Roberto Lugo grew up in abandoned homes in Philly with no running water, showering with his father in nearby fire hydrants. He's now a ceramic artist whose work sells for thousands of dollars; Winfred Rembert is a lynching survivor from rural Georgia who was wrongly sentenced to 25 years on a chain gang. He served seven of those years before being released, and now his tactile cowhide paintings are represented by a gallery in Manhattan and The New York Times has written about his life; Beth Ann Fennelly was a young mother struggling to make ends meet, teaching back-to-back classes and pitching freelance DIY craft articles at the expense of the poetry and prose that sat untapped beneath her daily struggle to survive. She is now the Poet Laureate of Mississippi and teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, considered to be one the top MFA programs in the country. These creators all share one common milestone: a $50,000 unrestricted grant from United States Artists, an unsung hero in private sector arts funding.
United States Artists was founded in 2006 and is a pioneer in a shifting arts funding landscape—one where the government is less reliable and artists have to answer to reporting requirements and spending limitations for the private grants that are available. USA's unrestricted grants afford artists the freedom to create, and their funding spans all disciplines and geographies. "When you are very intentional about those two things, you then get the kind of age, race, socioeconomic, gender, ability, diversity that we're all striving for and often failing to meet," Deana Haggag, USA's new Executive Director, told Creators recently at their annual artists assembly in Chicago. She's referring to the failure of the arts sector in America to engage in an all-inclusive, non-hierarchical representation of artists and their art. USA's equilateral funding encompasses a large swath of this country's arts that too often are left out of the conversation. "We don't talk enough about how much our sector struggles," Haggag emphasizes. "We're barely here and I'm proud of us that we're surviving it, but I'm wondering how we get into, not the good graces, but just the basic understanding of an American public. I think one of the ways we do that is to not alienate them from the traditions and mediums that they understand, which are undeniably art."
On the last day of the Chicago assembly, Beth Ann Fennelly gave a talk about the effect of USA's grant on her art and her life. In her speech, she noted: "Emerson said, 'Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known.' The USA grant empowered me to guard my spare moments. To clear room in my imaginative life, to insert placeholders for day dreams, to bask in the place where poems come from." Fennelly's words are a reminder that creativity is a seed to be nurtured. It is a wild weed growing amongst the tame and the conventional, filling the spaces between with ideas that upend the status quo, birthing social movements and even nations.
With the loss of government support for the arts looming large, USA is pioneering a change in the landscape of private sector arts funding, not only with their unrestricted grants, but also in their protection of those art disciplines—like folk and traditional arts and crafts—that are largely overlooked by single-discipline or fine arts funders. "The beautiful thing about USA is that it exists in a very wide landscape," Haggag explains, elaborating on other private sector arts funding organizations and USA's role amongst them. "If and when the NEA is defunded, we will pick up whatever slack needs to be picked up in the private sector to make sure that American artists are protected. But as a group and as a cohort, my hope is that all of these organizations will raise hell to make sure that the government does not get away with it."
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