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Deana Haggag, president and chief executive officer of United States Artists, grew up in a family of scientists. But she believes passionately that the arts hold the power to change lives and transform our world.

“I know that exposure to the arts has made me a better person-sharper, more thoughtful,” Haggag says. “I don’t know how to imagine civilized society without artists. I don’t know how to get people to care about issues that don’t directly affect them, unless you get them to feel it.”

“I don’t know how to imagine society w/o artists. I don’t know how to get people to care about issues that don’t directly affect them, unless you get them to feel it”-@DHaggag, CEO of @USAforArt on awarding unrestricted funding to artists

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According to a study by the Urban Institute, 96% of Americans value having art in their lives—yet only 27% value the artists who produce it. And after funding cuts at the National Endowment for the Arts prompted the agency to eliminate grants to individual artists, a group of philanthropic leaders joined forces to elevate the value of individual artists, and address the funding gap.

“Our founders saw those cuts as a loss for American society,” Haggag says. “They thought it was really important to make that investment in individual artists.”

Since its creation in 2006, United States Artists (USA) has supported more than 500 artists with grants totaling upwards of $25 million.

As its philanthropic partner, The Chicago Community Trust houses and invests USA’s endowment to maximize its income, which goes to fund operating expenses as well as their grant making.

“The Trust takes very good care of our money,” Haggag says. “We raise money, too-because more is more, and it gets into the hands of more artists.”

According to a study by the Urban Institute, 96% of Americans value having art in their lives—yet only 27% value the artists who produce it.

From Haggag’s office high above Oak Street Beach, the hunt begins each year for up to 50 “amazing” artists from anywhere in the country, working in one of 10 arts areas: from architecture and design, to music, theater and performance.

Fellowship recipients have ranged in age from their 20s to their 90s, “from every walk of life, every race, every religion, every leaning.”

Each artist receives a one-time unrestricted fellowship of $50,000. USA provides not only money, but also the gift of “not telling them what to do with it,” Haggag says. “Artists are people, and they have all the same problems other people have—paying the rent, taking care of their kids, paying off debt, et cetera—in addition to taking on a profession that is, for many people, incredibly expensive.”

A woman wearing glasses smiles to the camera
United States Artists president and CEO Deana Haggag leads an annual search for up to 50 outstanding artists, who each receive an unrestricted fellowship of $50,000. “Artists are people, and they have all the same problems other people have: paying the rent, taking care of their kids, paying off debt, et cetera,” Haggag explains—which is why in addition to funding, United States Artists gives recipients the gift of “not telling them what to do with it.”

 

Previous USA Fellows have included Barry Jenkins, four years before his film Moonlight won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture; playwright Annie Baker, whose play The Flick won the Pulitzer Prize three years after her 2011 USA award; the riveting visual artist Kara Walker; and the innovative choreographer Jonah Bokaer.

Four years ago, USA moved to Chicago from Los Angeles—in part because it made sense to be in the middle of the country, and in part “to establish this relationship with the Trust,” Haggag says.

“The Trust’s involvement in the arts, specifically in Chicago, is demonstrated and pronounced. When they do certain programs around individual artists, I feel like they pull us into those conversations, and vice versa. There’s a lot of natural alignment between our mission and our goals here at USA, and what the Trust is interested in doing for the city of Chicago.”

USA Fellows have included Barry Jenkins, four years before his film Moonlight won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture, and playwright Annie Baker, whose play The Flick won the Pulitzer Prize three years after her 2011 USA award.

Haggag grew up in Brooklyn and New Jersey. She studied art history and philosophy at Rutgers University, then served as executive director of The Contemporary, a “nomadic, non-collecting art museum” in Baltimore. Haggag later earned a masters degree in curatorial practice from the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

Today she enjoys living and working in Chicago, a place where the art forms USA supports are “very robust.” Compared to other major cities, Haggag feels, “Chicago models what more of the country feels like,” helping to keep the organization grounded.

In addition to supporting individual artists, USA is committed to serving as “a convener of sorts. We put these people in conversation with one another,” Haggag says. “At least once a year, we actually bring them all together, along with the donors we work with. So there’s this added community that’s involved, where the foundations, the individuals and the corporations that fund our awards are an active part as well.”

“It’s nice to bring everybody together and remind them why it is we do this work.”