Taking a deeper look at the Graham Foundation and our grant programming about the nonprofit organization.

013 — Online research is your friend. Funny how people with money all know each other. Neither institutional nor ethical but a worse fourth thing.

DISPASSION is a newsletter about art, digital media, and emotional detachment produced by ‌NOR RESEARCH STUDIO.

Screengrab of a 2020 conversation design gallery Friedman Benda hosted about the 2021 Chicago Architectural Biennial. The conversation featured Graham Foundation executive director Sarah Herda (2006-) and David Brown, recipient of two grants from the foundation for his project, The Available City (2011, 2020). Brown sat on the Graham Foundation board as a trustee from 2015-2016, served as its vice president from 2017-2018, and then as its president from 2019-2020. Brown vacated his board seat in 2021 upon receiving the second grant and taking a role as the artistic director of the Chicago Architectural Biennial that year. He returned as the board’s president in 2022 and has since remained in that role. Herda helped found the biennial in 2014, was its inaugural artistic director in 2015 with Joseph Grima, sat on its board as a director until 2016, and has since served as its secretary while maintaining her directorship at the Graham Foundation.

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In August, we’ll open our first intensive, IS MY BODY MEANT TO BE READ?, a bootcamp-style, twice-weekly seminar where participants will spruce up their web portfolios, develop business plans and accountability processes, draft lead sheets, shape sales funnels, and take on various other tasks related to monetizing their studio practice. We’ll announce more information, including guest speakers, next week.


HOW TO COMMUNICATE IN WHITE PEOPLE is a counter-institutional grant workshop that demystifies how artist-creatives can exploit grants to their own ends. Organized into recurring 90-minute sessions, the workshop is conducted in an open-inquiry format where participants have the opportunity to review sample proposals that have received institutional recognition, compare dummy applications, or receive feedback on their own proposal materials.

Please note: all grant workshops between July 15, 2023 and September 9, 2023 will focus on the Graham Foundation and its forthcoming application cycle. The July 15 session will offer a preamble to the grant and workshop series detailed below.

July 15, 2023
3pm ET / 2pm CT / noon PT

The seminar is hosted on Zoom. Tickets ($50 apiece) can be found here.

House rules for these events can be found here. Educators are encouraged to reach out via email to schedule sessions for their classes.



July 22, 2023 – September 9, 2023

Please note: During this time, our grant workshops will cumulatively focus on the Graham Foundation’s individual applicant cycle.

Every Saturday from July 22, 2023 until September 9, 2023 NOR Research Studio will host a series of HOW TO COMMUNICATE IN WHITE PEOPLE grant writing workshops with a unique twist. In addition to preparing participants to apply for an individual grant through the Graham Foundation, the workshop-seminars will read against the grain of the foundation’s requests and use the criteria it upholds to shape, evaluate, and strengthen grant and project proposals across the creative industries. Participants who are interested in learning about grants or improving their grant proposals are encouraged to attend even if they don’t plan to submit a letter of inquiry to the Graham Foundation.

The deadline to submit letters of inquiry to the Graham Foundation is September 15, 2023.

Per our ongoing practice, the studio will develop an application that it will share with applicants to model best practices and demonstrate how to, in this instance, center architecture in a project where architecture may only have a secondary role.

You can find the workshop and seminar programming schedule here.

Individual workshops in the series are $50 apiece. Participants who enroll in all eight Graham Foundation workshops ($400) will receive access to our searchable database that provides additional information about past projects that have received funding — namely how much money they received and used — for the duration of the application cycle as well as 5 hours of editorial support and consultation.

You can find more information about the programming here and individual tickets here. The Workshop and Database Bundle can be purchased here.

We apologize for the difficulty of booking sessions through Calendly. We're working toward a better solution. In the meantime, feel free to reach out via email ( for expedited multi-ticket purchases.

WANT US TO WRITE YOUR GRAHAM FOUNDATION LETTER OF INQUIRY? Email us or schedule a free consultation.

— $$$ —


Thanks to ProPublica for their amazing 990 database, Nonprofit Explorer, which provided much of the data reviewed below. Please note that the figures and statements included here are drawn from documents that may be revised at later dates or contain incomplete information.

Let’s play a Shell Game, play a Shell Game
Do you want money, or you want fame?
Are you in the game?
Down the Shell Game
Let’s play a Shell Game, play a Shell Game
Do you want money, or you want fame?
Are you in the game?
Down the Shell Game

— Lady Gaga, “ShellGame” (2008) (revised)

As NOR Research Studio prepares to host its Graham Foundation-focused grant workshops, we’ve decided to share some highlights for our research. The following snippets are meant to preview the discussions and experiments we’re going to take up. They also point toward investigative strategies we encourage artists to use when applying for funding from nonprofit organizations.

As you read below, consider the following questions:

— What can a nonprofit organization’s tax filings tell me about how to shape my grant proposal, letter of inquiry, or budget?

— What can the compensation paid to employees and directors tell me about the financial scope of my proposed project?

— What information can I glean by combining the information published on a grantmaking foundation’s website with its publicly archived 990 forms?


In May, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts announced it had awarded over $43,000,000 in grant funds to architecture and architecture-adjacent art projects since 1956. Selected yearly, these projects can receive anywhere between $1,000 and $30,000, with a few notable exceptions described below.

According to its website, in 2021 — the most recent year where the foundation’s 990 tax form is available online — the foundation “awarded $471,500 for 45 grants to organizations and $585,000 to 71 projects by individuals.”

These figures might be impressive if the foundation hadn’t also reported a whopping $51,853,014 in net assets the same year. Of that eight-digit sum, the lion’s share, $28,661,978, is held in hedge and private equity funds. Another $16,221,608 is held in corporate stock. (In previous decades, nonprofits in the US had to publicly disclose these assets by name, as the Graham Foundation did in 2001.)

Keep in mind, too, that nonprofits primarily exist to reduce the massive tax burden which monied individuals and corporations encounter at higher profit margins. $43,000,000 in granted funds looks compelling next to the $51,853,014 in net assets, but both figures are runoff from a larger pile of income that needed to be passed through a nonprofit entity, where they could be activated toward various sociopolitical ends – albeit only indirectly – and reduce tax liability.

From there, comparing that $51,853,014 in hoarded assets to the approximately $641,791 per year the foundation has distributed since its founding — about .01 percent of its current net worth every year — makes these “gifts” less remarkable.

As we have stressed in the past, much of the institutional language around grants and nonprofits obscures their true features. It may be more helpful to consider grant awards as institutional dowries that stabilize the social capital exchanged between entities or individuals using a lump-sum cash infusion. With the dowry comparison in mind, it makes sense that the Graham Foundation and organizations like it would request the return of unused funds or to be refunded for uncompleted projects in its prenuptial agreement. Like a seasoned wealthy family, they are indisputably smart about money because they have access to it.

Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2017 990 tax form via ProPublica.

Looking back at its annual activity in 2021, the foundation reported $3,697,860 in net investment income — payments received from portfolio income sources, like stock dividends, interest on loan repayments, and sales of their assets.

Separate from that portfolio income, the foundation produced $4,145,472 in revenue, mostly through sales of its assets. After subtracting their expenses — $2,611,544 in net expenses, representing $1,467,802 in operating costs combined with $1,143,544 in contributions, gifts, and grants paid — the organization accrued $1,533,928 in profit from its combined active and passive income sources.

Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2021 990 form via ProPublica.

Zooming out from the mathematical dissociation that goes into accounting methods like depreciation and amortization, the Graham Foundation reported an $3,339,624 increase in their net assets and funds. For context, in 2011, the foundation reported $40,332,570 in total assets, indicating that in 2021 it had increased its wealth by more than $10,000,000 over the course of a decade — about a million dollars per year in profit.

To put these financial relationships into blunt terms, the Graham Foundation paying an artist $5,000 for a research project is equivalent to someone who makes $100,000 a year giving someone a penny after they completed an arduous, opaque application exercise. Sadly, this is an industry standard.


Let’s approach from a separate angle. After doling out slightly more than $2,600,000 to cover its operating costs, the Graham Foundation still managed to increase its total cash and investment reserves by more than $3,000,000. To zoom in on a particularly telling data set, the foundation’s 2021 reported total employee wages, $345,556, represent but a small fraction, 13 percent, of its annual expenses.

Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2021 990 form via ProPublica.
Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2021 990 form via ProPublica.

Meanwhile the total compensation for the foundation’s sole paid officer, executive director Sarah Herda, $204,777 (including salary and benefits), is about 8 percent of the total annual expenses — or 59 percent of the sum wages paid to the nonprofit’s full-time employees:

Senior Advisor, Alexandra Small
$75,000 in wages plus $6,000 in benefits

Grants Manager, Carolyn Kelly
$73,930 in wages plus $5,914 in benefits

Facilities Manager, Ronald Konow
$69,199 in wages plus $5,536 in benefits

Grant Project, Manager James Pike
$65,897 in wages plus $5,272 in benefits

Program Manager, Ava Barrett
$58,059 in wages plus $4,645 in benefits

In 2005, the year before Herda took over as executive director, the Graham Foundation paid its director emeritus, Carter H. Manny, and director, Richard Solomon, $101,172 in total compensation.

Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2005 990 form via ProPublica.

In 2006, when Herda first assumed her directorship, she was paid $50,917 and was the lowest compensated employee.

Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2006 990 form via ProPublica.

The following year, her salary more than doubled to $125,500.

Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2007 990 form via ProPublica.

Comparing the 2006, 2007, and 2021 compensation statements reveals a sizable difference in institutional mobility within the foundation. While facilities manager Ronald Konow and grants manager Carolyn Kelly had been with the organization for as long as or nearly as long as Herda, Konow’s 2006 salary, $52,148, only grew to $69,199 by 2021, representing a 33 percent increase over 15 years. Kelly’s 2007 salary, $48,395, only grew to $73,930 by 2021, representing a 53 percent increase over 14 years. After the jump from $50,917 to $125,00 in 2007, Herda’s 2021 salary, $189,608, represents a 52 percent increase. The obvious caveat here is that a 50 percent salary increase from $50,000 would produce a net increase of $25,000 whereas the same percentage increase to a $100,000 salary would produce another $50,000 — the entire starting compensation of the first example worker.

Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2007 990 form via ProPublica.
Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2021 990 form via ProPublica.

There is room for debate about how compensation in nonprofit organizations should function. For the sake of our purposes, what matters is that money accumulates more rapidly at the top where directors are afforded the most capital, clout, visiblity, and credit for their labor. Every percentage increase awarded at leadership-level posts — which, as exemplified above, often feature a firewall near the $80,000 mark that separates alleged decision-makers from the employees beneath them — represents a two-fold gain. On the other hand, workers who stay with the organization for decades sometimes receive the financial equivalent of a director’s yearly raise over that entire period. Is that equitable?

Remember, the foundation typically pulls in over $1,000,000 in profit each year. It has enriched itself to the tune of $10,000,000 in a decade. What stops it from redistributing 5 percent of its annual income, approximately $50,000, and rewarding its five employees with an extra $10,000 per year apiece aside from seeking to maintain the social hierarchies in the organization that it institutes via stratified compensation schedules?

To the side of this financial discussion is another about power. The financial gap between directors and employees is one that can safely be extrapolated at scale up the institutional hierarchy as well as its interlinked, multilevel partner networks. There are always bigger fish to consider. Among those bigger fish are well-connected board members who waive their right to compensation every year and for their undisclosed services receive immeasurable benefits like social capital that these tax documents are not designed to evoke. However, looking closely at the information they contain, you should be able to develop an idea of how power is born, bred, maintained, received, and exchanged in their networks. In a sense, that is what the 990 form is designed to check and balance. You can always, for example, see what other boards their officers belong to — and when structuring your grant proposal, you absolutely should.


Now let’s pivot to the grant funds awarded in 2021. Organizational grant recipients received approximately 14 percent of the foundation’s annual profits while individual grant recipients received 17 percent. Restated as percentages of the foundation’s assets, the foundation gave away 2 percent of its net worth, with organizational grant recipients receiving approximately .9 percent and individual grant recipients receiving 1.1 percent. At the same time, it increased its net worth by nearly 8 percent.

Of all the grants funds distributed in 2021, the $75,000 awarded to the Chicago Architecture Biennial for its Graham Foundation partner project, The Available City, stands out.

First, because The Available City grant represents the largest payout of the year — in fact, it’s three times the $25,000 that the Chicago Architecture Center, the second-most-funded awardee, received for its exhibition From Me to We: Imagining the City of 2050. The $75,000 grant may even be the largest organizational or individual grant the foundation has awarded since the early 2000s, when it bequeathed $100,000 to both Chicago radio station WBEZ and the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the former alias of the Chicago Architecture Center.

(Note: Because the 2021 990 reflects a payment in support of From Me to We, a project that received its grant in 2018 and took place in 2019, its unclear if the funds were being distributed late or another ongoing project was in the works.)

Second, because The Available City’s curator, David Brown, received a $5,000 research grant from the foundation in 2011 for a project of the same name. Per the Graham Foundation website:

A concept that was incubated during the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial in 2015, 2021 CAB Artistic Director David Brown’s long-term body of research forming the basis for The Available City began with an inventory of vacant city-owned lots across Chicago — currently numbering more than 10,000 sites concentrated on the city’s South and West Sides. Over more than a decade of work, this research grew into an ongoing urban design proposal that connects community residents, architects, and designers to work together to create spaces reflecting the needs of local neighborhoods. The 2021 CAB presentation explores the framework of The Available City on a global platform, engaging both local and international projects and practices that reflect new concepts for shared space and collective agency in the city.

Examination of the foundation’s 2010 990 form reveals that the $5,000 was distributed to “Fiscal Sponsor Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.” While Brown’s name is listed on the website as the individual associated with the project, and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees is notably absent, his name is nowhere to be found on the 990 form that year.

Screengrab from the Graham Foundation’s 2021 990 form via ProPublica.

Third, because Brown is only identified as a “designer, researcher, and educator” in the copy about The Available City on the Graham Foundation website. Meanwhile, in addition to being named as the artistic director of the biennial that year, Brown has served on the Graham Foundation’s board almost every year since 2015. He sat on the board as a trustee from 2015-2016, served as its vice president from 2017-2018, and then as its president from 2019-2020. Brown vacated his board seat in 2021 upon receiving the second grant and assuming his artistic director role with the Chicago Architectural Biennial that year. He returned to the board as its president in 2022 and has since remained in that role. (Remember, the Graham Foundation and the aforementioned Chicago Architecture Center are both partner organizations with the biennial.)

Unsurprisingly, none of the publicity about the Chicago Architectural Biennial acknowledged Brown’s relationship with the board. Even in a 2020 recorded interview between executive director Herda and Brown meant to inspire interest in the event, the inter-institutional relationships between Herda, Brown, and the foundation went mostly undisclosed. Instead, she discusses the importance of “community partners,” “stewardship,” and spaces that are “developed with people, for people” without those spaces “relying one some external force.”

Screengrab from the 2020 conversation between Herda and Brown hosted by design gallery Friedman Benda. 

In reality, the individuals and organizations pouring millions of dollars into these hollow, allegedly democratic events are the exact external force Herda references. And by repeatedly placing themselves under the moniker of Chicago, such organized social networks exert and sway a considerable amount of influence over the entire city. It’s important to note that these comments indirectly acknowledge Chicago’s storied history of displacement and gentrification, exploitative housing and zoning laws, white flight, and most notably heightened police presence — all of which increase in the during the crusades to legitimize a city.

Moreover, Brown isn’t the only project with an explicit board connection that year. LAXART, a Los Angeles arts nonprofit helmed by curator Hamza Walker, received $15,000 to support its 2022 exhibition Nikita Gale: Takers. Walker also served on the Graham Foundation’s board as trustee from 2009 until becoming its vice president in 2011. After two years in that role, he served as its president in 2013 and 2014. During that time, Walker was the Director of Education and Associate Curator at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago (1994-2016). In 2016, after curating the Hammer Museum’s “Made in LA” biennial, he assumed an executive director role at LAXART.

By comparison, architecture historian Adil Dalbai and his collaborator architect Livingstone Mukasa received $20,000 for their new media project, Africa Architecture Network, a website that extends their seven-volume Architectural Guide Sub-Saharan Africa and addresses the frequently ignored architectural history of an entire continent. Artist Gelare Khoshgozaran received $5,000 to support their research project, Inviolable Exteriors, which examines the increasingly hostile political relationships between Iran and the United States through an abandoned embassy building. University of Michigan College of Architecture and Urban Planning PhD candidate Seçil Binboğa received $1,000 and a Manny Carter Award for her dissertation, completed in 2022, “Scaling the Region: Visuality, Infrastructure, and the Politics of Design in Cold War Turkey.” Collectively, these projects explicitly acknowledge the global political challenges associated with the regions they invoke. So why can’t projects the Graham Foundation involves itself in directly do the same?

One possible explanation is that the institution-building and career-planning conducted by the foundation are its top priority, thereby limiting its political commitments, especially those in Chicago, to a neoliberal tenor. Which begs the question: Are the projects the foundation funds that take up complex power dynamics within the architectural field mere seed extensions of the organization’s monied circuitry, doomed to become window dressing for its social network? And as a consequence, must an artist merge herself with the circuitous flow of power, money, and influence that fashion the institution into a perceivable entity if she is to receive its grant?



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WYATT CODAY is intersex and autistic. She lives in Los Angeles, where she directs NOR Research Studio.

$$$ is a column about money, the art market, and the financial straits of maintaining an art practice.

NOR RESEARCH STUDIO is a design research studio that develops didactic media, exhibitions, publications, and other forms of intellectual property for artists, nonprofits, and creative businesses.

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