United States Artists announces $2.5 million in awards to 50 winners


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“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” playwright Rajiv Joseph has won a $50,000 prize from L.A.-based United States Artists –- five times the cash value of a Pulitzer Prize that he and two other nominated playwrights famously did not win after the Pulitzers’ ruling board, none of them theater experts, rejected the nominees proposed by a jury of drama experts.

Joseph and 49 other artists -- including four from Southern California -- were announced Tuesday as this year’s USA fellows. The $2.5 million in combined annual fellowships, first awarded in 2006, dwarfs all of the nation’s annual arts prizes except the MacArthur Fellowship, which currently antes up nearly $4 million a year for artists. MacArthur fellows get $100,000 a year for five years, and artists typically account for about a third of the 25 or so winners of the annual MacArthur “genius grants.”


Like the MacArthur grants, USA Fellowship winners can use the money as they wish. Nominations come from an anonymous group of arts executives, critics, scholars and artists whose membership changes each year; five-member panels of experts in each category recommend winners to the United States Artists board.

In a bid to ensure this bounty “in perpetuity,” United States Artists announced Tuesday that it has launched a $50-million endowment campaign, kicking it off with $14 million in combined lead gifts from the Rockefeller, Rasmuson and Todd and Betiana Simon foundations. A $50 million endowment that yielded a 5% average annual investment return would cover $2.5 million a year in prizes.

Joseph joins this year’s $50,000 fellowship winners:

Four of the 50 winners live in Southern California. Los Angeles playwright and poet Brighde Mullins (pictured, left), a winner for literature, directs USC’s master of professional writing program and formerly headed the master’s degree writing program at California Institute of the Arts. Winning in the media category is Tina Mabry (pictured, right), a transplanted Mississippian whose first feature film, “Mississippi Damned,” focused on a rural family of abused black children and won notice on the film festival circuit in 2009.

Two of the three winners for architecture and design are Southern Californians: Venice architect Greg Lynn (pictured, left), known for biomorphic forms called “blob architecture,” and Teddy Cruz (pictured, right) of San Diego, who was raised in Guatemala and grounds his practice in “micro-development” that, according to his firm’s website, aims to create housing based on “new modes of social sustainability and affordability.”

Other winners in the L.A. orbit, although based in New York, are documentary filmmaker Almundena Carracedo and pianist-composer Uri Caine. Carracedo’s first feature, “Made in L.A.,” focused on three Latina immigrant garment workers and won a 2008 Emmy Award after being broadcast in the PBS series “P.O.V.” Caine, who bridges jazz and classical music, was composer-in-residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra from 2005 to 2008.

Doug Wheeler, a visual artist based in Santa Fe, is known for his work in Los Angeles starting in the 1960s as part of the Light & Space movement; Wheeler and another new USA fellow, San Francisco installation artist Renee Green, both had works in “Collection: MOCA’s First Thirty Years,” the greatest-hits exhibition seen in 2009-10 at L.A.’s Museum of Contemporary Art.


Other winners nationally include playwrights Doug Wright, a 2004 Tony and Pulitzer winner for “I Am My Own Wife”; Quiara Alegria Hudes, a two-time Pulitzer finalist for “Elliot, a Soldier’s Fugue” and “In the Heights,” the 2008 Tony-winning musical for which she wrote the book; and Danny Hoch, known for solo shows melding hip-hop with theater. Another theater fellowship went to Julie Archer, known for her work designing puppets, sets and lighting for the New York City company Mabou Mines, including her co-creator credit for the J.M. Barrie-inspired “Peter and Wendy.”

Among the winning film directors are New Yorkers Ramin Bahrani, known for exploring the immigrant experience in features “Goodbye Solo,” “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” and Cherien Dabis (pictured, right), whose acclaimed 2009 debut feature, “Amreeka,” explored the challenges of Arab American identity.

Boise, Idaho, choreographer Trey McIntyre was among six winners in dance, and bluegrass dobro player Rob Ickes (Franklin, Tenn.), was one of four winners in music. Creators of baskets, beadwork, furniture and ceramics won in the crafts and traditional arts category.

Also, United States Artists said that after beginning a pilot program in May it is launching USA Projects, the first online “microphilanthropy” initiative devoted solely to artists living in the United States. Applicants who want to billboard their projects for would-be donors must previously have won honors or grants from at least one of 46 organizations identified as credential-establishing groups, with more to be added. Expert panels appointed by United States Artists decide which projects get posted. If a posted project doesn’t meet its fundraising goal by a preset deadline, the pledges are not collected and the artist gets nothing.

Among the current projects is “Same Difference,” a collaborative filmmaking effort by two L.A. artists, photographer Catherine Opie and director Lisa Udelson. They’re seeking at least $15,000 by Feb. 3 to finish their piece about same-sex parents and their children. Half the money had been pledged as of Monday.

-- Mike Boehm



Recipients of United States Artists grants can get creative with spending them

A Pulitzer juror speaks out against drama prize

Playwright Rajiv Joseph takes on Iraq, existentialism and one big cat

Director Cherien Dabis straddles two worlds

The sacred and the mundane (architect Greg Lynn)