United States Artists: Grants for Theater

OVERVIEW: United States Artists provides unrestricted $50,000 grants to artists across eight different creative disciplines.

IP TAKE: United States Artists gives out as many as 50 unrestricted $50,000 grants directly to creative artists each year. Support for theater artists (particularly playwrights) is a significant part of this giving. Needless to say, this is a competitive grant. It’s an elusive one too; you must be nominated for it, and the nominators are anonymous.

PROFILE: United States Artists (USA) was established in 2005 by the Ford, Rockefeller, Rasmuson and Prudential Foundations to “invest in America’s finest artists and illuminate the value of artists to society.”

Today the organization is funded by a range of foundations and individuals, and has its own permanent endowment that allows its USA Fellows program to provide unrestricted grants of $50,000 each to as many as 50 creative artists each year across eight different creative disciplines that USA delineates as Architecture & Design, Crafts & Traditional Arts, Dance, Literature, Media, Music, Theater, and Visual Arts.

Support of theater artists comprises a significant part of this giving. It makes up more than nine percent of all fellowships in 2014 and 16 percent in 2012. (There seemingly were no awards given out in 2013, but other than that, there have been numerous every other year since at least 2006—and all of the winners are searchable by year and/or category on USA’s website.)

With something this fantastic, you’re probably worried there’s a catch. And there is one, to a degree. Application for a USA Fellowship is by nomination only; nominators change year-to-year, and they’re always anonymous. All that USA will share about their nominators is that they're always a “group of arts leaders, critics, scholars, and artists who live in every state throughout the country, from small communities to major metropolises. They work in diverse practices across virtually every artistic discipline.” (There is a separate group of panelists who will assess the applications of those who are nominated and apply, and USA does share the lists of its previous panelists, which is also very diverse in geography, artistic discipline, and profession. Therefore those lists provide potential insight in terms of the nature of the anonymous nominators too.)

How do you get yourself nominated by an anonymous group of theater professionals working across the United States? First, be inclusive in your theater-making; the more collaborative you are, and the more broadly you showcase your work around the country, the more likely you are to hit on one of these anonymous nominators.

Also, be aware of USA’s guiding “values,” because they certainly apply to the selection of fellows. USA seeks to support quality, creativity, innovation, risk-taking, and diversity. So long as these values put you at the front of the pack, USA seems less concerned about where you are in your theater career. The range of recent theater awardees also reflect this (see below). On the one hand there is the legendary Tony Award winner and multiple time Pulitzer Prize finalist David Henry Hwang; on the other, there is Sigrid Gilmer, whose plays have heretofore only been produced by a handful of theater companies.

Though USA grant money is unrestricted, the organization also states that more than 91 percent of the grants it's given out have been used to “develop new art,” so as a theater artist looking to get USA’s attention, you’re better off creating new work rather than re-visiting the classics (or, if you do so, approach them in a radically new way).

The theater creators selected for the USA Fellowship in 2014 were all female playwrights: Kia Corthron (New York City-based), Sigrid Gilmer (Los Angeles-based), and Sibyl Kempson (New York City-based).

The 2012 the theater grants were more diversely distributed, going to Marcus Gardley (a New York City-based playwright), Guillermo Gomez-Peña (a California-based performance artist), David Henry Hwang (a New York-based playwright), John Kelly (a New York-based performance artist), Adrienne Kennedy (a Virginia-based playwright), Robbie McCauley (a Massachusetts-based playwright, actress, and director), and Annie-B Parson (a New York-based artistic director of a movement-based theater company).

A full list of theater grantees since 2006 is on USA’s website. Also keep in mind that playwrights can sometimes be granted awards in USA’s “literature” category. Such was the case for playwright Annie Baker in 2011, for instance.

USA wants to “close the gap between the love of art and the ambivalence toward those who create it,” believing that artists needs champions and advocates. It's given out 350 grants so far—a good start for its own championing and advocacy.

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