The most attention-getting art prizes are those with the largest purses—the $625,000 MacArthur “genius” fellowships, for example, or the newly launched $1 million Nomura Art Award. So it came as a surprise when a new, highly specific $10,000 award launched by the small organization Queer|Art grabbed headlines far and wide in June.
The Illuminations Grant for Black Trans Women Visual Artists—launched by Queer|Art in collaboration with artists Aaryn Lang, Serena Jara, and Mariette Pathy Allen—tapped big names for its inaugural jury, including Thelma Golden (director of the Studio Museum in Harlem) and artists like Juliana Huxtable, Texas Isaiah, and Kiyan Williams. (Applications opened over the summer for a decision to be made in November, after ARTnews went to press.) News about grants is old hat in the art media, of course, but the focus of this particular grant on a group of artists often neglected by mainstream institutions caused a stir in general-interest publications like Jezebel and the Cut, as well as on social media far beyond the art world.
The New York–based Queer|Art has been a quiet force for the past decade, facilitating mentorship and grant-making programs that support LGBTQ+ artists at key points in their career. Despite having a full-time staff of just five, the organization’s ambitions are vast. “Our initiative is to connect and empower generations of LGBTQ+ artists,” said Travis Chamberlain, Queer|Art’s director. In so doing, Queer|Art is fostering the creation of new art history by artists of all kinds—photographers, filmmakers, dancers, painters—whom the mainstream has long ignored.
Xandra Ibarra, a performance artist who won a $10,000 Queer|Art|Prize in 2018, said of the organization, “rather than forcing artists to deal with the unethical art world on their own, they make it possible to have queer mentors, win awards, receive support for projects. They build relationships with radical thinkers and makers. They support all kinds of folks too, not just cool queer artists, with money. They support sex workers, unhoused black trans artists, working-class artists, and all us freaks who are minor in these major art worlds we are hardly a part of.”
Filmmaker Ira Sachs, whose movies have appeared at Sundance, Cannes, and other film festivals of note, founded Queer|Art in 2009, focusing on cinema early on. “Queer|Art|Film,” a screening series in which LGBTQ+ artists were invited to pick and discuss movies that influenced them, began in New York and developed a cult following. Gradually, the organization began branching out to include other art forms and, while it began hosting meetups for broader communities of artists, in 2016 the HBO television network signed on as a sponsor of the “Queer|Art|Film” series that went on to support the Queer|Art|Prize.
Since then, Queer|Art has expanded its award program to include several other prizes named after key figures. Shortly before she died, Barbara Hammer launched a prize for lesbian experimental filmmakers. Others include those associated with Eva Yaa Asantewaa and Robert Giard, which go to queer women(+) dance artists and emerging LGBTQ+ photographers, respectively.
But it is Queer|Art’s mentorship program that has proven an especially significant incubator. In 2020, seven years after mentoring with Geoffrey Chadsey, artist Troy Michie showed his dense photo collages in the Whitney Biennial. In 2018, six years after studying with Kimberly Reed, filmmakers Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel both had work in a Brooklyn Museum exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. And this year, almost a decade after he worked with Angela Dufresne, Jacolby Satterwhite was named an artist-in-residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem—where he himself will mentor younger artists coming up.
The mentorship program is important as an “exchange,” said photographer Lola Flash, who acted as a mentor to artist Felicita “Felli” Maynard in the 2019–20 cycle of the program. Pairing a younger artist with an older one, Flash said, sparks an intergenerational dialogue—and key elements of queer history are shared. “We all need a little bit more love,” Flash said, “and so it creates that.”