In 2021, WeTransfer announced the launch of The Supporting Act Foundation, a new initiative that aims to support the next generation of creatives through education, bursaries, grants, and prizes. Here, the team behind the initiative speaks to Cedar Pasori about its origins, its motives, and its bold plans to make the creative industries more equitable and accessible.
Illustrations by Clara Gràcia.
Back in 2016, WeTransfer’s Chief Creative Officer Damian Bradfield wrote about the attributes of the “supporting act.” He described them as a blueprint for WeTransfer’s partnerships, a way of humbly helping creatives. “As a team, we love nothing more than nurturing and enabling other artists,” he said.
Today, the commitment remains the same: “WeTransfer still exists to help artists from all over the world shine and follow their dreams,” Bradfield says.
It’s fitting that The Supporting Act became the name of WeTransfer’s new foundation, announced last year. Built from the same principles, the foundation aims to remove barriers and help emerging artists thrive through education, grants, and an annual prize, starting with 1 million euros in 2022 and 1% of the company’s annual revenue going forward.
The reasons for starting The Supporting Act Foundation were always present, yet they became more urgent in 2020. The pandemic devastated artists’ funding and support systems, particularly for those at the start of their careers, and those from underrepresented groups. While WeTransfer has proudly supported the arts with time and resources for over a decade, the company knew that substantial, meaningful aid was more necessary than ever.
Before formalizing the foundation, Bradfield commissioned research that led to an in-depth report from IAM, a Barcelona-based creative lab. IAM spent seven months compiling more than 100 pages of crucial interviews, findings, and recommendations about the state of funding across the arts. Bradfield also recruited WeTransfer’s Head of Studio, Jenne Meerman, to lead the foundation as its director.
“We purposely took our time with the research, knowing it would help us figure out our focus, who we could support, and how we could best support them,” says Meerman.
The first chapter of the report shared context from relevant academic and governmental studies. Beyond just the scope of the pandemic, it highlighted “intersectional injustice,” an important term focused on systemic exclusion and disadvantages. “The intersectional framework is the lens we’ve used to understand the obstacles facing emerging artists,” Meerman explains.
DJ, broadcaster, and label owner Gilles Peterson, who has served as WeTransfer’s Creative Director since 2016, joined The Supporting Act Foundation’s board and aligned with the process. “It was really important to look at all of the issues in the arts to work out a cohesive approach,” says Peterson.
This initial analysis accounted for the nuances of class, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and ability, particularly in accessing jobs in cultural and creative industries (CCIs). “The research revealed a lot of contours, defying the idea that barriers exist in relation to a single systemic issue or identity,” Meerman says. “Barriers typically have multiple, intersecting root causes, which are then compounded by job precarity, high education costs, and of course, global events like pandemics.
The second chapter of the report focused on personal perspectives and lived experiences, in order to identify the most pressing challenges facing emerging artists. In multiple instances, these testimonies revealed longstanding institutional issues, from a lack of employee diversity to fewer resources like community centers.
“Diversity itself remains a massive issue everywhere, including in the music world,” says Peterson. “It is particularly relevant in the current economic environment that we support talents who have reduced access to funding and opportunities.”
Artists throughout Europe spoke about a range of accessibility issues, including both physical and social ones. They detailed less obvious barriers, such as the unfamiliar language in scholarship applications, suggesting that all programs be developed hand-in-hand with potential recipients. One artist put it plainly: “Get us in [at] the beginning, so we can help you test the usefulness of your intention before you start spending any wasted money that could benefit so many people in the long term.”
The last chapter of the report concluded with further recommendations from artists and IAM, meant to help steer the foundation in the right direction. “In researching where we should focus, and in the spirit of remaining ‘the supporting act,’ it became abundantly clear that we had to stay out of the limelight and let artists determine what’s needed,” says Bradfield.
“This third part of the research challenged us to ask ourselves, ‘What if?’” Meerman adds. “It gave us new ways to think about the non-linear paths of emerging artists and how they are best supported.”
Following these invaluable directives, The Supporting Act Foundation’s strategy forges active collaboration with artists, communities, and institutions that have existing experience and shared values. In doing so, the foundation can collectively share insights and capacity to make a broader, more positive impact.
“Though we started this to help artists, the research showed us just how vital it is to collaborate with organizations who are already doing this work,” says Meerman.
When deciding how to best design and distribute monetary support, the foundation chose to adopt a trust-based philanthropy approach. The artists interviewed made it clear that traditional grantmaking often reinforces systemic injustice through opaque applications and funding restrictions, among other elements. To further display and earn trust, the foundation is making decisions based more on solidarity than charity, with the goal of eliminating hierarchy and remaining externally accountable.
“Trust-based philanthropy resonated with us right away,” Meerman explains. “It lends itself to principles and actions that can be embedded throughout the foundation, not just in its programs. One example is having artists on our board and juries—people who can participate in the grantmaking process. Another side of it is that we trust artists to know what to do with their grants; we’re not going to restrict them or tell them how to use it.”
All of the above led the foundation toward a more simplified application process, through self-identification and welcoming of multi-disciplinary artists. Additionally, the website is designed to be accessible via tools like a reading ruler, making sure it can be used by everyone.
The process organically led to three initial programs: the Creative Bursary, the Impact Grant, and the Community Grant. “We heard from artists that application requirements, specifically those that request documentation to prove aspects of their identity, can be dehumanizing,” says Meerman. “And while our research led us to focus on helping emerging artists, we designed the grants to be as inclusive as possible.”
The Creative Bursary supports students as they prepare for graduation and pursue career opportunities. The Impact Grant supports underfunded grassroots organizations with operational costs, in order to help them reach wider communities. The Community Grant supports artist-led initiatives that are building networks of emerging artists. All are meant to help those who self-identify as coming from marginalized backgrounds. For this first year, grants are only available to artists in Europe, though with the addition of future programs, The Supporting Act Foundation aims to provide global support.
“The goal has always been to give away money as mindfully as possible,” says Meerman. “That’s why we created three programs to support not only individuals but also organizations and artist-led initiatives. We’re hoping to create better conditions for artists and lasting change. We’re also committing to a collaborative relationship by providing resources and networks that we’ve been building for the last 10 years.”
Peterson, who has been one of the music industry’s most influential forces for three decades, has been key to cultivating the company’s music partnerships in particular. “The great strength of WeTransfer is that it’s embedded in the culture of the arts,” says Peterson. “It has always supported artists in so many different ways, enabling them to do whatever they feel is important to evolve. The Supporting Act Foundation is a way to give back and contribute to the whole growth of the arts sector and to the growth of individual talents.”
Bradfield concludes: “The Supporting Act Foundation is the greatest achievement of WeTransfer to date. It’s the culmination of over a decade’s worth of work in supporting the arts, now brought to life in a formal structure that we hope will outlive us by decades.”