“Create Momentum for Change.” A Soros-Backed Arts Fellowship Focuses on Migration



Last year, the Open Society Foundations announced the first recipients of the Soros Arts Fellowship, an initiative to support innovative mid-career artists using art and public space to advance “pluralistic, democratic and just societies.” The eight fellows received an $80,000 stipend to realize an “ambitious socially engaged art project” over the following 18 months.

The launch of the fellowship, which, according to OSF, reflected its founder George Soros’ “long-term commitment to arts and culture in closing societies,” came at a time when more funders were refining their approaches to frame the arts as a mechanism to drive meaningful social change. Open Society Foundations recently announced its 2019 fellows, and a closer look at its rationale and the initiative’s focus on the “intersection of migration, public space and the arts” speaks to the fluidity of this niche funding area.

“We are proud to support visionary artists and cultural producers exploring the aesthetic and political realities of migration from personal, familial, historical, and conceptual perspectives,” said Rashida Bumbray, senior program manager of Open Society’s Arts Exchange. “Across the globe, the political environment is increasingly characterized by polarizing and reductive notions about people who migrate. That’s why this work to broaden understandings of migration, share self-determined narratives, stimulate critical discourse, and create momentum for change is so urgent.”

Over the past few years, arts funders have pursued a social justice agenda in different ways, at times in response to changing circumstances on the ground. For example, in 2016, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation announced that its Artist as Activist program, originally launched in 2012, would focus solely on projects that “address the intersections between race, class and mass incarceration.” Two years later, the Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and collector and philanthropist Agnes Gund launched the $100 million Art for Justice Fund to reduce U.S. prison populations.

Open Society Foundations launched its Soros Arts Fellowship recognizing “the importance of artists’ contributions and the necessity of using creativity as a response to increased repression across the globe” and “the challenges faced by artists and cultural producers doing socially engaged work that is largely disconnected from the art market.”

“Whether in democracies with longstanding traditions of supporting freedom of expression, or in countries undergoing political transition, artists working in public spaces can contest oppression, make hope tangible, and create momentum for change,” said the Open Society Foundations’ Bumbray.

The fellowship’s focus on the issue of migration should come as no surprise to followers of the Open Society Foundations and its founder. In 2016, Soros called out the world’s public and private sectors in an op-ed piece he penned for the Wall Street Journal, titled “Why I’m Investing $500 million in Migrants.” Soros wrote that our “collective failure” to serve the world’s ever-growing refugee population with effective policymaking has “contributed greatly to human misery and political instability.” (We’ve also written extensively about philanthropy’s failure in stemming the Syrian refugee crisis.)

Last year, OSF announced an emergency assistance fund of $10 million to help Rohingya people who were displaced from Myanmar to refugees camps in Bangladesh. Soros, who lived through the Nazi occupation of Hungary, has described his reaction to the plight of this persecuted ethnic minority in personal terms: “You see, in 1944, as a Jew in Budapest, I, too, was a Rohingya.”

The Soros Arts Fellowship and its emphasis on migration comes less than two years after the Ford Foundations Creative and Free Expression division embraced immigrant rights in response to President Trump’s travel ban. “At the Ford Foundation, we seek to listen to and learn from the experiences of immigrants themselves, as well as from the expertise of advocates and activists who are working to secure rights and dignity for immigrants,” said Ford’s communications associate Crysta Jentile.

In addition, Ford provides support for New York Foundation’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program, which pairs foreign-born artists with artists who have received a New York State Council on the Arts/NYFA Artist Fellowship and/or past participants of the program. The Kenneth Rainin Foundation has also addressed issues related to immigration through its Open Spaces public art program.

As for the Open Society Foundations, Soros Arts fellows will pursue projects of their own design, including a theatrical version of the film The Infiltrators to raise awareness of for-profit detention centers, the politics of deportation, and strategies of resistance developed by undocumented immigrants in the United States. Fellows are also producing a series of healing workshops, mental health resources, and performance classes for young immigrant communities dealing with traumas of migration, and an installation along Lebanon’s northern border with Syria that will broach “essential questions of love, refuge, and survival.”