Illustration by Jarad Solomon
Eight years ago the nonprofit United States Artists (USA) was founded to provide $50K grants to 50 artists around the U.S. each year. One year ago, the organization moved its headquarters from Los Angeles to Chicago, where its new executive director, Carolina Jayaram, was based. She discussed the organization’s first year as a member of Chicago’s arts community and what it means for artists there and across the country.
“There are so many obstacles for artists,” said Jayaram. “There are market pressures and limitations on access to equipment or exhibition opportunities.” USA awards make it possible for some individual artists to focus on their practice. Some take a year off work to develop their artistic practices, some are able to address vital healthcare issues or to afford childcare. “We trust the artists to know how to spend this money in the best way possible,” Jayaram affirmed.
In 1994 the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) cut all funding to individual artists. The decision was based on pressure from the U. S. Congress in the wake of controversy over exhibitions of NEA-funded artists’ work that some people found obscene. This was after Congress had already cut the NEA’s budget by millions. In most developed countries the arts are much more heavily funded by government. Jayaram agreed that in the U. S. “there has been a lot of historical shying away from public funding for the arts, especially for individual artists.”
She noted a disconnect, based on a study done in the early 2000s, between Americans valuing art but being unwilling to devote public funds to artists themselves. Support for individual artists, Jayaram said, is “vital in feeding the best art that is being produced in this country.”
Some recipients use their USA awards to establish artist residencies, hire studio assistants, or inject the funding into the arts some other way. “When we support the arts, the community will always benefit,” said USA Fellow Nicholas Galanin, a multi-disciplinary artist and musician from Alaska. For him, one of the best aspects of the fellowship is that it puts him in contact with other artists he might never have met. “The community of fellows and artists with USA is by far the best resource.” D. Sabela Grimes, a choreographer, writer, and composer from Los Angeles, said the events surrounding the award were a “true community building experience” for him. “This sort of engagement has the potential to infect and/or expand our relationship to our creative processes, our community partners, and our audiences.”
Artists feeling free to take risks is also important to the vitality of their work, Jayaram remarked. For this reason USA awards grants to artists in the middle of their careers, when they may have become a bit more established and limited in taking the risks they would like to with their work.
Several Chicago artists have received the award both before and since USA’s move to the city, including Nick Cave, Theaster Gates, and Latoya Ruby Frazier. Jayaram said the city has made USA feel welcome, in part because Chicago is so strong in the eight disciplines: architecture and design, crafts and traditional arts, dance, literature, media, music, theater, and visual arts. Since moving to Chicago, the organization has expanded its goals to include an assembly event for USA fellows, past and present, as well as members of the Chicago arts community.
Plans for the future include expanding the event to include people in the community at large, people perhaps “not as educated in the arts.” Until then, Jayaram said, USA will continue the grant program for which it has become known. “One of the best ways to get art out there is to keep giving awards.”