United States Artists CEO Deana Haggag wages war against proposed NEA funding cuts

In January, Baltimore learned that it was losing one of its most successful arts administrators with the news that Deana Haggag, executive director of The Contemporary – a nomadic Baltimore-based contemporary art museum – would be leaving to become the president and CEO of United States Artists (USA). She started the new position on April 3rd.

Since 2013 Haggag has been executive director of The Contemporary.  She helped relaunch the visual arts museum after an 18-month period of inactivity with stunning exhibitions in underused spaces and speaker engagements that helped get dialogue rolling beyond the artist community, among other projects. Leading this small institution at the ripe old age of 26, Haggag was it’s only employee, at first. Her four-year tenure was marked by success in organizational growth, resource development and championing the creation of great art. Under her the museum’s staff grew to five employees and its budget increased more than 12.5 times from $40,000 to over $500,000. Moreover, The Contemporary commissioned four-award-winning large-scale art projects, including “Bubble Over Green” by Victoria Fu and  “Ghost Food” by Miriam Simun.

Haggag joins USA at an advantageous time. Best known for providing unrestricted grants to artists, the organization has nearly finished raising $20 million in operational funding. The endowment campaign was initiated with a 5-year, $10 million challenge grant from the Ford Foundation. Ford’s initial support has been matched by million-dollar grants from The Barr Foundation, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, as well as private pledges.

Even though this move means that Baltimore is losing a dynamic local arts leader the city will gain a trustworthy ally working at the national level – coming at the same time as Donald Trump’s proposed budget threatens to eliminate the the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Strong, articulate and dedicated national leadership is going to be needed in the battle forthcoming.

“It is no secret that artists—across discplines—are not well resourced and I am in awe of organizations like USA who have committed themselves to supporting the field in this way. Now more than ever, I find it incredibly necessary to do this work.” — Deana Haggag

Established in 2006 with $22 million, USA provides fellowships to artists working in architecture & design, crafts, dance, literature, media, music, theater & performance, traditional arts, and visual arts. The 46 USA fellows in the Class of 2016 were announced in November. They include artists Senga Nengudi, Jefferson Pinder, Winfred Rembert, Jacolby Satterwhite, Stanley Whitney, and author Claudia Rankine, among others. Recognizable names amongst a roster of past grantees include well-known visual artist Kara Walker, novelist Annie Proulx, and MOONLIGHT’s Oscar-winning writer/director Barry Jenkins, a 2012 media fellow.

But the organization’s real strength lies in its ability to award individuals who use traditional methods and unexpected approaches to speak to a vast range of experience.

In addition to her leadership roles, Deana Haggag lectures extensively, consults on various art initiatives, contributes to cultural publications, and has taught at institutions such as Towson University and Johns Hopkins University. She is on the Advisory Board of Recess and Council of Common Field, and has served as a member of the Affiliates Board for the Museums and Society Program at Johns Hopkins University and StageOne/FANS council at the Baltimore School for the Arts. She received her MFA in Curatorial Practice from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA from Rutgers University in Art History and Philosophy. Finally, Haggag is a Muslim of Afro-Arab descent.

In a public statement Haggag said: “USA’s mission is more important now than ever,…USA Fellows embody the creativity, passion, diversity, and talent of this country, and the incredible heights American artists are capable of. It will be a privilege to support them in their future efforts, and to celebrate what they’ve already accomplished.”