Abundance Instead Of Scarcity

The format is fairly standard: Take the subject matter, find an intelligent, visceral approach to connect your audience to that subject matter, followed by a structural framework delivered through a rigorous journalistic lens. Except it’s not that easy.

Deana Haggag turns power structures on their heads, shoots from the hip with a no-nonsense, down-to-earth approach for empowering artists, while demanding the keys to treasure chests be turned over to a democratized world of diversity and inclusion.

And this is why undertaking a standard journalistic endeavor writing about a 31-year-old force of nature in the global business of art must be deconstructed, abstracted and rearranged to take full advantage of her thoughtfulness, vision and passion. Most participants in our local arts community see the level of talent, see the potential, and yet can’t fully connect the dots to move our local artists to be participants in the global arts conversation. Haggag must be heard.

In a recent phone interview, Haggag shared a deeply insightful business sense and a vision of what a more generous world this one might look like if we operated from a vantage point of abundance.

When a request for advice to give to people historically and systematically marginalized by systems of power in the art world, her response went to the heart of the matter: “Respectfully, can I turn that question around? I really hate that question. I’d rather talk to people in positions of power rather than give advice to those who are oppressed, right? And I don’t care how you define power … I don’t care if that means racial power in terms of whiteness or economic power in terms of wealth or body power and considering people who are able-bodied. I’d much rather give advice to those people in power … which is, I think they should wake up and look around. I think they should ask every single day if there’s more they could be doing to help the world.

“Perhaps moving forward, I wonder if we should stop asking folks who are oppressed what they need? Because we all know too well what they need; we’ve always known what they need. I think it’s more [that] we should ask folks with privilege what they could provide. I see myself fully as somebody who sits in a kind of particular privilege and thinking about generosity in a really delicate way, a very nice way, to say, what the hell could I be doing to help other people, since so many people helped me?

“I think women and queer folks and folks of color know what to do. They’ve been doing it all along. I think it’s time for privileged people to wake up from the American Dream phenomenon and imagine ways to make actionable change moving forward and it’s not hard. It’s literally about sharing your resources and it’s about using abundance instead of scarcity to do so.

“We all know exactly what we need to be doing. I just don’t think we confront each other enough about it.”

Haggag is president and CEO of United States Artists, an organization that bestows $50,000 unrestricted fellowships-as many as 50 annually-in disciplines such as Architecture & Design, Crafts, Dance, Media, Music, Theater & Performance, Traditional Arts, Visual Art and Writing. Created in 2006, in response an Urban Institute 2003 study that revealed 96 percent of Americans valued art in their lives, but only 27 percent valued artists, USA has provided more than 500 artists a total of more than $22 million in unrestricted funds, to be used in any way they saw fit.

As part of the VyStar International Artist Lecture Series presented by Cultural Council of Greater Jacksonville in association with Long Roads Project, Haggag tours the city’s arts landscape and gives a presentation at The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens on Tuesday, June 12.

“We feel that bringing arts professionals, curators, gallerists and artists to Jacksonville is just as important as having exhibitions,” says Aaron Levi Garvey, Long Roads Project curator and co-founder. “Bringing Deana and people of her caliber to the region builds content from which the local community can draw context and inspiration. The lecture series creates much needed discourse between local and international art world members beyond me and Stevie [the other half of the founding team of LRP] and builds community beyond the city limits.”

Haggag went straight to the point when asked how artists can prepare for a career inside the art world’s infrastructure. “I think that if artists want to engage the system, they should be as versed as those systems and remember that all of these systems are groups of people making decisions, ushering certain artists into their careers. I think that it’s not for every artist, but the ones that want it very deeply, they should know more about who those people are. I’m in studios with artists all the time and struck by the number of artists who can’t name five art critics, who can’t name five curators they respect and admire, who can’t name 15 exhibitions in the past five years that they were really moved by.

“And, yes, making your work is the No. 1 most important thing in the world. But if you want to participate in that system, you should also prioritize learning from it, and I’m not saying it simply as a means of networking or just trying to get ahead. I think it’s an opportunity to learn. You can learn a lot from critics you respect, you can learn a lot from critics you admire. You can learn a lot from the institutions that are making the exhibitions and the decisions you’re in conversation with.”

The final aspect of the interview process that was worth ink was her approach to building a culture of kindness. Haggag says, “Gratitude and generosity have been super-important for me as a way to understand my own professional success, my career, my practice. There’s plenty of people who get ahead and build quite excellent careers while being helpful and generous. We’re in a country that is really struggling to articulate who we are, who we’re for and how we work.

“When people help you, you should thank them. That if there’s an opportunity to take people with us, we should. Things like generosity and loyalty are important; if I’m offered a seat at the table, I want to take as many folks with me as I can. I don’t want to hoard the goodwill or the success. I think that there’s no way I would have the career I have right now if it weren’t for quite literally two dozen mentors who invested in me and made it possible for me to get to where I am because they were generous, and so a part of me thinks how I’m preparing anyone for that position in my life.

“I don’t think I’m lacking anything. I think I have more than I need, and I wonder if I practiced that logic every day, who are folks to share that with. In the immediate, that’s artists. How do we share the resources at USA? But as somebody in a leadership position, who are we hiring and how do we think about who we hire? What are ways to introduce people to one another that might actually chart new pathways moving forward? Or more access points we can provide to young administrators, curators, artists or practitioners?

“A lot of that could be alleviated if people were more generous with one another and more willing to share and to think about abundance instead of scarcity.”