Katharine DeShaw, executive director of United States Artists, visits… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
Winners of United States Artists grants usually pump the money directly into their work. But no strings are attached to the $50,000 awards, so some artists use part of their newfound wealth to travel, pay off mortgages, buy life insurance, get new glasses or have their teeth fixed. Others become philanthropists, pitching in on colleagues' projects.
That's the beauty of the grants, says Mark Bradford, a maker of massive, abstract collages who was tapped in the first round, in 2006, and has become actively engaged with United States Artists as a board member. "When you get the call, you think, 'Wow, somebody is going to give me money to continue to do what I do. They are not going to ask me to do anything. They are just going to invest in it.' "
That level of trust, he says, is a validation of past accomplishments and a vote of confidence in the artist's future.
Headquartered in Los Angeles, the nonprofit organization chooses 50 USA Fellows annually from the fields of architecture and design, crafts and traditional arts, dance, literature, media, music, theater and visual arts.
When this year's awards are presented Monday at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, USA will have given $10 million to 213 individuals, partnerships and collectives who live and work all across the country.
A board of 150 arts professionals, at least two from each state, nominates candidates, who must be at least 21 years old and citizens or legal residents of the U.S. About 400 nominees are invited to apply for the grants.
Panels in each discipline select winners.
The roster includes architect and designer J. Meejin Yoon of Massachusetts, novelist Tayari Jones of Georgia, fiddler/singer/songwriter Michael Doucet of Louisiana, filmmaker Chris Eyre of South Dakota, ceramist Richard Notkin of Montana, dancer Shen Wei and puppeteer Basil Twist of New York, and photographer Catherine Opie and conceptualist Michael Asher of California.
"What I like," Bradford says, "is that it doesn't focus on Los Angeles and New York as the only places where art is produced. I also like the mix of disciplines. There are hierarchies in the art world."
United States Artists is far from the only organization to put large amounts of money in artists' hands.
New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum has its $50,000 Hugo Boss Prize, and the Victor Pinchuk Foundation just announced its $100,000 Future Generation Art Prize.
Bradford received the Whitney Museum of American Art's $100,000 Bucksbaum Award in 2006 and a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant this year.
But many programs offering large cash awards fund specific projects or honor one artist every year or two. With a mission of "supporting America's finest artists working across diverse disciplines" and a practice of doling out 50 unrestricted grants annually, United States Artists has created an unusually broad niche for itself.
Katharine DeShaw, executive director of United States Artists, says the organization began as a response to the demise of National Endowment for the Arts fellowships for individual artists in the 1990s, amid a storm of controversy. Concerned that artists would be forced to leave the field, leaders of several New York institutions, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Museum of Modern Art, approached large foundations with a message about the need to "feed the food chain," she says.
The Ford Foundation stepped up and rallied 35 other foundations to fund a study of live/work issues confronting American artists. Conducted in 2003, "Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists" found that 96% of Americans value art in their communities and lives, but only 27% value artists.
Despite the commercial success of many artists, the study determined that "significant numbers" of their peers needed employment, health insurance, places to live and work, materials and equipment and access to professional development and support systems.
Sparked by the study, United States Artists was founded with $15 million from Ford, $5 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and $1 million each from the Rasmuson and Prudential foundations.
"We launched in 2005 with $22 million in the bank," DeShaw says. "Since then, we have raised about $12 million on our own. The long-term strategy is to build a permanent endowment so that the fellowships are funded forever."
Target Corp. and New York philanthropists such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and art collector Agnes Gund have bought into the idea, contributing to the general fund or underwriting fellowships for artists in specific disciplines or regions.
L.A.'s biggest donors are collectors Eli and Edythe Broad, who will be honored Monday for their lead gift of $1 million.
"We were pleased to be able to make our contribution to support California artists," Eli Broad says, adding that Bradford is among them. "I think it's important, especially with the lack of state and federal support for the arts these days, to recognize accomplished artists, whether it's in the visual or performing arts."