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The Garden Grant and the Perils of Being A Wallflower

The Garden Grant encourages diverse, nontraditional creators to make experimental and escapist art. The Verdant Fund repackaged the idea and refuses to credit its creator.

By Maacah Davis

Here are the three things you’re supposed to do when a larger, more established white-run nonprofit organization repackages your work (read: steals your idea) in order to gain significant funding, and then attempts to dismiss and silence you when you call them out:

  1. Be grateful (because you’re both working toward the same goal). 
  2. Be gracious (because how dare you have the audacity to accuse a bigger organization of theft). 
  3. And, most importantly, be quiet.

The thing about living in a city that’s the “biggest” small town ever is that everyone knows everyone. This holds especially true in Birmingham—I’ve lived in four countries and countless cities, and I’ve never experienced the kind of connectivity that makes Birmingham such a special place. It’s also one of the things that makes it very hard to believe in “coincidence” when someone releases work that feels like a watered down copy of yours.

In June 2020, I independently researched, branded, funded, and launched a grant program for artists called The Garden Grant, encouraging nontraditional creators to make experimental and escapist art. Well, let me be more specific: The Garden Grant encourages “experimental projects by multidisciplinary diverse creators in the Southeast” and prioritizes LGBTQIA+ Black, Indigenous, and folks of color. That’s one very narrow and specific niche. 

I named it The Garden Grant because it asked people to “grow something beautiful.” I chose my language carefully when I wrote the website copy, so that it could reach and encourage people who might not even consider themselves “artists” in the traditional understanding of what art is—particularly because white men have historically declared themselves alone to be the arbiters of artistry and the deciders of authenticity. Building The Garden Grant allowed me to ask (and attempt to answer) questions about accessibility, the value of art, and even what the definition of art is. Keeping in line with my commitment to accessibility, The Garden Grant does not require applicants to be affiliated with 501c3 nonprofits in order to qualify. As an exercise in seed philanthropy, it simply asks, “What cool thing could you make with fewer barriers to access?”

I don’t think we talk enough about the access it takes to be able to maneuver the web that is grant funding in the arts and nonprofits worlds, which are overwhelmingly dominated by white people. When you’re an independent creator or lean team, you don’t always have the time, information, or capacity to find the right grants, then tailor your work to each specific grant, because you’re too busy building the thing. If you’re not established enough, you might not even be allowed to play the game at all. The Garden Grant attempts to cut through some of the red tape.

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The Garden Grant, established June 5th, 2020 vs. The Verdant Fund, est. September 18th 2020
When the teacher says, “Use your own words, don’t just copy exactly from the source.”

The Garden Grant’s project information reads: “We support independent, multidisciplinary creators by funding short-term projects that represent escapism, medium not restricted. At this time, we are prioritizing diverse applicants, so creatives who are from LGBTQIA and communities of color are encouraged to apply. What kind of projects are we looking to support? Expressions of joy. compelling distractions from the current global chaos. whether that’s through writing, art, videos, food sculpting, or whatever else—you are free to define that as creatively as you wish.”

Information about The Garden Grant was circulated through local and regional networks. One of those networks was arts and culture nonprofit CreateBirmingham, which announced The Garden Grant in one of their newsletters. A couple of weeks after that, I was surprised to discover a new grant called The Verdant Fund announced in that same newsletter. Branded entirely too similarly to The Garden Grant to be coincidental, I checked their website’s publish date before asking for a virtual meeting with The Verdant Fund’s founders.

The Verdant Fund’s project information.

The Verdant Fund’s project grant is made possible by a very generous multi-year award from The Warhol Foundation, and the recipients are (acting as a single receiving entity in this instance) Space One Eleven, the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, and the Coleman Center for the Arts. The grant this collective won wouldn’t have even been an option for me or my fiscal sponsor, Vinegar, to apply for as a new and rising upstart. So, we need to talk about exclusivity and accessibility in the arts and grantmaking worlds—because when you’re either a young individual or a young organization, you don’t even qualify for most of these grants since you’re not “established” enough. Finding and applying for grants is not something that newer organizations always have the bandwidth for, as they are usually operating with limited teams and resources to begin with.

I might have accepted this branding similarity as coincidence if it weren’t for the fact that one of the three recipients, Space One Eleven, is based in Birmingham. Space One Eleven is the entity who is connected to, and funded by, The Warhol Foundation. Space One Eleven is the organization that would have known about the Garden Grant. And, despite their continued denial that they had never heard of The Garden Grant before launching Verdant, Space One Eleven was one of the first accounts to follow The Garden Grant on Instagram.

These were the three points I expressed to the Verdant Fund team when I asked them to change their branding:

  1. I’m not claiming ownership of a concept. Ideas are worthless, in my opinion. Execution is key, and the execution is where my copyright infringement claim becomes valid. I’m claiming ownership of the very specific way this project was branded and presented—especially since, again, there was nothing like it when I branded and launched it. They collectively ignored my request that they present some kind of proof to counter my claim that The Garden Grant was first.
  2. The work of a bigger organization branded this similarly to mine could easily eclipse The Garden Grant in the eyes of potential donors, sponsors, and supporters, especially in a city as small as ours. That is a very valid concern for an independently funded project that exists in partnership with an equally unestablished organization (Vinegar). 
  3. The Verdant Fund has a Birmingham recipient (Space One Eleven). Even if Space One Eleven didn’t know about The Garden Grant, that would still make them look bad because it would mean they did absolutely no preliminary research on parallel projects before launching their own. And it raises the important question: If Space One Eleven wasn’t able or willing to recognize this work being done locally—in its own city, in the small, interconnected space that is Birmingham’s nonprofit arts world—how can they be trusted to recognize and support it across the state?

Jackie Clay, of Coleman Arts, spoke for the collective while Space One Eleven’s Peter Printz quietly used her and Elizabeth Elliot, the executive director of the Alabama Contemporary Art Center, as shields. Clay doubled down on her insistence that there were enough differences for me to accept this as coincidence. She said, “We’re very different. For one, we’re not giving out microgrants. We’re giving out $6,000 and $7,000 grants.”

Sis, if the differentiating factor between our projects is that you’re giving away more money than I am, then you haven’t done enough to distinguish your work from mine. I would also be giving out more money if I’d received a multi-hundred thousand dollar commitment from the Warhol Foundation. I did the work. They simply got the funding.

On October 20th, Elizabeth Elliot called the unlikely similarities “serendipitous” and wrote in an email, “I’m positive there are ways to consolidate effort and maximize impact.” However when I asked how I could be expected to partner with a project that looked, sounded, and operated so much like mine, none of them provided an answer.

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Honestly, I would encourage artists to apply for the Verdant Fund, because they have significantly more funding than The Garden Grant does. But, hold them accountable, and make sure they’re actually supporting diverse artists—that is, LGBTQIA+ Black, Indigenous, and people of color—because, neither Space One Eleven’s leadership nor their history reflects this newfound commitment to experimental artwork by diverse artists that allowed them to receive such significant funding from The Warhol Foundation.

I’d also like for the arts and nonprofit worlds at large to start reexamining their definitions of who “deserves” access to funding. If I’m “too young” and “unestablished” to even apply for major funding, then a repackaged version of my project shouldn’t be eligible for that funding either.

So, hi Space One Eleven, and the two women-led organizations you used as shields when I called you out. I see you. And more importantly, I know you see me.

After all, you were one of the first to follow the Garden Grant on Instagram.

You can support The Garden Grant and diverse artists here. All donations are tax-deductible. We also ask that you encourage diverse creators to apply with ideas that are as experimental as possible—because, we could all use some joyful art in our lives right now.

Maacah Davis is a part time dreamer and full time doer whose work amplifies marginalized voices. Under the MaacahMedia umbrella, she independently publishes belladonna magazine, the first Black woman-owned print fashion magazine in US markets in years. From her magazine to her dinner party series to the Garden Grant and more, all of Maacah’s work exists to: tell compelling stories, bring people together, and put diverse creators in the driver’s seat.

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