Carolina García Jayaram addresses the inaugural USA Artists Assembly. Credit: Onasis Stoby

Chicago, longtime home of the MacArthur Foundation and its famous “genius” grants, is now also the headquarters of the United States Artists Fellows awards, which were celebrated at a festive three-day event last week at the Lake Shore Drive W hotel.

You’re familiar with the United States Artists Fellows, right?

If what comes to mind is that gala televised concert that happens every year at the Kennedy Center, you’re on the wrong track. Those are the Kennedy Center Honors.

They’re also not those shiny pendants bestowed by the president and sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s the National Medal of Arts.

And if you’re thinking maybe a State Department traveling fellowship, it’s understandable, but also wrong. In spite of the generic and official-sounding moniker, United States Artists has nothing to do with the government.

It’s a nine-year-old nonprofit organization that’s been handing out nice fat prizes of $50,000 each to 50 American artists every year.

Which makes it, after the MacArthurs, one of the biggest players in the increasingly crowded cultural prize-giving game.

USA, as it’s known (is there a branding doctor in the house?), was launched in the prerecession happy days by four major funders—the Ford, Rockefeller, Prudential, and Rasmuson Foundations. Together they donated $22 million in seed money for a new organization with a double mission: to “invest in America’s finest artists and illuminate the value of artists to society.”

As with the MacArthur Fellows Program, the intention was to set the chosen artists free to do what they do best. No strings attached, no specific project to complete.

US Artists was headquartered in Los Angeles, where from 2006 to 2012 it went about the business of playing Santa to scores of artists across a broad range of genres every year. But in 2013, after the departure of its original CEO and what public tax documents show as several years in which expenses seriously outpaced income, the program came to a halt. USA Projects, a crowd-funding start-up USA had founded, was handed off to another nonprofit, and no awards were made that year.

In January 2014, Carolina García Jayaram, then executive director of the Chicago Artists Coalition, was named US Artists’ new CEO. The organization’s relocation to a Michigan Avenue office quickly followed. And last year the awards resumed, though with the number of fellowships reduced to 32.

Like the MacArthur Fellows Program, US Artists’ original procedure was to hand the awardees a check and cut them loose. That’s changing too. With nearly 400 “alumni” grantees out there, US Artists has created an alumni advisory council and turned its annual awards program, held in a different city every year, into a three-day gathering that includes previous winners from the region. The idea is to create connections and, perhaps, collaborations, says Jayamar.

So this year about 15 alumni from the midwest joined the 2014 fellows and board members for the first annual USA Artists Assembly. The schedule included events at the Poetry Foundation, Hubbard Street Dance, and Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects, along with a day of artists’ presentations and panel discussions.

Among the 2014 winners are author and Northwestern University professor Chris Abani, Hubbard Street Dance choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo, photographer and SAIC professor LaToya Ruby Frazier, and former Chicago journalist and Reader writer Achy Obejas.

Here’s how it works: About 300 anonymous nominators across the country come up with candidates, who are then invited to apply. Panels of experts, convened for each of nine genres, review the applications, selecting winners and alternates. They look for commitment, innovation, and a unique artistic vision, along with U.S. residency. Final approvals and decisions are made by the board, with winners announced in the fall. Diversity is a consideration for the group as a whole.

The grants are meant to further “artistic development,” but they’re definitely not limited to the struggling talent yet to be discovered. Northwestern University professor Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, for example, had already won a MacArthur fellowship when he was named a US Artists fellow in 2011.

Is there something odd about that? Not really, says University of Pennsylvania professor James English, who studied cultural prizes for his authoritative book on their history and proliferation, The Economy of Prestige.

“To be of value to winners, the prize itself has to be prestigious,” English said by phone this week. “And the way to build prestige for the prize is to have recognized artists on the roster.”

Which might be why Annie Proulx was a winner in 2012, long after she’d picked up a Pulitzer and a National Book Award and her Brokeback Mountain had been made into an Academy Award-winning film.

If US Artists thrives here, English says, in addition to whatever it does for artists, “it’ll raise Chicago’s status in the arts world.”  v

Corrections: This article has been amended to correctly identify one of the contributors to US Artists. It is the Rasmuson Foundation, not the Rasmussen Foundation. In addition, James English is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, not Pennsylvania University.