Why Big Foundations Keep Pouring Money into United States Artists

Don't let its nondescript name fool you. United States Artists (USA) is the Traveling Wilburys of the philanthropic art world.

The Traveling Wilburys, of course, were the late '80s supergroup consisting of Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne, Roy Orbison and Tom Petty. USA boasts a similarly impressive lineup—a who's who of heavy hitters, including the Ford, Rockefeller, Rasmuson and Prudential Foundations, which founded the nonprofit organization in 2006 with $22 million in seed funding.

Since its inception, USA has awarded more than $21 million to almost 450 artists through $50,000 annual fellowships in the fields of architecture and design, crafts, dance, literature, media, music, theater and performance, traditional arts, and visual arts.

Now, imagine if, say, Neil Young made a cameo with the Traveling Wilburys. That would have been really cool, right? Well, USA announced a similar development in in mid-April: the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation pledged $1 million to a new $20 million operations endowment campaign.

Knight's contribution shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The grantmaker has worked with USA since 2009, when Knight began sponsoring the group’s fellowships granted to artists who lived in the 26 cities where the Knight brothers once owned newspapers.

Another $10 million infusion will come from Ford, plus $1 million from the Rockefeller and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, considered by most objective observers to be, let's say, the Tom Petty of the band. Add it all up and the campaign has raised $16.6 million thus far.

The money will serve as an operational endowment to support United States Artists’ staffing, conferences and the cultivation of nominators and the administration of grants, among other things. It will cover everything except the grants to the artists themselves, which are financed separately.

The success of United States Artists is another example of the growing role that intermediaries have come to play in channeling support from big funders to important work in the field. Shops like USA do the pick-and-shovel work of identifying and supporting numerous grantees. Places like Ford foot the bill and don't have to build that capacity themselves. ArtPlace America is another foundation-backed intermediary in the arts space, and one we write about often. 

It's important to note that USA believes strongly in the power of the unrestricted support grant, channeling the preferences of individual artists, who prefer funding with no strings attached. Money from USA comes without limitations. Edouard Duval-Carrié, the Haitian-American painter and sculptor who lives in Miami and received a $50,000 USA grant in 2014, appreciates this. "It’s a generous contribution and a recognition of trajectory," he said. "They give it to a cross-section of artists, nominated and selected by other artists. And the money comes with absolutely no strings attached. If I owed money to someone who wanted to kill me, I can pay them off!"

Meanwhile, Ford's president, Darren Walker, had this to say about the latest infusion of money to USA: "Artists can drive social change by inspiring our imaginations and challenging us all to work toward a better world." 

Walker is certainly right about that, but otherwise, the link between USA's grantmaking priorities and Ford's much-advertised new focus on inequality is vague. USA is not among the funders that takes a social justice approach to supporting the arts. Reducing inequality isn't core to its mission or even mentioned anywhere on its website.

So why is USA getting $10 million from Ford? Well, as it turns out, while Ford's new commitment to USA was only recently announced, this grant decision was made last year before the foundation's pivot to focusing on inequality. 

Update: This article has been updated and revised to reflect more accurate information about when Ford made the decision to grant new support to USA. 

Related:At Ford, the Revolution That Wasn’t