At the top of a steep and creaky flight of stairs, on the third floor of the historic Guthrie building in Salt Lake City, multimedia artist Jason Dickerson squeezes a string of Indian yellow paint into a tinfoil cup.

The pungent smell of linseed oil is heavy in the air. Soft February daylight drops from the clerestory windows overhead and splashes across the paint-stained table where Dickerson is at work on his latest collection, “Furniture for Clowns,” a color-field inspired project that refashions old furniture in boldly overbright palettes.

“This project is about giving new life to old things at the same time combining a performative element,” he said, explaining that he dresses up in full clown regalia when promoting the line. “I like to lean into the absurd, my inner clown. This project is about color, whimsy, performance, but also practicality. This is fully functional furniture.”

Dickerson is part of a growing demographic of creatives who’ve helped establish Salt Lake as a regionally esteemed place for the arts — and he’s one of the city’s many artists eager to grab a chunk of a handsome $500,000 grant newly awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts available to Utah artists beginning next month.

“Money like that gets the gears moving. It opens up new avenues. Now I’m thinking of all the things I could do, projects with the community, events. It’s kind of exciting.”

The grant is financed as part of the American Rescue Plan and will be administered by the Salt Lake City Arts Council, which plans to funnel funding through its Artist Career Empowerment and Racial Equity grant programs with applications open in coming weeks.

The money is seen as a godsend to a sector that was among the worst hit by a pandemic recession that dried up artistic patronage and left creatives scrambling for ways to stay fed.

“We saw that over two-thirds of artists were unemployed during the pandemic, so many of the artists in our community have multiple jobs. They’re gig and creative economy workers and independent contractors, and many were not eligible for unemployment relief,” said Felicia Baca, director for the Salt Lake City Arts Council, referring to research from Americans for the Arts.

Dickerson, who switches out his splattered painter’s smock for a server’s apron to make a stable paycheck, admits he’s struggled financially to support his art practice, and says a grant would ease the stress of pursuing a life of art — which requires ingenuity, negotiation and an ability to stir up patronage by any means necessary.

“Sometimes I have to borrow money. A hundred dollars here from a family member. A hundred dollars there from a friend. There’s no way around it, you make sacrifices in order to put your creative force toward art. So to have grant money for supplies and materials — that’d be amazing.”

The city is one of 66 local arts agencies nationwide to receive the award and the only organization in the state of Utah, and it comes as a breath of fresh air for arts advocates who say the funding will have big impacts in a sector where many operate at the financial margins.

Jason Dickerson, a multimedia artist, wears a clown nose and dresses the part while showing his Furniture 4 Clowns work in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Straight to the artist’s pocket

Although it isn’t just the funding that makes a grant fruitful, according to Baca, of the Arts Council, who says the way money is allowed to be used impacts productivity as well. This makes the new National Endowment for the Arts grant especially appealing because unlike most national funding opportunities, which have traditionally tilted to the benefit of established organizations, this allows for federal money to land directly in the pockets of unaffiliated artists like Dickerson through programs like the Artist Career Empowerment Grant, where awardees have the potential to receive between $500 and $15,000.

“One thing exciting about this particular grant is it gives us the ability to support individual artists in the execution of projects. It’s not typical at the federal level to support individual artists. We typically see organizations that support those artists, so this is unique,” said Baca.

Jorge Rojas, a multidisciplinary artist and former grant recipient, says discretion in funding was a decisive ingredient in the success of his first major exhibit at the Modern West Gallery in Salt Lake City, where Rojas showed work he was able to produce with the help of the Artist Career Empowerment Grant that gives artists like him the ability to pursue creative druthers with minor stipulation or surveillance, something he says is critical for creativity to flourish.

“The art systems in place have historically privileged institutions. It goes through the institutions and then trickles out to the artists and what that means is that artists find themselves having to jump through hoops, and struggle to find out how they fit the criteria that is placed by the institution,” Rojas explained.

Rojas, who used his grant funding to pay for studio space, art materials and transportation costs, sees the artist empowerment movement as something with the potential to move artistic accomplishment by bounds.

Rojas’ own art abides by an abstract, geometric color-field aesthetic, which combines unconventional mediums and found objects, including sinks and strainers, to create highly textural work. For instance, his piece “I WANNA MELT WITH YOU” is composed of sandpaper squares rubbed with wax crayon.

Works like these challenge viewers and can generate new ways of relating to the world, something Rojas believes requires the type of license allowed by empowerment grants.

“Instead of centering the institutions, here you’re centering artists, and their ideas, visions and voices. It’s actually quite a radical move. But it’s important because it’s saying we deserved to be empowered directly and given more trust and respect, and freedom and flexibility about how we spend those funds. It has great potential to shift the whole landscape of the artwork that is being created,” Rojas said.

Jason Dickerson, a multimedia artist, works on his Furniture 4 Clowns project at the historic Guthrie Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Diversity and equity

In addition to empowerment grants, Baca’s department will distribute the federal money through its Racial Equity Grants program that aims to build up art-based organizations working toward inclusion and racial equity, which Baca says holds heightened importance right now.

“We know first of all that communities of color and BIPOC artists were disproportionately affected by the pandemic. So that’s a critical gap for us to fill with this funding, and that’s on our mind because lifting up historically resilient communities is really important to our organization,” Baca said.

Rojas, 53, has navigated the art world for decades and agrees that equity in arts is high priority.

“Historically, art funds haven’t been distributed as well as they could be. Sometimes it’s just because people are not in the know about these funds or aware of funding sources. Now I think we’re seeing more and more a desire and commitment to serving a diverse group of artists.

The arts diversification is reflected at the national level by the recent appointment of Rosario Jackson as chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts, the first African American and Mexican American woman to lead the endowment, who sees cultural bridge building as part of the role of the NEA, and says bringing diversity to the arts is a way to repair larger social divides while encouraging people to see things afresh.

“I’m a connector, a bridge builder. And I also am interested in looking at things from different perspectives and understanding that there isn’t just one way to do things, that there are multiple ways,” Jackson told The Washington Post,

Jorge Rojas, who is Mexican American, believes Jackson’s appointment shines positively on the mission of arts in America.

“It’s very encouraging for a person of color like myself, an immigrant artist, because it shows that at the highest levels of arts and culture in our country there is a dedication to inclusivity, and it recognizes that art and culture come in many colors and many styles and many different expressions.”

A painter’s pallet used by Jason Dickerson, a multimedia artist, is pictured at the historic Guthrie Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Beyond the canvas

Art, of course, is not confined to a canvas, and the Arts Council plans to get money to a varied group of creatives, including performers and those working with ephemeral mediums, along with small businesses that foster vibrancy in the city.

One example is former grant recipient Kat Nix, an artistic florist who used funding to nurture her small business Ritual in Bloom, which offers specialty plant curations along with ritual consulting that she hopes will generate deeper appreciation for flowers.

“Floral design on its own is such an incredible art form. And right now floral is really having a moment worldwide in terms of what fine art can be, and what living art can be, and what sculptural art can be,” Nix said, “ It’s such a fascinating medium to work because of the way they can create form and sculpture.”

With the help of the grant funding, Nix was able to retrofit a shed into a floral cooler, an essential provision when working with perishable art, a point that highlights the spectrum of artistic endeavor; though much creative work results in lasting durable goods, the ephemeral nature of Nix’s work illustrates how art is equally about creating experiences.

“My hope is that this encourages folks to develop reciprocal relationships to the land and with ourselves and to each other. I think this art is a powerful way to shift how we relate to our surroundings,” Nix said.

The difference between the work of grant recipients Rojas and Nix shows how art is a concept widely construed and indicates how the process of selecting grant recipients could pose a challenge to administrators who must be arbiters in this field of vast application and subjective taste.

We love that artists are breaking down the barriers between different artistic disciplines, because as artists we don’t always like to draw in the lines, or even draw lines. So that makes it part of the challenge of grant making,” Baca said, explaining that common traditional grant recipients fall into certain disciplines, including visual arts, performing arts, new media, music and dance.

“We look to artists to explain their artistic process. We’re looking at media that define the field in creative ways. It doesn’t feel good to leave anybody behind, especially because we’re creatives and we understand why we like to push boundaries. But we also have to draw boundaries because we can’t serve all those who apply.”

Jason Dickerson, a multimedia artist, looks over some of his Furniture 4 Clowns work at the historic Guthrie Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Essential public service

At the Guthrie artist collective, Dickerson applies long glossy paint strokes to a standing cabinet and considers the realities of his passion in earnest.

“It would be great to support yourself doing what you’re good at and excited about, and I know getting a grant would make that more likely. But whether I get it or not, I’m going to keep following my ideas and working on my art.”

This ethos of devotion, with or without profits, is something that sets the arts apart from other sectors, and it’s one of the reasons Baca believes the field serves as social glue integral to the health of society.

“The arts are really embedded in every aspect of our lives. That was one of the reckonings of the pandemic, how much we missed the arts. We look to the arts to uplift the community and restore our spirit. We realized they’re not just decoration. They’re not just fun. They’re something that strengthen our communities and foster a deep connection to place.” Baca said. “I think the arts are an essential public service.”

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the Artist Career Empowerment Grant awards grants between $500 and $1,500. The correct amount is between $500 and $15,000.