Americans for the Arts announced today three extraordinary artists as recipients of the 2021 Johnson Fellowship for Artists Transforming Communities: Rosten Woo of Los Angeles for his work in public art and design, Laurie Woolery of New York for her work in theater, and Eddy Kwon of Brooklyn and Cincinnati for their work in music. With unprecedented circumstances created by the pandemic and the challenges facing artists, Americans for the Arts is spreading the Fellowship award to benefit three artists this year, honoring the top finalists for the 2018 (public art), 2019 (theater), and 2020 (music) Johnson Fellowship. Each artist is recognized with a $20,000 award.
Woo is a designer, writer, and educator living in Los Angeles. He produces artworks that respond to civic concerns, which emerge from long-term collaborations between grassroots organizations, cultural and community nonprofits, and local governments. His projects aim to help people understand complex systems, orient themselves to places, and make group decisions. Since 2010, Woo has centered his community work largely in Los Angeles, producing temporary and permanent installations that illuminate complicated histories and present-day issues in the physical and socioeconomic environment. In 2019, Woo completed “Mutual Air,” a commission for the Exploratorium in San Francisco created in collaboration with the environmental justice group, West Oakland Environmental Indicators. It used a network of chimes to give an audible physical presence to the changing air and climate quality of the East Bay and was designed to illuminate patterns of air quality disparity in the region. In March 2020, Woo, along with Anna Kobara and the Los Angeles Poverty Department’s Skid Row Museum and Archive, realized the exhibition “How to House 7,000 People on Skid Row.” The exhibition creatively visualized the $35 billion required for 7,000 housing units for people houseless in Skid Row, as well as the public policies, both in place and needed, that could create the funding to do it.
Woolery is a director, playwright, and citizen artist who works in theaters across the country. In her long trajectory of community-engaged theater, Woolery has developed new work with diverse communities ranging from incarcerated women to residents of a Kansas town devastated by a tornado. She creates site-specific work that has ranged from a working sawmill in Eureka, California, to the banks of the Los Angeles River. Woolery is the Director of Public Works at The Public Theater, a program that seeks to engage the people of New York by making them creators and not just spectators. Working with partner organizations in all five boroughs, Public Works invites members of diverse communities to join in the creation of ambitious works of participatory theater. In 2020, she produced the documentary, “Under the Greenwood Tree,” that tells the story of how the Public Works community banded together amidst the global pandemic and antiracist uprising. She also curated “The Seed Project,” a national community public art installation on the facade of The Public Theater that featured 164 Public Works community members sharing their hopes for the future.
Kwon is an interdisciplinary artist, educator, and fundraiser based in Brooklyn and previously in Cincinnati. They are the Director of Individual Giving at International Contemporary Ensemble, a multidimensional organization that is committed to cultivating a more curious, engaged, and equitable society through music. Until 2020, Kwon served as Artistic Director of Price Hill Will (PHW), a nonprofit community development corporation serving the diverse neighborhood of Price Hill, Cincinnati. As Artistic Director, they were instrumental in integrating the arts and creative engagement into the organization’s strategy for inclusive, equitable development, overseeing PHW’s signature arts programs: MYCincinnati, a tuition-free, daily youth orchestra program engaging 120 Price Hill youth, and the Price Hill Creative Community Festival, a free, annual, arts and neighborhood festival that uses collaborative arts to build more creative and connected communities. Kwon innovated with the design of the Creative Action Residency, an immersive year-long neighborhood residency by an artist with a goal of transforming oppressive systems through collaborative action. Kwon also developed the Price Hill Curatorial Collective which engages local, national, and international performing artists and supports the next generation of curators and presenters. These programs, which continue to thrive, are active at the intersection of creative youth development, community engagement, and equitable neighborhood development, and present an impactful model for how community development organizations can use the arts as a means and end for advancing equity.
Brigadier General Nolen Bivens, Interim President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, commented, “In these three incredible artists, there is a driving value that acknowledges and supports community knowledge and creativity, particularly among people whose voices society hasn’t heard or has relegated to the margins. Whether the focus is community building and empowerment, equitable community development, or building awareness about environmental or housing issues, these artists truly are contributing in powerful ways to make positive change in lives, places, and even systems. With boundless energy, creativity, and dedication, Rosten Woo, Laurie Woolery, and Eddy Kwon have made a positive and meaningful difference to inspire, inform, engage, challenge, animate, and celebrate communities through arts and culture. I congratulate them for this well-deserved recognition and look forward to seeing their work throughout this year.”
Details about the honorees can be viewed on the Johnson Fellowship page. In each of the past three years, discipline-specific nominators, including artists and representatives of arts service organizations and local arts agencies, each nominated an extraordinary artist in that discipline to arrive at a pool of 10 to 12 artist nominees. Nominators were asked to look regionally and nationally, as well as in their own community. A separate discipline-specific selection panel, including outside professionals and Americans for the Arts staff and board members, reviewed the nominated artists and selected two finalists. Following finalists’ individual visits to Americans for the Arts for exchanges with staff about their respective work, the selection panel made the final choice, considering written input from staff.
The Johnson Fellowship celebrates the legacy and work of the late Robert Leroy “Yankee” Johnson, who served as the first executive director of the King County Arts Commission. An accomplished musician and writer in his private life, Yankee and his late wife, Laurel Lee Johnson, both believed that artists, when given the opportunity, can create real paths for change. The fellowship is supported by the generosity of the Laurel and Yankee Johnson Trust.
Americans for the Arts is the leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education in America. With offices in Washington, D.C. and New York City, it has a record of more than 60 years of service. Americans for the Arts is dedicated to representing and serving local communities and creating opportunities for every American to participate in and appreciate all forms of the arts. Additional information is available at www.AmericansForTheArts.org.