Grant winners Mindy Rose Schwartz, Bernard Williams, and Jack Zimmerman
From left: Mindy Rose Schwartz, Bernard Williams, and Jack Zimmerman

Two Chicago-based sculptors— Mindy Rose Schwartz and Bernard Williams—and writer Jack Zimmerman have received the 7th annual Achievement Award from The Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Charitable Foundation for the Arts. Each cash award is a “no strings” gift of $33,333.33 (that’s $25,000 plus 33 percent for the income tax.) The foundation recognizes mid-career arts professionals who are making significant contributions to Chicago’s creative community. They define “mid-career” as having worked in the arts for at least twenty years.

“The award was a huge surprise,” says Schwartz. The recipients did not have to apply for the unrestricted grant, nor were they necessarily aware that they were nominated for the prize by an anonymous artworld peer. In fact, Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier, who head their foundation, made studio visits and presented the checks the same day. The gift is a show of the Meiers’ “unconditional love” for artists, says Schwartz, who plans to use the money to attend an artists’ residency. “It has been really hard to have a concentrated amount of time to just make work, with how busy my jobs are keeping me,” she says. “I also could really use a good set of cordless power tools.”

For Williams, the money couldn’t have come at a better time. “The last couple years have been stressful financially,” he says. The grant is a “serious shot in the arm, like a steroid injection.” But the prize isn’t a relief grant; awardees are selected based on artistic criteria only. “My career needs to grow,” says Williams. Although represented by a major West Loop gallery and a mainstay on the local art scene, he notes that it’s very difficult to make a living from one’s art career. 

The grant “highlights the struggle of artists in general,” says Williams. He’s grateful for the “godsend” of cash, but recommends that Chicago’s wealthy arts philanthropists pay more attention to the artists in their city. “Smaller support on a more regular basis would be ideal,” he says, “but any support is welcome.”

Wesley Kimler, a painter who received the Meier prize last year, asks, “Why is it left to these two people to do something like this for artists in the city?” Kimler mentioned some wealthy museum board members, whose funds are filtered through museum curators’ discretion, as a contrast to the good faith of the Meiers. Indeed, the opportunities for unrestricted cash prizes are rare for Chicago artists. In 2008, the Driehaus Foundation ended its six-year run of annually awarding $10,000 to $15,000 in unrestricted gifts to three individual Chicago-based visual artists, also selected through a nomination process. The Driehaus Foundation has redirected its funding to arts organizations, hoping that artists receive institutional trickle down of benefits.

The news of the Meier Foundation prize came on the same day as the 30th anniversary celebration for the Illinois Arts Alliance, headed by Ra Joy. Held at the Museum of Contemporary Art, the party was attended by directors and presidents of Chicago’s major museums, theatres, performing arts centers, and art schools, among others. Governor Pat Quinn gave an inspiring toast in support of the IAA and for the “cultural economy” in general. In addition to the IAA, the 3Arts agency, a nonprofit organization, offers annual $15,000 unrestricted prizes to Chicago-based artists who are also teachers.

When Kimler received the Meier Foundation award last year, it was right after he was faced with large medical bills. The Meiers “had no idea I was having a difficult time,” he says, but their gift “really saved me.” Schwartz was also humbled. She says, “I feel lucky to have been selected from the many hardworking and talented artists who are part of the Chicago arts community.” Williams says that the money was like “mana from heaven.” The Meiers make it rain.


Photographs: Courtesy of Mindy Rose Schwartz, Bernard Williams, and Jack Zimmerman