In 2003, a study by the Urban Institute found that while "96 percent of Americans appreciate the arts, paradoxically, only 27 percent believe that artists contribute to the good of society," according to the United States Artists website. Seeing a critical need "to close the gap between the love of art and the ambivalence toward those who create it," United States Artists was founded with a mission to "nurture, support, and strengthen the work of America's finest living artists."
The non-profit organization brings visibility to diverse boundary pushers, innovators, and reflective interpreters, with an overall vision "to ignite and endow the creative potential of America." Its USA Fellows program awards $50,000 grants to 50 artists across nine disciplines, including Architecture and Design, Media, Music, Dance, Visual Arts, Theater Arts, Crafts, Literature, and Traditional Arts. More than $19 million has been awarded so far to over 400 artists.
Past recipients include Chicago's own Theaster Gates, artist Kara Walker, designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, and bisexual writer Sapphire. Last year, 34 fellows were selected from more than 100 nominees, including a number of LGBTQ artists, such as Grammy-nominated musician Meshell Ndegeocello and Cuban author Achy Obejas, who has written for the Chicago Tribune and Windy City Times.
Windy City Times sat down with United States Artists' President/CEO Carolina Garcia Jayaram and Meg Leary, director of programs, to talk about the organization.
Windy City Times: Tell us about United States Artists.
Carolina Garcia Jayaram: United States Artists was started in 2005 and it was really led by Susan Berresford, longtime president of the Ford Foundation. She, along with the presidents of Rasmuson, Prudential and Rockefeller, got together for a large longitudinal study on the impact of funding on artists in response to the drastic cuts to the National Endowments for the Arts. [We grant] unrestricted, individual funding to artists, which is still very unusual to this day. Funding very rarely goes directly into an artist's hands for them to use however they want.
WCT: Why the relocation from Los Angeles to Chicago?
Carolina Garcia Jayaram: Given the cultural climate, ecosystem and philanthropic world of Chicago, [the organization] was a much better fit here. Chicago is so strong across all the disciplines, with a very strong dance, theater and literature community. It seemed like a more cohesive and supportive environment to grow the organization in its next stage.
WCT: How has your first year as CEO been?
Carolina Garcia Jayaram: Really exciting! My whole career has been working with artists but in a very different way. I've never been on the award side of things. Getting to build the organization into its next chapter has really been what year one is about: hiring a new team here in Chicago and building a new vision for what USA should become. We've been giving this award for a number of years and we're really happy with how it's selected, but we want to add value to that. Year two is launching that rocket.
WCT: Tell us about the competitive selection process for fellows.
Meg Leary: It's a long, rigorous processit takes an entire year from start to completion. First, we solicit nominations nationally: we look for experts in all of the different fields and subfields across the country and ask them to nominate up to two artists. Then we invite the artists to apply and they are split up into the nine different disciplines and brought together under a panel review process; five experts in their field are looking at all of the applications in each discipline. After that, the board makes sure that there is parity of gender, geography, and type of work and addresses the diversity that we're looking for.
WCT: Since it's not tied to a specific project, is the grant based off of future plans or a combination of past work and what the artists will do now that they have this financial freedom?
Meg Leary: It's based on the quality of their past work …
Carolina Garcia Jayaram: …and the enduring potential of their work. We're looking for innovative practices and fresh interpretations.
Meg Leary: Artists who've made a significant contribution to their field.
Carolina Garcia Jayaram: We know the majority of the artists have used the money to create new work. We're looking for a formalized way to measure this moving forward, but what has been the impact of that over time is that they're able to create the kind of work that's not easily created if they don't have that support structure in place. It really catalyzes risk taking, which is oftentimes what artists start doing in the first place and find a lot of success with, but are less able to do moving forward.
WCT: Tell us about the LGBT fellows for 2014.
Meg Leary: We had Ben Cotner and Ryan White, who made The Case Against 8 [an SXSW Audience Award-winning film about the battle to overturn the same-sex marriage ban in California]; Sydney Freeland, who's a Native filmmaker, made "Drunktown's Finest" about trans issues, gender and alcoholism on her reservation. Meshell Ndegeocello is a fellow; d. Sabela Grimes, who is an experimental choreographer, musician … he's one of those people with limitless movement between disciplines. In literature, [cultural writer and activist] Achy Obejas, as well as Rigoberto Gonzalez [winner of the Lambda Literary Award, whose work has themes of activism and the queer Latino experience]. We have other fellows who may identify as LGBTQ, but they don't necessarily address that in their work.
WCT: Tell us about the March 22-24 Artists Assembly.
Carolina Garcia Jayaram: In the past, we've given the award and we brought everyone together for an awards ceremony, but there wasn't much other than parties and performances. We've heard from the artists that the most they've gotten out of it was meeting each other. As part of the alumni program that we're building, I decided that if we're going to go through the trouble and expense of bringing them all together, we should do something that has a greater impact on them and their lives. So, we came up with the Artists Assembly.
Each year it will move across the country so we can activate alumni in different regions. This year, the winners and all of the alumni of the Midwest will be together for about two and a half days, which will include a lot of field trips around Chicago to see some of the best artist-led and arts organizations doing really innovative practice, especially around cross disciplinary collaboration. We want to create environments where new projects might emerge, or new ideas or support systems where one artist can help another with a project. We will also be inviting a pretty nice representation of the public, so we'll be reaching out to schools and youth organizations with kids in the arts. And, of course, we'll end it with a big party to celebrate the fellows, with Me'shell Ndegeocello giving a concert.
WCT: What are your future plans for the organization?
Carolina Garcia Jayaram: It has a lot to do with reengaging the alumni and having a deeper, more meaningful, longer lasting impact on our fellows' lives. In the past we wanted to make this very direct but temporary impact on an artistwe give the $50,000 and pretty much say goodbye at that point. While very impactful and very important, now we've learned a lot more about how artists work. We want to have more of a role in helping them develop the work, creating a network that can bring greater value to each of those artists.
For more information about United States Artists, visit http://www.unitedstatesartists.org/.