New York is the epicenter of arts and culture, with a staggering array of plays, music, and visual art. From our world-renowned museums, opera houses, orchestras, and theaters, to poetry jams, experimental dance troupes, and ethnic theaters, the arts are the heart of the City, expanding minds, nourishing souls—and bringing a lot of money into our economy.
Sally Van Lier and her husband, Edward, who invested in real estate, were avid patrons of the City’s museums, concerts, and plays. She had started out as an actress, working in the Ziegfeld Follies and the first production of Showboat. They had no children, but took real pleasure in introducing young people to the plays and music that delighted them. Sally left her estate to The Trust to “provide educational assistance and training to gifted young persons who aspire to a career in the arts.” She knew what it was like to be a struggling artist, and her will stipulated that the money be used to support those who couldn’t afford training on their own.
When we received the gift in 1988, Trust staff went to work to decide how Sally’s wishes could be carried out most effectively. We discovered that even though colleges and conservatories offered scholarships, few poor or minority students qualified because they came from schools that had limited arts programs or none at all, and didn’t have the requisite preparation and training. We also found that those who did make it through college had a hard time weathering the transition from student to artist, lacking the money, contacts, and mentors to help them succeed. And we knew that many arts organizations already had training programs —and that more might be interested in starting them if they had the money to do it.
In 1991, we were ready and began making grants to arts organizations to award Van Lier fellowships to low-income and minority artists at two critical points: pre-college, for training to help prepare for admission to a college or conservatory; and post-college, to develop a body of work and make the transition from student to professional artist.
Grants for Van Lier fellowships have gone to hundreds of organizations to support more than 2,000 young artists.
Many Van Lier fellows have gone on to great success. One originated the role of Simba in The Lion King, and another choreographed Rent. A musician is the concertmaster of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, a writer won the New York Public Library’s Young Lion’s Award, and a playwright is the program director at New Dramatists and had his plays produced at the Kennedy Center, the Public Theater, and Steppenwolf Theatre.
The arts in New York—from sculpture to printing, from photography to writing, from new media to music—have been enriched by the Van Lier fellowships. There are now more artists from diverse backgrounds able to pursue their dreams and produce innovative work—and mentor younger artists coming up. The grants have also encouraged arts training organizations to either create or expand their fellowship programs for talented minority and low-income artists.