The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation celebrates its 2023-24 awardees

At a reception on April 30, The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation recognized the 21 projects awarded grants for the 2023-24 cycle, totaling $210,000 in support.

Stylized speakers and a blue silhouette of a person.
Justin Gotzis of University Life received an award from The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation to develop “Puck,” a sculptural speaker system that reflects on the “Freetekno” movement. (Image: Justin Gotzis)

Now in its seventh year, The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation announced $210,000 of support for 21 projects and reiterated $80,000 of support for 17 students and 9 first-year seminar faculty who received grants earlier this academic year. The program has awarded $1.8 million in support since 2018; grants range from $2,500 to $25,000.

Awardees cross schools and centers, ranging from Penn Museum to the Wharton School, College Houses and Academic Services to the Perelman School of Medicine. Since 2018, awardees have represented nine of Penn’s 12 Schools.

Multidisciplinary artist Shelley Spector and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships were awarded a project grant in support of “Flow,” a sculpture that will be built in collaboration with the Andrew Hamilton School. The sculpture will be constructed in the school’s garden and exist as a functional sculpture that harvests water. 

“It’s going to work into their curriculum to talk about rain harvesting, how siphons work, and gravity, and a lot of this will be incorporated into how the sculpture collects water,” says Spector. “I’ll work with Harry Russell [of the Netter Center] who knows that end of it and I know the sculpture end, so we’ll be working with the kids to think about how we can catch water with what we have available while learning about the environment and using reclaimed materials.”

Gayoung Lee, an MFA student in the Weitzman School, received support for a project that provokes thought about the experience of English as a second language and the role of language in expression. Coming to Penn from South Korea, the project stems from the multilingualism she encountered when she came here. 

Sharon Hayes and Gayoung Lee.
Sharon Hayes, left, and Gayoung Lee at the reception for The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation’s 2024 awards. (Image: DWade Took That Photography)

“[It’s] multilayered difficulties when I speak in English, and an interesting thing I found was that it’s more challenging to me to communicate simple emotions than academic jargon, because I feel there are more margins for interpretation when we communicate emotions,” Lee says. 

She says she decided to home in on the notion of love and how it’s communicated in different languages, recognizing that it can be a lonely experience trying to find the appropriate words. She’ll create a “coin karaoke” video installation booth. 

“I decided I’d make love songs a catalyst to understand each other through language barriers,” she says. “I acknowledge that even mother tongue speakers in their own countries can feel this loneliness, but it would be nice to try to get connected through the mistranslation or interpretation.”

Onlookers with a 'congratulations' balloon.
Matthew Kenyatta, far left, of the Weitzman School of Design, celebrates his Sachs award with husband Malcolm Kenyatta, right. (Image: DWade Took That Photography)

Rudy Gerson and lexi welch, both 2023 MFA alumni affiliated with Gender Sexuality and Women’s Studies and Fine Arts, will collaborate to create “The center,” an experimental essay film that explores the transition of the William Way LGBT Community Center archives to its new space, as the center undergoes renovations. It will be a three-part film that considers what it means to be a queer archive and the choreography of moving it. The archive, Gerson explains, is non-standardized, and many of the materials will be touched for the first time in decades, leading to questions about “touch, legacy, and remembrance.”

The duo wanted to document the transition both for posterity’s sake, Gerson says, and as a consideration of what the move looks and feels like. 

“The moving and standardization of archives, specifically for gay, lesbian, trans, and bisexual people—the question of standardization is one in which there’s a whole host of issues and questions we’re committed to as artists,” Gerson says.

Celebrating art as a principle

The reception was held at the Arts Lounge inside the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, in celebration of this year’s winners and featured remarks from faculty and staff. 

“[Sachs] grantmaking is driven by our mission to support and inspire artistic practice and creative expression across the University,” said John McInerney, executive director of The Sachs Program, in his opening remarks. “We support a vibrant and creative community in which we ensure our community members are valued and supported in ways they need to thrive.”

McInerney then introduced David Asch, senior vice president for strategic initiatives, who spoke about the “transformative role of the arts” at Penn and how the In Principle and Practice strategic framework for the University emphasizes how the arts and humanities are at the core of the human endeavor. 

“As our institutions and our society continue to grapple with hard issues and divergent views, we’re all focused on how to support community and knit it together,” Asch said.

David Asch shakes John McInerney's hand.
David Asch, left, greets John McInerney as he approaches the podium at the reception for The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation’s 2024 awards. (Image: DWade Took That Photography)

Sachs board chair and Professor of Fine Arts Sharon Hayes, joined by fellow board member and the President’s Distinguished Professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences Josephine Park, spoke about the support art can provide in difficult moments. 

“What art offers are pathways for moving in spaces of discomfort,” Hayes said, “pathways for navigating encounters with difference, for lingering in relation to objects, systems, words, signs, shapes, forms, stories that we do not understand.”

Weaving together communities through creative practice

McInerney adds that the program has seen a steady increase in the range of applicants as Sachs continues to focus on diverse, equitable, and inclusive grantmaking wherever art is happening, from the humanities to health care. 

Some Sachs projects, like an artist residency at the Center for Neuroaesthetics, outlive their initial grant and find funding to exist permanently. Word about the program’s resources then spread by word of mouth to other centers, departments, and schools, McInerney says.

“Penn is so unique in that there are so many resources and talents here, and the more they can be inspired by each other, to be challenged by artists but to have artists stretched as well, and to build on each other, that’s what I think has really been impactful,” he adds. “There are so many talented and inspiring communities already interwoven into the Penn ecosystem, so the more you connect them that’s really, I think, what we’re trying to do.” 

Sachs team and others pose for a photo in front of sign that reads 2024 Grant Awards Party.
From left to right, clockwise: Kathy Sachs, Tamara Suber, John McInerney, Chloe Reison, and Azsherae Gary and Janice Sykes-Ross of the Paul Robeson House. (Image: DWade Took That Photography)