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Bringing the Arts to the Conversation on Social Change


In this post, Claudia Juech, associate vice president and managing director of Strategic Research and Bellagio Programs at The Rockefeller Foundation, and Carolina Jayaram, chief executive officer of United States Artists, each discuss the new partnership between The Rockefeller Foundation and United States Artists to support performing, visual, media, and literary artists in the United States.

Claudia Juech:

Artists play an important role at The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center—I like to call them ‘conversation changers.’ The diversity of residents that the Bellagio Center hosts is wide-ranging in terms of disciplines, geographies, and passions, but most often it is the artists who bring the most unique viewpoints and ways of working. The artists’ forms of engagement with the world and processes of making art create new avenues that can shift the thinking of other residents and help them forge new approaches to their work. I’ve seen this happen many times over, with painters and policy makers, with musicians and health workers, with scientists and poets—we have long experienced that bringing artists into the mix enriches the discourse and ultimately strengthens the Bellagio community.

This year, The Rockefeller Foundation has partnered with an arts organization to identify candidates for the Bellagio Center arts residency—a first in the Bellagio Center’s 54-year history. Our new partner, United States Artists, is not yet 10 years old but has already made an impact on arts in the U.S. and is known for its peer-selected awards, unrestricted support, and broad nomination process that includes all 50 states. United States Artists award winners and alumni are invited to apply for a Bellagio residency, to work collaboratively on a project with other artists and, in doing so, push the envelope of arts practices.

At United States Artists’ recent annual Artists’ Assembly, the importance of artists in the conversation about social challenges was on full display. The assembly brought together an amazing group of artists, this year’s award winners, and the alumni from the Midwest region to elevate concrete examples of how artists help to create and define more inclusive, livable, and vibrant communities. Theaster Gates is a Chicago-based artist, and one of his projects, “Dorchester,” provided a vivid example of how artists can help stimulate community interaction and foster neighborhood revitalization. His restoration of abandoned houses on Chicago’s South Side—creating a restaurant, reading room, and movie theater—provides the community with a new set of opportunities to engage both with each other and the built environment as a whole. Mark Bradford, an artist from South Los Angeles, pursues similar goals with his organization Art + Practice, which encourages engagement with the arts and supports local 16-24 year olds who are transitioning out of foster care. These are two examples of artists using their art as a jumping off point to forge the practice of art with community activism. Two other artists at the Artists’ Assembly who made strong impressions as representatives of their indigenous cultures are Nicholas Galanin from Alaska—a conceptual artist who uses many indigenous technologies and materials in traditional and avant-garde ways—and Natalie Diaz, a poet whose writing reflects her varied identities: Mojave, American, and former pro-basketball player—both give voice to people who are in need of being heard more widely.

“These artists embody what it means to be a ‘conversation changer,’ and help to provide an interesting lens through which we might view our world’s challenges.”

These artists, along with all of the other Artists’ Assembly participants, embody what it means to be a ‘conversation changer,’ and help to provide an interesting lens through which we might view our world’s challenges. We look forward to seeing many of them at The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center.

Carolina Jayaram:

Since joining United States Artists (USA), it has been my goal to work with our board of trustees in taking the organization’s tremendous financial investment in America’s most accomplished artists to the next level by creating new resources, opportunities, and pathways for them to work towards their larger goals as professionals and community members. USA’s unique cohort of more than 400 Fellows represents all 50 states and Puerto Rico, nearly every cultural group, all career stages, and every creative discipline imaginable. In other words, our Fellows are a powerful representation of our incredibly diverse country.

This unique selection process both helps identify and reward the most innovative and exciting artists working today, and also validates those artists taking the greatest risks who are often marginalized or isolated in their practice. The unrestricted nature and significant size of the award is incredibly rare and places trust in the individual Fellow to direct the funding to areas that will have the most impact on their long term growth and success. USA Fellows, including choreographer Kyle Abraham, visual artist Ann Hamilton, playwright David Henry Hwang and artist Coco Fusco have spoken passionately about the enormous impact the award has had on their career, whether they have a more commercial or specifically niched practice. The thread that runs through all 400+ Fellows is the rigor and standard of excellence of their work and from this we are aiming to create new opportunities to connect and envision extraordinary new works among our Fellows.

By bringing this distinct group of cultural producers together, we have seen that many have collaborated over the years on new works, by virtue of having met through their affiliation to USA. We believe this phenomenon introduces an exciting opportunity to support new innovative collaborations by offering space and time for them to develop. The Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center residency presented the perfect place to send teams of two to three Fellows and partners to explore and strengthen their ideas through exposure to other residents from a diversity of backgrounds. Bellagio’s rich history of seeding important and vital projects—be they rooted in science, philosophy, policy, or environment—offers USA artists a plethora of stimuli to cultivate their new projects. We are very excited to see how USA Fellows can both contribute to the dialogue at Bellagio and make the most of the experience to create multi-disciplinary works, which USA can then help bring to fruition in the future.

In April 2016, USA will host its second Artists’ Assembly in Miami, where select teams will be invited to report on their experiences at Bellagio and present the project they are working toward. Our hope is that this will be a great next step in the development of new and provocative work for USA Fellows, and represent the evolution of the organization’s mission to support America’s most accomplished artists while illuminating the immense value that artists add to society.

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