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Networks of Support: Carolina Jayaram, from Chicago Artists Coalition to United States Artists
by Troy pieper

Modern patronage takes many forms. Gone are the days of direct patronage: a wealthy patron giving funds, housing or access directly to an artist. Instead, artists must rely on networks of support. Grants, residencies, galleries, foundations, nonprofits: these organizations comprise the contemporary conduits of patronage. Arts executive and organizer Carolina Jayaram recently left one such organization for another and speaking with her, we saw what it takes to run the networks that support artists in today's varied and dynamic cultural and economic landscape.

When Carolina Jayaram took the reins of the Chicago Artists Coalition (CAC), it offered little in the way of programming and was run out of a small space in Wi­cker Park. Only three years later, the nonprofit boasts career development services for artists, artist studios, a curatorial residency and a sizeable new home with a gallery, all within an 8,000-square-foot building in the West Loop, Chicago's main gallery district. But even with these programs in their infancy, the industrious Jayaram feels it is time for her to move on. She recently left her position as Executive Director of the CAC to become the President and CEO of United States Artists (USA), a national nonprofit that awards grants to mid-career artists.

Carolina Garcia Jayaram; Photo by Jacob Boll.


Jayaram prefers to think of artists as professionals working in the “the creative industry,” she says, and she would like to work to help artists take larger ownership of the corporate sector, as well as the municipal and government sectors. It is part of the reason she has moved to United States Artists, whose mission is to provide artists with resources they need to fulfill what they define as success. Jayaram’s hope is to develop education and other programming that will help lay people value the work of artists more, thus raising artists’ standards of living.

In a 2003 study by the Urban Institute, ninety-six percent of respondents were “greatly inspired and moved by various kinds of art,” but only twenty-seven percent said artists contribute "a lot to the good of society.” “That’s a major disconnect!” Jayaram says, “Americans don’t understand how to value artists.” The Urban Institute’s study concluded that one reason for this may be that individual artists are invisible to society because they are absent from studies of the arts’ impact on the economy.

“USA hasn’t historically done that kind of advocacy, but I think that’s part of why they’re looking to evolve with me,” she said. Her first goal is to help USA’s seven years’ worth of commercially successful alumni artists have an impact on their own communities. “I think a lot of artists would like to be involved in their communities, if they were given the tools to do it,” she says, “like Rick Lowe in Houston and Theaster Gates here. He’s sort of the prodigal son of Rick Lowe.”

Jayaram believes that when we look at a piece of art or hear a piece of music, we are really relating to a primal need within us to create. “In certain communities, that’s easier to celebrate than in others.”

The Florida native did her undergraduate degree at The New School where she studied poetry and creative writing. She then took a job managing programs for PEN Center USA, a nonprofit that works to advance literature. After several years, Jayaram knew she had discovered where her creative abilities lie. She had always thought of herself as a very creative person but no longer as someone “who could really make a living writing. I instead used that creative engine to build business instead of building, you know, a novel.”

Jayaram was tired of not being able to fully express that creativity; she wanted to run her own nonprofit. She moved back to Miami to pursue a law degree, coincidently during the inaugural year of Art Basel Miami Beach, and her artist friends in Miami were getting a lot of attention and business. “They weren’t prepared for that. Miami wasn’t prepared for that.”

Wanting to provide Miami artists with educational programs and legal services, she founded the nonprofit LegalArt as an independent study project. The organization recently celebrated its tenth year, but Jayaram left when she met her husband, a Chicago native who dragged her, “kicking and screaming,” from Miami. Her first Chicago gig was working for Arts Alliance Illinois, but what she really wanted was to lead an organization. A year later the CAC was looking for a new director.                                                                       

One of the first projects Jayaram tackled was taking Chicago Artists Resource (CAR) under CAC’s wing. CAR is an online aggregate of resources for the artist including information on jobs, insurance and business. At one time it was a project of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Programs, but it had “started to stall a bit,” says Jayaram. The CAC relaunched what is now a very healthy site in February last year.

Jayaram then spearheaded the development of HATCH, a juried incubator for twenty-four contemporary Chicago artists who spend a year working with a curator. She developed a program called BOLT to provide artists with studio space in the basement of CAC’s building and access to the CAC’s educational programs. The artists also receive studio visits from art world professionals. Each artist receives twenty to twenty-five critiques from scholars, writers and most importantly, curators.

BOLT Residency studio visit with artist Laura Davis and MCA Chicago's Julie Rodrigues Widholm


Judging the success of these programs is tricky, she says, because measurements are very different for each artist; “You have to do things you think will be generally effective then give yourself room to be specifically impactful.” Each year’s cohort of artists requires different services and support, which is how the programs evolve. Still, even as young as these initiatives are, there have been tangible outcomes. Jayaram cites BOLT artists who have had solo shows at other galleries or received coverage in major media outlets, and each year two BOLT artists are chosen to have a booth at EXPO Chicago.

There is much anecdotal evidence as well; “Artists are always telling us how important these programs have been to them, the contacts they’ve made, the networks they’ve built,” says Jayaram. She has also seen CAC programs lead to fruitful collaborations between artists who are otherwise isolated in their studios.

The CAC entered the commercial world in 2013 with its first art fair, EDITION Chicago and with Special Projects, which works with corporations to commission local artists to install work, some of which is permanent. This is an instance where artists get a commission as well as “incredible exposure to a huge population of tech innovators and major investors,” Jayaram says. Special Projects’ benefactors have included the likes of Motorola and communications agency Zeno Group.

Leaving the CAC is bittersweet for Jayaram. “Every program here has come about under my direction. When I took this job, it was a job nobody wanted,” she says, but now the organization is fiscally healthy and stable and has a strong board of directors headed by Board Chair Tony Karman who is also president of EXPO Chicago. Jayaram was not looking for a new role, she says, but USA approached her to discuss a partnership, which quickly transformed into her taking on the position as director. She acknowledges that taking on a new project and building it up is where her real strength lies; “It’s a good time to change hands, a good time to freshen it up.”


Troy Pieper


(Image on top: EDITION Chicago 2013 art fair at CAC's gallery; Photo by Claire Demos)


Posted by Troy pieper on 3/14/14 | tags: networks grants non-profit professional patron collector's catalogue

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