A Closer Look At Windgate's Big Give to Montana's Archie Bray Foundation

Arts programming directors know it generally doesn't pay to be all things to all people. Given the relatively scarce funding, common sense suggests that smaller arts organizations should focus on a core set of roles, rather than offering an expansive, multi-disciplinary menu spanning multiple fields.

The Archie Bray Foundation religiously adheres to this principle. The Helena, Montana-based nonprofit is devoted exclusively to the ceramic arts and the foundation's commitment to this niche field has served it well. Bray is now recognized as one of the preeminent organizations devoted to the ceramic arts in the U.S.

Due in no small part to this laser-like focus, the foundation recently announced it matched a $750,000 challenge grant from the Windgate Charitable Foundation. As you'll see, to call this development life-saving would not be inaccurate.

But before we take a closer look at the Bray and how they'll use the funds, let's first pivot toward the Windgate Charitable Foundation. The Siloam Springs, AR-based foundation supports everything from "strengthening marriage" to "providing Christian higher education," as well as programs focused on arts and crafts. For example, it awarded $400,000 challenge to the San Francisco Museum of Craft and Design back in 2009.

The Windgate began supporting the Bray in 2010 for its 60th anniversary celebration in 2011, and began providing fellowship and scholarship support in 2011 to many of the Bray’s long-term and summer resident artists, which it has continued to renew. Altogether this year, the Bray will host 10 long-term residents and 10 artists on scholarship, says Rachel Hicks, the Bray’s director of communications.

In the absence of a statement from a foundation about why it funded an arts organization, one can oftentimes get a proxy statement from the actual artists receiving the money. In other words, the funder will tend to appreciate what the artist appreciates. And in this case, the Bray's main offering is time. It provides ceramic artists with time to hone their craft. Fellow Joanna Powell noted that while in graduate school, she was making formal art to be critiqued by professors. "Now I just make whatever I feel like," she says.

You may be thinking what we're thinking. Perhaps Bray is a bit too reliant on Windgate's support. After all, as we've seen elsewhere, an overreliance on a single funding source can sometimes backfire. Fortunately, this lesson isn't lost on the Bray's management. The foundation gets its funding from a variety of sources, although Windgate's recent gift can best be described as a lifesaver. A number of other funding sources have dried up, including a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant plus a recent "change in funding priorities" at the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation.

And while the grant can't be used for operational support, the Bray, quite naturally, is cool with that. In addition to funding its fellowship, Bray is also "taking a close look at ways to improve the educational programming at the facility," said resident artist director Steven Young Lee. "We’re evaluating the programming that is working well and perhaps expanding our reach to provide a better experience for our students and resident artists."