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The first-ever United States Artists’ (USA) Artists Assembly in Chicago, IL took place just over a week ago. Since coming back and telling colleagues in New York about what we were up to in the windy city, we’ve been met with a surprisingly overwhelming lack of knowledge about just what exactly USA is, let alone its now annual two-day conference.
So let’s start there. USA is an organization that gives 40 fellowships a year, each awarding $50,000 to an artist across nine disciplines: architecture and design, crafts, literature, dance, theater and performance, music, media, traditional arts, and visual arts. Sort of like the better known MacArthur Fellows Program’s “genius grants.” It was created in 2006 by the Ford, Rockefeller, Rasmuson, and Prudential foundations in response to a number of things, including the ongoing effort to defund the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). In comparison to other arts grants, $50,000 is quite a hefty sum, and how an artist uses the money is completely unrestricted – there is no project that needs to be finished, no work that needs to be donated, no talks that need to be given. It’s financial support for worthy artists so they can keep doing what they’re doing.
More than 400 artists have received USA fellowships, based off an anonymous nomination system, and some of those names you might recognize: Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, Ann Hamilton, Theaster Gates, Catherine Opie, Kate and Laura Mulleavy, Benjamin Millepied, and Annie Proulx.
But we learned in Chicago, that even some of the fellowship recipients hadn’t heard of USA before they were notified of their nomination. 2009 fellows Dan Collison and Elizabeth Meister told us that they originally thought it was spam or a hoax and we heard of similar reactions from other artists, too. The 2007 fellow for theater and performance, Michael Sommers, told us that he had wondered what the foundation had been up to in the years since receiving the award, but hadn’t heard anything. These sorts of sentiments lead to USA putting together the very first Artists Assembly, lead by its new CEO Carolina Garcia Jayaram who also was responsible for bringing USA’s headquarters from Los Angeles to Chicago.
So that is how we found ourselves, along with dozens of past fellows, individual donors, representatives of major funders, and the new 2014 fellows, in Chicago. The atmosphere was intimate and friendly and for many, a long time coming. It felt a lot like the first week of college or summer camp, everyone introducing themselves, explaining where they were from, and what discipline they worked in. (We kept getting asked if we were a fellow, due to our refusal to wear color-coded name tag lanyards. We didn’t mind.)
On the eve of the two-day conference, a kick-off event was held at the stunning Poetry Foundation in downtown Chicago. It was designed by architect John Ronan, who was there to give us a tour of the space before readings from 2014 poetry fellows, Chris Abani, Natalie Diaz, and Achy Obejas. Ronan told us that you had to discover the building in order to understand that. This proved true even when first finding our way inside. A mesh outer wall surrounds the building. The name of the building is only found engraved on a step that leads you to a small opening in the exterior. We guessed at entering to the right through a small garden area and were relieved to find a door. The interior is design is all about transparency, with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in light, the visuals of the garden, and the warmth of the wood shelves in the two-story poetry library.
Even the theater space had partial windows, an auditory nightmare combated by superior acoustic considerations in the ceiling, walls, floor, and even chairs that Ronan designed the squeak out of. Sitting down for the poetry readings, we admit we were a little wary, having listened to one too many not-so-brilliant slam poets in college. But our judgmental crankiness was soon schooled and put to shame by a trio of exceptional poets, all performing to a backdrop of silently falling snow through the window behind them (how poetic!).
Diaz from Mohave Valley, AZ, whose poems felt more like a short story or essay, especially wowed us. Her verses had energy, telling tales that were tragic, droll, and scintillating. A subject she often returns to, and was the focus for her first collection “When My Brother Was an Aztec,” is her brother’s ongoing addiction to meth. She also shared a new poem about basketball, a game she grew up playing at the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, CA and later played professionally in Europe and Asia.
Properly impressed, we left the performance at the Poetry Foundation feeling excited about what the next two days in Chicago would bring and the other artists we’d meet and hear from.
Stay tuned for more on day one of the assembly, including the theatrics of Theaster Gates, a Second City workshop, and a tearful screening at Chicago’s Soho House.