Last Wednesday Florence Lawson sat in the corner of the Caffe Zingaro, sipping a cup of peppermint tea and writing meticulous notes in a large spiral notebook. To the rest of the audience, maybe she was someone’s grandmother or an aspiring poet herself, which in part, is entirely true. Mrs. Norman Lawson (as she signs her checks) has lived in Laurelhurst for the last 54 years, is the proud grandmother to three teenagers and fell in love with poetry her freshman year at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. But she was not here waiting to perform, she was there waiting to hear a young poet by the name of Yvette Jackson, a 17 year old student from Garfield High School. At the end of this open mic night, Florence politely walked over to Yvette’s table, introduced herself and handled Ms. Jackson a check for $5,000.00.
Florence Lawson is not a millionaire and she gets nervous with the title of philanthropist. But she does represent a growing number of retirees and upper middle class families in King County who have latched onto the simple concept of the NOW Awards. She established the Lawson NOW Trust in February of 2014 (after reading the Seattle Times story of hedge fund manager Barney Burchak), giving $25,000.00 annually to poets performing in King County. There is no board of directors, no application form, no age restrictions – she simply pays attention to the hundreds of poets writing and performing in Seattle, and if she likes someone, she hands them a check. Florence Lawson plans to hand out nine NOW Awards this year, four in the amount of $5,000.00 and five in the amount of $1,000.00. She is a quiet and unassuming woman, and downplays her role in the arts, but the Lawson NOW Trust is designed to last “about twenty years” doling out $500,000.00 in cash awards to poets working or performing in King County. And by hearing the joy and plans of Yvette Jackson, even $5,000.00 can be a life changing event.
For those not familiar with the Times article or the NOW Awards created by Barney Burchak (and in part by Walden Three), Mr. Burchak has been a prominent yet mostly unknown benefactor of the arts for over twenty years. His gifts to major regional institutions over the years top out at over 10 million dollars, and while he doesn’t regret a dime of it, he stated, “I felt like my donations were not getting to the artists, but to pay administration costs, pay utility bills, that sort of thing.” He wanted to create a model where his philanthropic dollars when directly to the artist, inspire our regional creative talent, and have a more immediate, targeted impact. Mr. Burchak wanted a more human connection to supporting the arts and was drawn towards the idea of tracking down regional talent. The Burchak NOW Awards were formed (launched at Walden Three) in October of 2013 and within a single year have inspired numerous other privately funded programs modeled after the NOW Award – Florence Lawson being one of many.
The Burchak NOW Awards were designed to disperse $500,000.00 a year ‘to artists, performers, writers and filmmakers creating work within the city of Seattle’. The Burchak NOW Awards hand out (50) – $1,000.00 awards, (25) – $5,000.00 awards, (25) – $10,000.00 and (3) – $25,000.00 every single year for two decades. They have been handed to high school students, street musicians, early and mid-career artists, writers and musicians, and any talent that “contributes to our cultural fabric in innovative, experimental and original ways.”
What was not anticipated were the number of new arts patrons the NOW Awards have sprung. Mr. Burchak’s NOW program has inspired at least 17 similar programs in the Pacific Northwest, and the template has seeded in at least five other American cities. Some patrons, like Florence Lawson, chose to focus specifically on one medium. The Paulsen NOW focuses on street artists, the Clement NOW focuses on modern dance and the Yeager NOW directs their attention towards ceramic arts. Some could be considered micro-philanthropy (the Yeager NOW disperses (5) – $1,000.00 and (1) – $5,000.00 award annually) Others, like the Eide NOW, Springman NOW, Carver NOW and Smith NOW model more directly to the Burchak awards, covering all disciplines and adopting the (100) annual awards template. Asking NOW benefactors why they do it, they beam and smile and almost universally reply “it’s just so much fun”.
What exactly happens to a city nourished with an additional 17 privately funded art grant programs, awarding 1,200 annual grants totaling over 7.5 million dollars? There are those detractors that say money can’t buy a renaissance. There are those that say this model of funding hurts regional arts institutions. There are those that say that the money is ill spent and reckless. But experiencing Florence Lawson’s gift to Yvette Jackson, and knowing that this is happening on average 3 times a day, every day of the year, I’d beg to differ. NOW Awards are changing the climate of Seattle, and setting an unprecedented example to the rest of the world that you do not have to be a millionaire to participate, and influence culture on a historic level.
Walden Three will host Seattle NOW this November, showcasing the recipients of the Burchak NOW Awards and the viral effects of this innovative and bold new program. To receive the NOW template and start your own philanthropic campaign, you can email us at: email@example.com