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United States Artists is a pretty amazing arts grant program that was created in 2006 by the Ford, Rockefeller, Rasmuson, and Prudential foundations. It gives out $50,000 fellowships to dozens of artist each year across disciplines like visual arts, architecture and design, crafts, dance, music, media, literature, theater and performance, and traditional arts. And the grants have no attached strings, no projects that must be completed—just money to help them live and do more as artists.
WHITEWALL: Last March you held the very first Artists Assembly in Chicago, a new initiative you put in motion after being named the President and CEO of USA in 2014. Whitewall was lucky enough to be there and we were surprised by how little we knew about USA, despite the incredible number of grants it’s given over the years to names we know like Mary Heilmann, Theaster Gates, Glenn Ligon, Diana Al-Hadid, Nick Cave, and Wangechi Mutu. Was that a big part of your mission when taking on this new role, bringing more awareness to USA and connecting past fellows?
CAROLINA GARCÍA JAYARAM: We have an alumni base that was extraordinary that we haven’t ever reengaged with. So that to me was a given—this is your base, these are your advocates to growing this organization and many of them want to reengage. I was one hundred percent right. So many of our fellows credit USA and this award with jumpstarting the next phase of their career, catalyzing a lot of great things that happened afterward. Coco Fusco told us that after USA she won a Guggenheim Fellowship. Certainly, we were not completely responsible for that, but I think that it creates the environment that new and greater things can happen to these artists.
WW: Can you talk a bit about how unique the USA grant is compared to other artists’ grants and fellowships?
CGJ: This organization was really founded in response to the National Endowment for the Arts [being defunded]. Most grants are more project-tied. USA is totally unrestricted, so that alone is unusual. The MacArthur and Doris Duke [are unrestricted], but they are very few and don’t happen every year. The grant can be used in any way that the artist wants. I mean, artists have used it for anything that you can imagine—healthcare, housing, childcare—but all of that we feel is connected to the artmaking. You can’t make the art in peace if you are in pain or worrying about something.
WW: As the new director, you also moved USA from Los Angeles to Chicago. Why?
CJ: I have lived [in Chicago] for six years. I am from Miami, so living there and New York, coming to Chicago, I was really struck by the strong ecosystem for arts and culture in this city. And it is so strong across the board, for all these disciplines that we make awards in. There is a huge theater community, dance, literature, architecture, visual art, and music; all of them are strong here and they are linked and more intermixed than anywhere that I have seen.
WW: What is the nomination process for a USA Fellowship?
CJ: Most of year we are looking for nominators because every year we start over and we invite over 400 nominators and each of them can nominate up to two artists. We generally ask that they stay in the geographic region and their discipline of expertise, but that is by no means a requirement. Some do go outside, but we try to be as representative as we can ahead to make sure that we get enough nominations in North Dakota or Nebraska. And we do; we get all over the country and all these nominations coming in. We then call the artists and say, “You have been nominated for a USA Fellowship. You need to submit an application with some work samples.” It is really a simple application, and they pick their discipline. They are not told what discipline that they were nominated in. We always go with what the artist has chosen.
WW: This year you also announced a residency for USA Fellows at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy. Can you tell us more about the program and partnership?
CJ: Our artists trust us that we don’t have any skin in the game. We don’t represent them as a gallery, we are not producing a play with them next year, and there isn’t any expectation. We are really just connectors, and I think that is a unique position to be in. Our hope with Bellagio is that it is a great first step to giving artists a space where they can take ideas and build on them and cultivate them and see if that will lead to a real project. It is really just networking. For instance, Kyle Abraham, a wonderful dancer and choreographer, when he won the award in 2012, he met two other choreographers at the USA ceremony in LA and they ended up doing a project together. It has ended up being really hard for them to meet because they live in three different parts of the country, and they were always touring, so [something like the Bellagio residency] could be an opportunity to jumpstart it and have it go faster, that process. We can potentially catalyze on some of these projects in this network of alumni.
This article will appear in Whitewall‘s fall 2015 Fashion Issue out later this month.