Deborah Henson-Conant

Telling stories with music at HipHarp.com

More than 30 years ago I came to Boston from California, following a boyfriend who was in Harvard Med School.  He left, I stayed.  It’s not that I fell in love with Boston weather, politics or architecture. One thing convinced me to stay.

The arts council had a special program called “Massachusetts Artist Fellowships.”

dhc-mass-artistfellowship-v3

The program included a grant  – yes, MONEY –  which the council gave to artists simply to help them continue on their paths as artists. It wasn’t a project grant that required the completion of a project – but a fellowship – recognition and patronage.  True, respectful patronage.

You’d apply for the grant with your most recent work, and if you won, you were awarded a sum of money, which provided the incentive to basically “keep doing what you’re doing.” 

It was such an unexpected idea: to get support for BEING an artist ... Click To Tweet

That was it. You didn’t have to prove anything after that.  You didn’t have to complete anything. You didn’t owe anyone a finished product or a report of how you’d used the funds.  You’d already done the work. You were an honored fellow.

This was such an unexpected idea for me as an artist: to get support for BEING an artist.

I applied first in the early ’80’s and won a composer’s fellowship on my first try with piano-vocal works from my musical theater pieces.  I knew my application pieces weren’t snazzy productions, so I realized the selection committee was truly focused on content and not slick production values.

That impressed me. The whole program impressed me.  I was so blown away by a program that supports artists themselves, that partners with them to support their BEING artists — that treats them as honored members of the community — ‘honored fellows’ — that I decided this was a place I wanted to live.

The selection committee was truly focused on content - not slick production values. Click To Tweet

I used my fellowship money to buy my first computer and my first photocopier – tools that would help me share my art, and build an entrepreneurial business built on my work as a composer and performer.

I won again a few years later, becoming one of the first fellows to ever win the award twice — and again put the money into infrastructure.  I could have used the money to live and work for several months but I decided to put it into tools that would help me support and empower myself as a working artist, tools I could keep using even after the fellowship money was gone.

And I’ve lived and worked as an artist in Massachusetts ever since.

The Artist Fellowship program is now 40 years old, still funding artists and celebrating the process.  Dan Blask, the program officer, just emailed to tell me he’s creating a gallery of images and reminiscences of artists who have won fellowships throughout the years. I’m honored to be among them.

Thank you Massachusetts, for your support of the arts.

Thank you Massachusetts Arts Council for believing in the power of support for artists themselves

I’m proud to be a citizen-artist-fellow in this state.  You could say I’m one very  happy fellow – thanks to the Massachusetts Artist Fellowship program.