Deana Haggag was a 28-year-old rising art-world star when she received the devastating news: she had bone cancer. Now 31, Haggag is in remission, and her experience with the disease has made her more mindful and passionate about her work as the president and CEO of United States Artists. Based in Chicago, the arts funding organization offers 50 $50,000 fellowships to artists around the country every year. (The 2019 list was just announced last week.)
Haggag grew up in New Jersey and went to Rutgers University, where she was pre-med until a few art history classes changed her mind — they offered her a chance to connect with others in a way that medicine didn’t. After graduating with degrees in art history and philosophy, Haggag went on to a few fellowships before landing a gig running The Contemporary Museum in Baltimore. After four years there, she moved on to her current role.
The Cut caught up with Haggag on a recent business trip to New York to talk about life after cancer, the joy she finds in her clothes, and her passionately held belief in the power of art.
On why she prefers flats:
In 2015, I underwent limb salvage surgery on my right leg due to bone cancer. Essentially, the procedure reconstructs your limb by using an internal metal prosthetic instead of a full amputation. So, in every sense, I have to be careful with my footwear — my shoes have to keep me safe. That means I can’t wear heels or anything else that feels too destabilizing. Every once in a while, I can pull off a short wedge if I’m feeling strong enough, but I keep a cane close. On proper days, I’ll don a loafer. Otherwise, I’m mostly in sneakers. I have always loved them, but now we’re borderline monogamous and very happily so.
On how cancer changed her life:
When I was diagnosed I felt deflated and overwhelmed. It seemed like there was no way I could manage cancer, emotionally, physically, or financially. I love working and before I was sick, I would do anything for my job. I didn’t have great boundaries and I sacrificed a lot to keep the work going. It wasn’t healthy.
I operate differently now. It’s not that I try or care less — I actually feel more urgency now than I did before I was sick. I work smarter and move through stress with more ease. I definitely feel a spaciousness I didn’t have before. I treat time more mindfully. I fight harder for what I want. I let go easier. I won’t let a job kill me.
On what she wears to big meetings:
It totally depends on my mood and what I’m trying to accomplish so my clothes have ranged from dresses to tracksuits — nothing is off limits. Lately though, I’ve been feeling really strong and confident in Rachel Comey’s suiting and Wales Bonner prints. Those artists make me feel like I can do anything.
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On going out after work:
I often have evening plans so I’ve learned to plan accordingly. With rare exception, I always dress for my whole day. I love a bold patterned suit for when I have to go from day to night in a millisecond — they’re so useful! I’ve found that they’re comfortable enough for the office but also easy to dress up with some eyeliner and earrings. I love that I can wear them as intended or mix-and-match their patterns when I’m feeling a little frisky.
On her Monday outfits:
It’s usually a travel or office day for me. As much as it can be avoided, I don’t take any meetings so I can get a mindful start to my week. If I’m traveling, I’m usually in a jumpsuit. Lately, I’ve been oscillating between ones by Isabel Marant, Reebok x Pyer Moss, Wildfang’s workwear coveralls, some Selfi pieces, and this hand-dyed vintage jumpsuit I found at a consignment shop in Philadelphia. If I’m in Chicago and will be at my office all day, I’m usually in a big sweater and tapered pants — cozy but ready to take on the week.
On an average day:
I wake up every single morning and handwrite a to-do list for the day. I use a million productivity apps but nothing keeps me focused like that written list. As for the day itself, I spend much of it in communication with others. Everything at United States Artists happens at the intersection of lots of different folks: our artists, donors, partners, board, and team. I make sure everyone is on the same page and has what they need. Sometimes, that looks like endlessly catching up on email and other times it’s back-to-back meetings with funders. My favorite days are the ones I get to spend in the office with my colleagues making things. I love when we’re deep in production mode finalizing a campaign or planning a convening. It reminds me how lucky I am to work with all their imaginations and prowess.
On who she dresses for:
My mother and aunties! I grew up in the kind of big Egyptian family where the women held court at every function and the looks never, ever disappointed. Every single one of them is a big personality with a closet to match. My ego lives and dies by their fashion reviews.
On her style evolution:
I feel like I wear everything differently — I’m so much more generous with myself now than I was when I was first getting started. I feel equal parts more confident, resilient, and humbled. I know what I bring to the table in the same way that I know exactly how I want to improve. I’m aware that I can be both tender and motivated and that those things don’t need to be in opposition. It’s made styling myself feel so much more spacious and freeing. That said, I want to people to feel like I’m their best friend — someone funny that you want to get a drink with and dish.
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On what gives her joy at work:
I really believe in artists. Societies are only as strong as the stories we leave behind and that innovation isn’t possible without imagination. The moral infrastructure of this country is doomed unless we let culture lead. In every sense, artists are on the front lines of those issues. And they give us so much! We wear their clothes, listen to their music, read their books, watch their films, and study their paintings. We tweet their quotes, post their art, and cite their ideas in our conversations. We spend our whole lives soaking up their work to figure out who we are and how to express ourselves. It’s how we self-actualize.
So it’s shameful how little we do to protect them when they give us so damn much. I feel a tremendous amount of joy that organizations like ours even exist, because it’s not easy to advocate for artists in this country. It fills my heart to bursting to do this work because the whole gig is about fierce advocacy and public will-building and I am 100 percent here and ready for it.
Deana wears a Rachel Comey suit and Gucci sneakers.
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