Since it was founded in 2006, United States Artists (USA) has awarded $30 million in direct support to more than 600 creators. An annual cohort of fellows across artistic and cultural disciplines have been granted unrestricted funds.
Deana Haggag joined the organization in 2017 as the president and CEO, maintaining its mission to reflect the country’s cultural landscape while changing the conversation around the value of labor. Under her leadership, USA has seen its biggest group of fellows yet for 2020, established financial planning programs for awardees, and moved quickly to create Artist Relief in response to COVID-19 along with several other organizations. Whitewall spoke with Haggag this summer about demystifying how artists make money and where.
WHITEWALL: How unique are unrestricted grants in philanthropy?
DEANA HAGGAG: In 2006, when United States Artists was founded, we joined the ranks of several incredible unrestricted funders such as Artadia, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Joan Mitchell Foundation, and more. Since that time, we have seen an increase in unrestricted support in the field. But there is certainly room for much more, especially now in a post-COVID world when the future of projects feels so precarious.
WW: What these fellowships also recognize is that all kinds of labor should be valued. Not just creative and artistic, but caring for your family, caring for yourself, et cetera. We read an interview where you talked about how artists especially, when applying for funds, always try to prove that all the money will go into artmaking, that they are not inclined to pay themselves. Can you speak to the need to change the conversation around what work/ labor is valued?
DH: Yes! Sadly, in the United States, we have a profoundly limiting relationship to labor and tend to measure our worth predominantly on our productivity and abilities to turn a profit. So it makes a lot of sense for anyone—artist or otherwise—to justify that they “deserve” a monetary award or will use it to “keep working.” It’s fundamental to capitalism to make entire communities feel unworthy of the relaxation money affords other privileged groups. So, yes, I think it’s due time that we start to detangle all this so that people can find the care they need in a corrupt system that pushes them too hard with so little. Life shouldn’t be so difficult, and we are motivated to honor artists while also gently reminding them to do whatever they need to find rest and respite.
WW: USA has recently added financial planning support and consulting services for its fellows. Can you tell us about those added programs and how artists are taking advantage of that? Why that’s been a need?
DH: Frankly, at this point, I think it is unethical to offer anyone unrestricted support and not give them the option of financial planning resources. I say this as someone whose wellness has improved exponentially with help from financial professionals. Our fellows have worked with CFPs to make plans to manage their tax burdens, pay off debt, save for retirement, buy properties, et cetera. It’s literally like a “money therapist” who works with you to accomplish your goals. This program has really solidified for us how intentionally opaque financial systems are in efforts to keep entire communities struggling and disempowered.
WW: Can you tell us about the Berresford Prize and why that was important for USA to expand its focus? Can you also share about the latest recipient, the incredible Linda Goode Bryant?
DH: We were encouraged by our artists to consider expanding into arts administration to demonstrate a commitment to the field more widely— artists rely on close relationships with curators, editors, and producers to make their work. So we were excited to honor the network it takes to make the cultural sector. In 2020, we named Linda Goode Bryant, who is so visionary and cunning. From gallerist to filmmaker to farmer, Linda has spent her life making space for artists and various other communities. She is a shape-maker in every sense, and we are so lucky to live in the world alongside her.
WW: Why do you think it’s important to demystify funding for artists?
DH: I think there are a lot of misconceptions about how artists make money and where. In the arts, publicity is oftentimes confused for financial security. Like many other industries of predominantly gig workers, there are so few safety nets for artists. There is little health and unemployment insurance, et cetera. It’s important to talk about money so we can utilize funding more ethically and holistically.