Annenberg grants conclude a starry decade

Careers in the fine arts can't be created with love or money. But the right combination of the two at the right time has boosted any number of recipients of the Leonore Annenberg Fellowship Fund for the Performing and Visual Arts, which has distributed $6 million to 70 artists over 10 years and which will formally announce its final round of grants Wednesday at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Recipients have included ballet star Misty Copeland, Broadway's Bryce Pinkham, Moonlight actor Andre Holland, and numerous opera singers, including soprano Brenda Rae (who had a big success in Opera Philadelphia's Tancredi this year). The program was intended from its inception to end this year -- the technical term is a "wasting endowment," created to be spent and then concluded -- so the 2017 recipients will be its last.

The fund has already told this year's recipients about their awards, and it provided their names to the Inquirer in advance of Wednesday's announcement. They are: mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, ballet dancer Cassandra Trenary, actors Ato Blankson-Wood and Ruibo Qian, visual artists Herman Aguirre and Emily Erb, and cellists Khari Joyner and Jia Kim.

The idea of the endowment isn't specifically to create the stars of tomorrow. "There's no guarantee that it will work. We all know that," said director Gail Levin, who has administrated the grants at the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "We try to increase the chances that they will achieve at least some of their goals."

This year's grantees are from diverse backgrounds with strong educational pedigrees. Another priority among many is a sense of social conscience in their work.

Example: Philadelphia painter Erb, who has degrees from the Tyler School of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, creates silk paintings that touch on all manner of social issues, most recently Lady Liberty, a painting made from a collage of images from U.S. currency in the shape of the Statue of Liberty. 

Each recipient receives $50,000 a year for as many as two years -- "generous but not excessive" says Levin -- in a process involving nominators from 25 partner organizations who single out individuals based on artistic promise and financial need.

Nominator Brian Zeger said he'd selected soprano Rae even after she landed a position at the Frankfurt Opera because her vocal studies in New York weren't quite finished. "She had three or four trips," said Zeger. "She had a home team that raised her as a singer and she had access to them."

Already, Erb is leaving her 10-by-15-foot West Philadelphia studio to occupy something larger in South Philadelphia that gives her space to work on a large scale while maintaining a meticulous level of quality. "Some artists like to play with their mistakes. I don't. I'm afraid of them," she said. 

Copeland's 2007 grant went toward cultivating skills not often found in dancers -- or demanded of them: She took acting classes that translated into dance, and studied public speaking as an aid for self-presentation offstage. The fruits of that will be apparent on Thursday at the Philadelphia Free Library's Author Events series, where she'll promote her new book, Ballerina Body

One thing that Leonore Annenberg (1918-2009) might not have envisioned when the fellowship began in 2008 is how often the money goes for self management -- a newish reality for 21st-century artists.

Composer Dan Visconti (a 2007 recipient and now artistic adviser with Philadelphia's Astral Artists) used the grant money to organize his own recording,  Lonesome Roads, which probably would have gotten done one way or another. But with the grant, he was able to work on it over five days with members of the Berlin Philharmonic. "It was a lot of time," he says, that allowed him and the musicians to find stronger connections.

"We got into this business because we didn't want to be salespeople or go to business school. We were these creative dreamers, so this business sense doesn't come naturally," said actor Pinkham, one of the fellowship's success stories. "It's called show business, rather than everybody-gets-a-chance business."

His story is particularly complicated. The California-born Pinkham emerged from Yale Drama School wanting to pursue nothing but classical theater. But few careers are built just on that, and, initially, the pay was so low he was working at the 12th Street Bar & Grill in Brooklyn. So his stated goal -- to star in a Broadway musical for his 2012 fellowship -- wasn't a dream so much as a strategy, for which extra vocal coaching was necessary.

The next year, he headed the Broadway cast of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. "When you do eight shows a week, it's like jumping on a moving train," he said. "Every night at 8 o'clock you're singing your face off. It was the performance I always wanted to give. And I was prepared."

Subsequently, he landed the sort of role he had been working toward, in the Broadway revival of The Heidi Chronicles

One of the best benefits of the fellowship can be the confidence. "That goes a long way with actors," he said. 

Or significant self-examination: "I've had a bit of the imposter syndrome," said Erb. "Did they make a mistake?"

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