On a recent Monday evening, in a pseudo-Gothic room in downtown Chicago, dozens of artists and philanthropists gathered to talk about the state of the arts. Or, as one speaker put it, to think about “what art can do, and who it’s for.”
It was the annual three-day-long convention of the United States Artists (USA), a little-known art-funding organization that has quietly been handing out $50,000 cash prizes to artists of all media and disciplines for the past 10 years. Among its success stories, the organization was an early and important funder of Barry Jenkins when he was making Moonlight, which won three Oscars this year.
“Nobody was talking about queer black masculinity,” said Deana Haggag, the organization’s charismatic new CEO, over coffee the following morning. “Now it’s in the mainstream.”
Haggag joined USA’s team from her previous role as the executive director of Baltimore’s The Contemporary just seven weeks ago. She has arrived at a critical moment, one in which the organization is taking stock of its achievements and its flaws—and grappling with its identity just 10 years since its founding. And as the Trump administration threatens to eliminate the NEA and federal arts funding finds itself hanging in the balance, the stakes for private funding of the arts have been raised considerably.
This is especially true for an arts funder like USA, whose awards are large enough to make a real impact on the creative community, and, the organization hopes, American society at large—and, crucially, whose grants for artists are completely unrestricted.
Artists are not required to use the money for new work, though more than 80 percent do. A smaller number use the funds to equip new studio spaces, buy software, fund other artists, or in some cases simply to cover general living costs or medical bills.
Though there are upwards of 2,600 award programs in America, with some 1,800 of those being cash grant prizes, the vast majority of them are small, said Holly Sidford, a consultant and strategist for arts organizations who has conducted influential and high-profile reports on arts funding—and who has just produced a 10-year impact report on the USA’s funding efforts for the organization.
“Around 80 percent of award programs are under $10,000, and a lot are limited to one discipline,” said Sidford. “Programs that work across as many as nine creative disciplines? Those are so rare as to be virtually non-existent. The scope, scale, and diversity of USA makes it unique.”