Perhaps the most striking example of that effect is Lisa Lewenz, who has had an NEA travel award, a Fulbright fellowship and a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, plus funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting -- all since her $20,000 NEA fellowship in 1990. The awards have changed her life completely, allowing her to be free of teaching and to live mostly in England while completing her documentary.
"This was incredibly significant for me. It gave me the courage to leap from teaching into working full-time on the project," Lewenz says. Without the fellowship, "I would have worked on this project, but it would have been much harder, and there are many more compromises I would have had to make."
Artists who receive grants are taken more seriously. The fact that so few artists get them, and that grants are recommended by panels largely composed of fellow artists, is meaningful.
"No one said, 'You're an NEA recipient; we want to have you in our gallery,' " says Baltimore fiber sculptor Linda Bills, who has had three fellowships totaling $30,000. "But people did notice it and comment on it. It all has meaning. The field is competitive, and people who are looking at the resume and seeing that I've had NEA grants might look at the work more carefully."
Another major benefit of the grants is time -- time away from other jobs. Cleaver has had to spend less time working as a dresser at the Mechanic and the Lyric theaters. Bills was freed from the financial burden of doing free-lance work making architectural models.
Vote of confidence
As much as anything else, however, artists say they were encouraged by the vote of confidence in their work by a jury of their peers.
"It made me feel the work was worthwhile, gave me a sense of validation, because the panel was drawn from people all across the country in my field," says Bills. "It was a validation separate from that of commercial gallery acceptance or collectors buying the work."
She adds: "It made significant changes in my work. My field is contemporary craft, but the work has become closer to fine art sculpture, with content and focus. I think I would have gotten there, but much later."
Bryan, whose work has also changed a lot, agrees. "The vote of confidence, I feel, launches you into experimenting, going after what really inspires you," she says.
Constantine Grimaldis, Baltimore's leading contemporary art dealer, has been aware of Bryan's work for years, but will be showing her for the first time next fall.
"In the last year I felt that the work had come together," he says. "I think she is really finding her stride. I always thought she was a good painter. Now I think she's reached the point where she's a real good painter."
Leonard Koscianski, an Annapolis artist who has won two $5,000 NEA fellowships, feels the grants-awarding system is inadequate.
"Basically [fellowships are] given to people who are accepted aesthetically or politically," he says. "That excludes whole categories of artists. Take the National Watercolor Society . . . or people who paint ducks for a living. That may be a stultified way to paint, but they don't think so, and their collectors don't. But the NEA never recognizes them."
Bills, who last year was on the NEA crafts fellowship panel, says there might be room for broadening the awards. But, perhaps more important, she feels the program is significant to both the artists who get grants and as a statement of national commitment to the arts.
"I think one sad thing is that art and artistic endeavor are given lip service [in this country], but are not part of people's lives," she says. "When you see work supported from the top, and others who need support get support on the national level, it adds legitimacy, to encourage artists to take risks and do wonderful work. Creative work needs encouraging."