The Sachs Program announces 2019 grants, marks one-year anniversary

At a celebration ceremony Thursday night, The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation awarded 26 grants to innovative arts projects.

Common Press screening bags
Common Press screens bags at the 2019 Sachs Grant Awards event on May 2. (Photo: Dominic Mercier)

A year and 23 grant projects later, The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation is phasing into round two of its annual grant awards, announcing 26 grant-funded projects that total $220,000 in new arts investment.

The 2019 grants, announced at a party at the Penn LGBT Center on Thursday night with members of and performances from the local arts community, were divvied out in eight categories that support teaching, making, and presenting art: an Extended Artist Engagement Grant, Arts Course Development and Arts Integration class grants, Independent Creative Production grants, Visiting Artists grants, Provosts Interdisciplinary grants, and Student Engagement and Arts Innovation grants. The Sachs administrative team and a selection committee culled through approximately 70 proposals this year submitted by students, faulty, and staff, double the number submitted last year. The overall funding also increased to $220,000, up from $123,000 last year. (This is in addition to the $30,000 already disbursed for Freshman Seminars and for the Ben Art Bucks program, designed for smaller and more timely projects throughout the academic year.) 

Wendell Pritchett at podium
Provost Wendell Pritchett remarks at the May 2 Sachs Grant Awards event. “I’ve been amazed and gratified—though not at all surprised—to see the deep wells of Penn creativity that have been deployed to solve problems and address varying issues represented in these awards,” he says. (Photo: Dominic Mercier)

“There’s a lot of really ambitious and experimental projects across the board this year,” says John McInerney, executive director of The Sachs Program.

The months-long selection process differed slightly this year in that five committees were created containing people from various areas of expertise in the arts, student engagement, and University leadership, with each committee containing a Sachs board member as chair. Those committees then worked with The Sachs Program staff and delivered recommendations to the board, which made the final call on grant awardees. Categories also separated student proposals to ensure, for example, that the board would not have to equally weigh a museum proposal and one from a first-year student. 

“The benefit from having such an intensive process this year is we got to have extended conversations with everyone,” McInerney says. “We were definitely engaged with applicants last year as well, but this year we were able to work with a broader range of communities and spend more time with individuals when they applied, so it’s really rewarding to see these [projects] come together and get funded.”

John McInerney at podium
The Sachs Program Executive Director John McInerney speaks at an announcement event at the Penn LGBT Center for the 2019 Sachs grants. (Photo: Dominic Mercier)

While there’s no singular theme for awarding the grants, one common thread this year, says McInerney, is diversity and social impact.

“I think a big priority for the board is to support projects that either push forward the individuals involved, or push forward whatever artistic or interdisciplinary area they work in,” he says. “I think you definitely see that resonate more in the grants this year—projects that are either very experimental, or touching on powerful contemporary issues that are related to much larger transformations happening in society. That is exactly where the arts, and The Sachs Program, should be.”

The awardees

The biggest addition to the 2019 round of grants is the Extended Artist Engagement prize, a $40,000 stipend awarded to the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics’ Anjan Chatterjee to welcome visual artist Lucas Kelly as an artist-in-residence. Kelly will work closely with researchers at the center over a period of six months and then develop an art exhibition that addresses the constructive nature of human memory and memory loss.

Courses to be created as part of the grants include, among others, a Weitzman School of Design course that examines architecture through the lens of feminism; a course led by Professor of English Heather Love and senior lecturer Brooke O’Harra that explores queer archives around the country and will also get students involved in the Killjoy Kastle, a site-specific art installation and haunted house that addresses the difficult history of lesbian culture; and a history of opera class led by Associate Professor of Music Mauro Calcagno that will also create new opera performances.

Among the interdisciplinary grants is a project by Assistant Professor of Sculpture Michelle Lopez that considers the massive amounts of data in society in the context of a tornado, with the intention of creating a robot that will project audio and images at the Franklin Institute’s Fels Planetarium. A doctoral candidate in the music program will score the music played as part of that installation. 

Lucas Kelly painting with a brush
Lucas Kelly, an artist-in-residence at the Center for Neuroaesthetics, paints in a studio. (Photo: Matthew Bender)

The Institute of Contemporary Art, meanwhile, as part of a Visiting Artists Grant, will host a punk music and zine festival centered around its upcoming exhibit about lesbian feminist art activist collective Fierce Pussy, a retrospective of the collective from the early 1990s. That project will welcome an artist from New York, Christina Long, for curation. 

Additionally, the Penn Museum will have Penn grad, fashion designer and contemporary artist Breanna Moore develop a brand-new dress with Ghanian seamstresses that reimagines the aesthetics of the African diaspora as represented by the soon-to-reopen Africa Galleries.

For student arts innovation projects, of which there are seven, two sorority member students, Anab Aidid and Christina Piasecki, will do research at Penn Libraries to analyze sexual assault cases at Penn and other universities; their project will culminate in a documentary film about their findings. The PhotoVoice Project, also student-led, works with trans women in the Penn Medicine health system to increase awareness around HIV prevention through photo narratives and images related to interviews conducted with 30 women about what their lives are like as trans women in Philadelphia. Common Press, the letterpress and book arts studio at Penn that’s a collaboration between Penn Libraries, the Weitzman School, and Kelly Writers House, will host workshops with activist artists that teach socially engaged Penn students how to produce compelling printed materials.

Sachs’ first year

The Program’s first year of funding paved the way for everything from a psychology experiment organized by an MFA student to a Department of Fine Arts new project space in North Philadelphia. It’s uncharted territory for the University’s arts community.

“There’s never been a program like this before, so it’s new ground and I think that’s very important, because I think there’s a lot of shared motivation to do more for the arts [at Penn],” says McInerney, reflecting on his first year of work alongside Associate Director Chloe Reison. “Being able to help facilitate that transformation at Penn is both exciting and really kind of humbling.”

One grant from the past year funded a two-day group relations experiment hosted by Fred Schmidt-Arenales, a second year MFA student, in collaboration with Temple University MFA student Netta Sadovsky. They organized a Group Relations Conference called “Authority, Exclusion, and Emotion,” a form of experiential learning similar to psychodynamic group therapy, facilitated by a group of hired practitioners called “consultants.” Sadovsky and Schmidt-Arenales developed a theme for the conference, recruiting various affiliates of Philadelphia universities to discuss authority, emotionality, and exclusivity at the universities.

Schmidt-Arenales’ interest was in bringing this concept to a university setting. 

“We were thinking about the context of art education and higher learning,” he explains. 

The meeting, which was an intensive two-day long affair in January, including 34 people at the Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall, was designed to emphasize the powerful emotions present within group dynamics—a sort of art-meets-psychology experiment run amok. In sum, a chance to challenge how power structures often exist under the surface and can warp larger rational behaviors.

“Directors” and “consultants” of the conference facilitated the meetings, Schmidt-Arenales says, in a way that might be described as professionally distanced. 

“There’s a range of performance the consultants take on, channeling the energy and the emergent dynamic of the group and reflecting it back to them without necessarily ‘responding directly to questions,’” he explains. “You (consultants) can come off as cold or overpolite, or different people do it different ways, but often it appears detached.”

He refers to the experience as a kind of role-playing game or “experiential learning event” for those who participate. Many who attended, he says, came away feeling like they’d learned more about how they present themselves in groups, while also having a sort of de-stabilizing experience. 

“I really wanted to be able to give that to a bunch of my classmates and other people,” he says. “It was a wonderful thing.”

Director of the Undergraduate Fine Arts program Matthew Neff, meanwhile, used a 2018 grant to develop PostScript, a 350-square-foot gallery space located in the Crane Arts Building in North Philadelphia. 

Balls hang from ceiling with paper bags in the background
Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into, by Penn alumni Paz Ortuzar and Lydia Rosenberg. The exhibit was the first to enter the PostScript space in the Crane Arts Building. (Photo: The Department of Fine Arts)

“We envisioned PostScript as basically an immersive experimental gallery project that we design to fill a need that we were seeing in our department, and that was to give our students exposure to the local art scene and, in this case, have there be engagement both on campus with fine arts student and off,” he says. “Connecting the work we do at Penn to the larger Philly community.”

PostScript is a gallery, but more so a project space that focuses on experimental projects featuring series of exhibitions from students as well as those from the general public. In one case, they hosted a chance for artists to spend eight hours developing an exhibition, with about 15 to 20 selected to be on view within a two-week period. It was, Neff says, a very non-commercial type of exhibition.

They’ve also held classes, boasted residencies, hosted an experimental drawing seminar, and joined in on Second Thursdays events. 

“We came up with the name ‘Postscript’ thinking of it as this kind of second space, in addition to the things we’re already doing,” Neff says. “Particularly because it’s off campus, it’s sort of away from the curricular things we’re doing and separate from programming we do in-house. It’s more public-facing.”

What’s more, thanks to the initial funding from Sachs and some of the department’s own resources, they’ve managed make the space sustainable and will continue for at least another year. 

“I think this coming year we’re going to flex it a bit even more,” Neff says. “More programming, artist residencies, working a lot with the Department of Music for performances, and I think there will be more cross-collaboration across the University in that small space.”

The space will continue to host exhibitions all summer.

An evolving program

Overall, McInerney describes a busy first year of The Sachs Program, vetting proposals while also giving advice to existing grantees—providing marketing support, identifying additional sources for arts funding, and expanding resources on their website, But also, spending time engaging in broader conversations about the future of the arts on campus. 

“These larger issues about ‘What is the vision for the arts at Penn? What areas should we focus resources on?’ That’s been a really powerful conversation to be part of,” McInerney says. 

A performer from the West Philadelphia Orchestra sings into a mic
The West Philadelphia Orchestra performs at the Sachs 2019 Grant Awards on May 2 at the Penn LGBT Center. (Photo: Dominic Mercier)

The program, he says, has also seen some evolution in its inaugural year, for example, the development of Ben Art Bucks, a student intern’s idea, which provides a flexible and responsive funding source to accommodate students with art projects and facing short-term needs, sometimes as simple as supplies or travel expenses. (One such grant funded the Quaker Notes’ trip to New York after receiving a last-minute opportunity to perform with The Rockettes.) Along the way, that program has become “like a leading indicator, or a survey,” McInerney says, to get a finger on the pulse of what students are in need of. 

Moving forward, he says, the program hopes to continue to evaluate how it can meet the needs of the community and structure itself in a way that is accommodating a diverse cast of communities. 

He welcomes feedback in the year ahead. 

“We would like to hear from people about ways they think we should support the arts community going forward,” he says. “That’s certainly something we would welcome. We’ll look to do more workshops and open events in the fall so people can learn more about the program, but if people have ideas for us or think there’s work we should be doing, or communities to connect with, we want to hear from them.”