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The Rebecca Blunk Fund was established in 2014 in memory of former Executive Director Rebecca Blunk who gave 29 years of service to NEFA. The Fund—created to support artistic creation, connection, and curation— awards annual grants to New England artists whose work demonstrates creative excellence and professional accomplishment. The Fund was an inspiration for a new grantmaking program at NEFA called New Work New England, which launched in 2020 with the intention of supporting the creation and production of new work that artists intend to share with New England communities. Since 2021, NEFA has made Rebecca Blunk Fund awards through the New Work New England program. We are excited to highlight three awards made in Rebecca’s honor to New England artists Tom Truss, Orlando Hernández, and Toby MacNutt, and share how the awards have impacted their work during through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Performer, creator, and educator, Tom Truss was the recipient of NEFA’s 2022 New Work New England grant in honor of Rebecca Blunk. Alongside Matthew Cumbie, Tom has been working on a performance piece titled ReWritten that highlights the intimate relationship between authors Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne. By weaving together dance, music, visual art, projection, and text, ReWritten reimagines an intergenerational queer love story as a way to explore history, intimacy, writing, and self-expression.
The pandemic was a challenge in the production of the performance as their team was based across the U.S and travel was limited. One of their residencies was cancelled because of the pandemic but some positivity came out of their seemingly bleak situation. Video streaming services like Zoom allowed them to meet more often than they would have if they had to wait for an in-person residency. Tom explained, “Covid has made us slow down - which in terms of making art is not a bad thing… The space between meetings, rehearsals and residencies has been longer than any other project most of our collaborators have done, and the result is our work has been able to season in a leisurely, and very organic way.”
The award funded a week-long residency where they were able to experiment with production elements of set, lights, and projection. It will also be used to help cover the expenses for a two-week site-specific run of ReWritten at Herman Melville’s home, Arrowhead, in Pittsfield, MA. The award enabled them to make the arts more accessible as they have been able to keep ticket prices low.
When asked how their practice has changed since receiving this award, Tom explained, “Getting an award like this adds credence to our work. Receiving the Rebecca Blunk Fund from NEFA has been a needed vote of confidence not only for this project, but for the team of artists making it. The award has given us a boost of energy to keep developing ReWritten and all its permutations. I have more energy, freedom, and ease to do what I want... which is to make art, teach and perform. The Rebecca Blunk Fund has done just that. It has enabled me to have more ease and resources to make art.”
Orlando Hernández, now a member of NEFA’s Advisory Council, was a 2019 recipient of the Rebecca Blunk Fund Award. Although Orlando has taken on roles in teaching, dance, acting, and more, he is primarily an interdisciplinary artist working in tap dance.
Early in the pandemic, Orlando’s focus shifted inward and towards moving more intentionally. Because the funding provided by the Rebecca Blunk award was unrestricted, it gave him permission to continue to process what it was like to build a career in the arts. The award also facilitated his ability to shift his professional focus away from arts administration and cultural programming and towards performing and teaching.
When asked how this fund supports artistic creation and connection, Orlando explained: “We don’t want to depend on external validators, yet certain things can affirm or shore up a sense of direction. The Rebecca Blunk Award is one of those things. This award acknowledges that you are evolving, and it supports the evolution of artmaking…. I have more confidence, more of a sense of having a place at the table. It has given me more agency to maneuver in the world of arts presenting and arts funding. I feel more empowered to make work that blurs boundaries in performance and genre.”
Toby MacNutt was a recipient of NEFA’s 2020 New Work New England grant in honor of Rebecca Blunk for their solo dance work, A Singular They, highlighting the experiences of embodiment and identity including their experiences as a chronically ill and disabled person and as a trans, queer, and nonbinary person.
Upon receiving the Rebecca Blunk award, Toby was able to hire a project assistant for the first time while going into their residency at the New England Center for Circus Arts. It had been their first time having behind-the-scenes support, which proved to be very helpful since it gave them more time and energy to focus on their work. Having another person on-board brought forth valuable insight and encouragement as they worked through challenges and choices in the piece.
Unfortunately, once the pandemic hit, Toby’s project was forced to come to a halt. While the project was initially meant to be a live performance, Toby is now attempting to figure out how to capture some version of the work in video format to acknowledge the years of work committed to this project. The personal creative impact of funding like the Rebecca Blunk award has given them more time and space to explore new mediums during these trying times.
In a statement regarding how the pandemic has affected their work, Toby stated: “As a disabled person in a pandemic, with site after site celebrating their ‘return to normal,’ dropping hybrid events and mask requirements, I have stopped trying conventional venues at all… My plans are now impossible due to the ongoing mass negligence in the pandemic and my personal higher risk level.” Toby’s experience as a disabled person in the pandemic reminds us of the risks COVID-19 still poses for much of the population and of the precautions that should still be implemented to give everyone an equitable experience of creating art in a safe environment. Toby’s honesty about how their art has been affected—both positively and negatively—is much appreciated as we continue to face a changed world where accommodations will need to be thoughtfully incorporated into event planning to ensure accessibility for all. NEFA is grateful for Toby’s service on our NEFA’s Accessibility Committee.
We are grateful for the opportunity to provide funding to acknowledge the creative excellence of these artists and to support their professional development. To date, the Fund has raised over $130,000 and supported 13 artists living and working in New England. These awards would not be possible without the generous contributions from our supporters. Donations to the Fund are accepted on an ongoing basis and as with all donations to NEFA, donations to the Rebecca Blunk Fund are tax deductible to the fullest extent of the law. Make a secure donation to the fund and support even more artists in New England.
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