, "What really supports creativity?" It evolved into an investigation of the intersection between creativity and money.

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A Challenge

In the early nineties I was hungry for a productive dialogue about creativity and sustainability. I had been thinking about these issues for over a decade, beginning when Metropolitan State University first approached me to develop an interdisciplinary course in creativity. Since then I had read broadly about the subject (just a fraction of the literature and research published about creativity in the last century), attended cross-sector conferences, and met with leaders in the field. This led to work as an adjunct facilitator with Synectics, an international consulting firm for business innovation since 1960. (For more about Synectics, click on www.synecticsworld.com).

Through my consulting and teaching I worked with hundreds of people in health care, food production, the arts, and human services; in factories, hospitals, community centers, country clubs, and office buildings. (For more about this, click on Clients and Partners.)

Because my work straddled so many sectors, my basic assumptions were constantly provoked. I wanted to generate a discussion of issues like sustainability, value, and the long-term implications for how we, as an evolving human society, define work.

The more I learned about the dynamics that genuinely nurture creativity, the more I understood why the structures that profess to support artists, (especially the granting and presenting systems,) actually undermine the sustainable output of the creative individuals they exist to nurture. How do I move my conversations with colleagues in the arts past our habitual griping about how hard it is to make a living while creating art?

The challenge I faced was how to generate a positive climate for a more productive exchange. Creative Economy succeeded in setting a playful tone for a serious dialogue about the ways we choose to support creativity in our lives and in our communities.


What I Learned (quotes are from postcards returned from grantees)

  • "$5 is not a lot of money, but in the context you set up it sure did make me think of value, worth, intention, desire, priority, etc. In the end I came back to the current self-truth about my creative process: wanting to stop creating out of compulsion and obsession. I’m tired of surrogating my art for personal intimacy. I’m learning to enjoy the mundane, the ordinary, the everyday, to be more grounded in earthly life, in my body, in love, in death. I spent the $5 on parking my car."

    "We bought a six-pack of Molson Gold (beer), to be consumed in a meeting where we discuss the past/present/future of the company." Grantees used the project as an opportunity to reflect on their lives as individuals, or on the life of their groups.

  • Although I only requested a postcard, all forms of documentation arrived on my doorstep: an empty rose bush bag, a cassette with a new music composition, pages of writings, a sculpture of the five new dollar bills rolled up into a salt shaker. Grantees wanted to share their experiences.

  • I received a ten-dollar check with a note: "One way I know I can support my creativity is to give more, and what a better way to do that than to support the creativity of those who support mine: so I have decided to give an equal amount plus the original grant to a most supporting and creative individual, namely, you. Thank you for not granting me $1,000." Grantees re-granted their money in the belief that their own generosity supports their creativity.

  • One grantee divided her $5 into five areas: "$1 for a woman who teaches midwifery and has an intentional community, $1 buying a rose bush, $1 towards a sewing machine – to be a creative homemaker, $1 for space rental to support my creativity as a dancer, and $1 for Mothering Magazine." Grantees symbolically balanced and affirmed different parts of their lives by distributing their $5 into multiple uses.

  • One woman who had never been outside the country wrote, "I put another $99 with it and opened up a bank account to save for a trip to Europe. I will spend the years until I go fantasizing about the trip (where I want to go, what I want to do, etc.)." She took her family to France within one year. Grantees invested in their dreams, especially travel.

  • "I spent the money to see my homeland, the Black Hills…where dandelions are spotlights for the vast times…where the air is scented faintly with historical life." Grantees used the money to re-connect with their roots.

  • "I bought a skein of yarn…and started a new life journey." Grantees used the money to ritualize changes they wanted to create.

  • Grantees sent back elaborate parodies of a final grant report. "Disposition of my creativity grant: the price of admission to Hyland Park Reserve to play on the huge slide." Playfulness and humor were frequent themes in the postcards.

  • The author of one postcard meticulously inscribed it with the names of over 100 Twin Cities dance events, individuals, and companies. "We spent our grant on parts of two tickets to a performance…We wanted to nourish the diversity of dance offerings in the Twin Cities as this diversity has nourished us." Grantees used the money to experience art.

  • I received many postcards saying that the recipient had not yet decided how to use the money. Ten years after the first round of re-grants, there are individuals and groups who are still holding onto their $5. "Thank you for the creative gift of $5. It has been a challenge to my imagination. Although I haven’t made a decision on how to use it yet, I’m both enjoying and chafing under the prospect." Many grantees had a difficult time deciding how to use the money.

  • "I bought five good cups of coffee which pepped me up enough to write two new chapters of a new book." Grantees who spend the money on food and drink described the process of their decision or what they did while eating/drinking.

  • Most groups chose to divide the $5 into $1 sub-grants to individuals, rather than undertake a time-consuming collective decision-making process. Collaboration takes time.


Resolution
The performance/dialogue at Patrick’s Cabaret was fabulously fun. It ended with us acting out the final scene from the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the community pours out their dollars and pennies to save a beloved Jimmy Stewart from his financial and spiritual crises. (I played the angel.) I resolved to remember the transformative power of play when dealing with challenging issues.

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Copyright © 2009, Wendy Morris