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Deana Haggag talks fast, as if she has more big ideas than time to express them. And yet at just 30 years of age, the new president and CEO of Chicago-based United States Artists has a head start on most of her peers in the arts-funding sector. USA (the resonance of the acronym is not lost on her) gives $50,000 grants to around 50 artists a year and has furthered the careers of art superstar Kara Walker and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, among other luminaries. It was founded in the early 2000s in response to cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, and with the NEA once again on the chopping block, American artists are increasingly looking to private organizations like Haggag’s for support.
Haggag’s arrival marks a new beginning both for her—she recently beat bone cancer—and for USA. The nonprofit’s campaign to raise a $20 million endowment is nearly complete, allowing Haggag to pursue those big ideas. Chief among them are efforts to increase the diversity of USA’s recipients, in all senses, including the geographical. (She notes ruefully, “We’ve never been able to get someone from Delaware.”)
Sure, there are headwinds for arts groups right now, but to Haggag, there’s never been a better time to rethink the giving game. “The world is being redone, and we get to be here for it,” she says. From her new perch, Haggag—a Muslim of Egyptian descent who recently ran Baltimore’s nomadic Contemporary museum—is questioning everything about arts philanthropy and attempting to infuse it with capitalist efficiency. “We’re trying to commission a study to measure how much all the individual-artist foundations are worth,” says Haggag, who sees synergy between USA and other grant-giving entities like the Joan Mitchell Foundation and Art Matters. “How can we use this money better?
She is considering arranging pro bono financial counseling for recipients who want it. Unlike many other organizations, whose gifts are project-based, the group gives unrestricted money. But some artists don’t know how to make the most of the manna and are faced with dilemmas like the choice between paying off debt and building equity. “Money is really powerful,” Haggag says. “The goal is to try to understand capitalism and push it in the direction that you need it to go.” unitedstatesartists.com
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