Skip to Content


Carolina García Jayaram and Dennis Scholl

Carolina García Jayaram

DENNIS SCHOLL: I think the best way to start is to give a little synopsis of what United States Artists is.

CAROLINA GARCÍA JAYARAM: United States Artists was founded after two major events in the early ‘90s. First, the NEA ended their funding for individual artists, which caused a major ripple effect and left a giant, gaping hole. Several years later, the Urban Institute, among others, measured what were the biggest obstacles that artists were facing in major markets, as well as what was keeping artists from being successful. Access to unrestricted, no-strings-attached kind of funding was one of the biggest factors, as was the kind of validation that allowed artists to take greater risks in their work and push boundaries.

Susan Berresford, who had been the longtime president of the Ford Foundation, wanted her legacy project to address this issue of individual artist support, so she went to three other foundation presidents—of Rasmuson, Prudential, and Rockefeller—and together they started this fund and with the help of my predecessor Kathy DeShaw designed this program for artists across every creative discipline, all fifty states and territories, through fifty unrestricted $50,000 awards per year. So we’ve done this now for ten years, we now have given 450 of these awards to this country’s most accomplished artists at critical times in their careers, giving them the type of validation that is very central to the work they go on to do afterward.

SCHOLL: So the first thing artists always want to know is, how do I get one?

JAYARAM: The process runs about a year long, it begins by scouring the entire country for nominators. This year, we asked one thousand people to nominate for us, which is the most we’ve ever done, in an effort to get the most wide-ranging and diverse pool of artists we can. It’s a challenge, because we need nominators in Nebraska and Puerto Rico and everywhere in between, from Boston to Hawaii, and across all disciplines, so the nominators are really key. They have their ears to the ground. Once those artist names come in as nominations, we then contact them and they submit work samples and a simple application. Because it’s not project-specific, it’s really up to them what they want to show us of their career, and we don’t ask them what they would spend the money on. Once they come in, we then invite in-person panels to come to Chicago, and these are experts in the field with twenty-five, thirty years of experience. The panels come in the spring, they look at all the applicants, and it’s a fascinating conversation, as you can imagine, and they choose a number of applicants who will be named fellows and then a number of alternates for each category. Let’s say we have forty alternates at the end and maybe twelve spots left, the board then meets and we treat that board meeting like a panel, the board sees all those applications and they fight tooth and nail about who’s going to fill those twelve spots. This is where diversity is very important to us—“We don’t have enough people from the upper Midwest, we don’t have a jazz person, we don’t have enough dance,” whatever it may be, and we fill in.

SCHOLL: We’ve been hearing about how the Oscar nominees and participants are overwhelmingly white and about the program’s ongoing lack of diversity over the decades. I’ve always been dazzled by the range of artists that are chosen by United States Artists. Every single year when the choices come out, it really is a reflection of America: what it looks like, what it’s interested in, where it lives.

JAYARAM: Yes, and it starts from the very beginning with the nominators. The director of programs, Meg Leary, just went on a road trip all over the Midwest, going to the International Nordic Museum in the middle of Iowa, for example, and meeting with the curators there. How else are we going to get access to the great Nordic craftspeople in the middle of the plains states if we don’t go find these people and get to know who they are?
And this year, if we are just talking about racial diversity, out of the thirty-
seven winners, twenty-eight identify as people of color.

SCHOLL: Are the grants going to established artists, mid-career artists, are they emerging artists?

JAYARAM: The majority of artists are at their mid-career.

SCHOLL: So they have a body of work that’s out there that you can judge.

JAYARAM: Yes, because you have to something to show. Of course, there are fellows like LaToya Ruby Frazier, who hasn’t done a lot of work, but it’s such incredible work that it rises above. We always have a couple of really young fellows, and then we have some older winners, and this year, our North Dakota winner, who is an incredible storyteller—our first ever storyteller—Mary Louise Defender Wilson, is eighty-five years old.

SCHOLL: I know you’ve done research about this—what is it that the fellows do with the money?

JAYARAM: We’re launching a study this year, from the mainly anecdotal research we’ve done over the past ten years, and our findings have shown that over 90 percent of fellows use the award to make new work, but that could mean a lot of things. A lot of them use it to pay off the mortgage, to pay health insurance, to pay for equipment. Catherine Opie won in 2006, and of course she was already a very well-known and revered photographer. She told one of our board members, “Oh, I can finally get this camera I’ve been needing,” and the board member almost fell out of her chair, she couldn’t believe that—so, artists at all stages need this kind of support.

SCHOLL: The healthcare thing really threw me when I saw the research. Way more than half the artists end up using some of the money for healthcare.

JAYARAM: Or a health procedure, you know, they have this tooth that’s been killing them for three years. But that all goes into the work, because you need to fix yourself first in order to make work.

SCHOLL: How do you want to recast the program looking forward? You’re ten years in, its time for United States Artists 2.0, if you will.

JAYARAM: I was handed an incredible program and, with it, a great alumni pool. I immediately saw an opportunity we had in front of us. We have never reached back out to our alumni, and here we were sitting on four hundred-plus people who really liked us, we really changed their lives, many of them in significant ways—arguably one of the most representative and uniquely diverse groups of artists in this country. That, to me, was an obvious place to start, so I put together an Alumni Advisory Council.
It starts a new conversation of what we can do together and that is a big part of United States Artists 2.0. We’re about to launch a study with Bloomberg to look at what we’ve done in the last ten years, both for the artists, but also to the field, so that we can be smarter about the direction we’re taking, but also share our intel with fellow funders, like the Knight Foundation. We’re now in a position where we can be thought leaders in a way we haven’t really owned before.

SCHOLL: I just spoke at the Artists Foundation panel at MoMA. Artists have been starting their own foundations—

JAYARAM: Yes, like Steven Urice.

SCHOLL: Steven was up there, he spoke. It’s another example of artists deciding to not be the other, that those who have the resources can come in and be an agent of change. Look at what Mark Bradford has done with his foundation, look at what Dee Aster has done in really turning the art world upside down. Rick Lowe has been doing it for an awfully long time.

JAYARAM: And those are the big ones, a lot of people are doing it in small, quiet ways that matter just as much to their own communities, that’s a really important point. And I know a lot of the money that we’ve given out has been paid forward in that way.

SCHOLL: The Artists Assembly is coming to Miami—what can the arts community here expect? Are you willing to whisper any programming highlights?

JAYARAM: The Artists Assembly is a new initiative that we started last year in Chicago, a three-day conference that will move around the country so that we can engage different artists, arts organizations, and communities. This is a chance for us to embed ourselves in an arts ecosystem, inviting all the fellows to that community to learn new things. We want it to be both a moment of privacy for the fellows to be around each other and get to know each other and we want to share them with the community. So there are a couple of events that will be open to the public by invitation, including an afternoon session in Little Haiti Cultural Complex, a studio visit with Edouard Duval-Carrié, and a panel discussion with artist-led organizations in Miami, and a big stage celebration at the New World Symphony.

Also we have our first blues fellow, the great Joe Louis Walker, he will be performing, as well as Shara Worden, also known as My Brightest Diamond. Tony and Uri Sands, the great choreographers—it’s a very strong lineup.

SCHOLL: Do you have any particularly great stories about individual artists and either what they did with the money or how they reacted to it?

JAYARAM: There was a fellow who is a poet in Alaska who lives down the street from Sarah Palin, and when he won, he said, “I’m going to move away from Sarah Palin, because I really dislike this woman.” And then he decided, “You know what? No, I’m going to stay next to Sarah Palin and continue to irritate her.” I guess they were kind of antagonistic neighbors, and he paid the $24,000 he had left on his mortgage and he quit his job as a greeter at Wal-Mart and wrote his next collection of poetry, which went on to win the National Book Award. Good use of $50,000 dollars right there.
This last July we went to Seattle for a board meeting and I always like to invite local fellows to come meet the board so I cold-called Annie Proulx and said, “Annie, would you be willing to come read to us from the phonebook, or whatever, from your latest work?” She said, “Are you kidding? I literally just finished a book that I wouldn’t have ever been able to finish if I wouldn’t have won this award, because it’s a book that spans one hundred years, it has two hundred characters, and no publisher wanted to pay for it.” Even Annie Proulx couldn’t get a book written that she wanted to write, and this award allowed her to.