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Why COVID-19 Is an Unprecedented Opportunity to Radically Rethink Arts Funding

Mike Henderson, Me and the Band, c. 1968. Courtesy of the artist and Artadia. Mike Henderson was a 2019 Artadia Awardee.

Mike Henderson, Me and the Band, c. 1968. Courtesy of the artist and Artadia. Mike Henderson was a 2019 Artadia Awardee.

The events of the last four months feel utterly unprecedented, but for artists, and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) artists in particular, the results have been predictably disastrous. COVID-19’s devastating effect on the already precarious financial state of so many reflects a long history of devaluing and underfunding our creative economy. While the New Deal of the 1930s saw the government take a large and active role in supporting the arts during the economic fallout of World War II, in the decades that followed, that support was gradually worn away. Its erosion culminated during the culture wars, when, in 1994, the conservative crusade against marginalized voices successfully pushed the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to stop funding individual artists.
Though this decision was unfortunate, it gave rise to a new generation of arts funders—organizations designed to be nimble and responsive in addressing the needs of the country’s artists. Artadia was founded as a direct result of the NEA decision. It became clear that community-sourced private funding was necessary to support artists and to elevate their essential role in our society. We started off in San Francisco, and soon expanded into other communities around the country: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York.
Beatriz Cortez and Rafa Esparza, installation view of Nomad 13 at Craft Contemporary, 2019. Photo: Gina Clyne. Courtesy of the artists and Artadia. Beatriz Cortez was a 2020 Artadia Awardee.

Beatriz Cortez and Rafa Esparza, installation view of Nomad 13 at Craft Contemporary, 2019. Photo: Gina Clyne. Courtesy of the artists and Artadia. Beatriz Cortez was a 2020 Artadia Awardee.

We weren’t alone. Organizations such as Creative Capital (founded 1999) and United States Artists (founded 2006) were also established to fill the void. Realizing that the federal government could not be depended on to support grassroots initiatives, our organizations were intentionally grounded in local communities. We started with a small group of individuals who recognized the financial needs of artists beyond the income they receive from art sales, and the value of artists in their own lives and cities. By channeling from a diverse range of institutions, foundations, individuals, members, and local corporations (which includes, with a bit of irony, the NEA), we’ve been able to provide artists with millions of dollars over the past two and a half decades.
Fast forward to spring 2020. COVID-19 turned life upside down. Areas of society unused to budget cuts (professional sports, the oil industry) woke up in a new world. The arts, meanwhile, continue to hurt. It’s a paltry consolation that our history with financial precarity has helped prepare us to confront such a devastating turn.
Alexandra Bell, A Teenager With Promise (Annotated), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Artadia. Alexandra Bell was a 2020 Artadia Awardee.

Alexandra Bell, A Teenager With Promise (Annotated), 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Artadia. Alexandra Bell was a 2020 Artadia Awardee.

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In March, Artadia joined the Academy of American Poets, Creative Capital, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, MAP Fund, the National YoungArts Foundation, and United States Artists to form Artist Relief, a coalition of small to mid-sized national arts grantmakers tasked with providing immediate financial support to artists in need. We launched in April with $10 million—enough to provide $5,000 emergency relief grants to 100 artists per week through September.
In order to make an impact, we had to rely on our collective experience in the field. To begin with, we knew we had to work together. Gone are the days of monolithic support. The philanthropic field is diverse, dispersed, and interconnected. As such, funders must collaborate in order to move forward. These alliances should also include partnerships between for-profit and not-for-profit businesses. They have the same stakeholders; why not bring them to the table?
Amir H. Fallah, Scales Of Justice, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Artadia. Amir H. Fallah was a 2020 Artadia Awardee.

Amir H. Fallah, Scales Of Justice, 2019. Courtesy of the artist and Artadia. Amir H. Fallah was a 2020 Artadia Awardee.

There are several reasons for broad coalition-building, beyond the symbolic force of standing together in the face of a common obstacle. Pragmatically speaking, there will be long-term competition for dollars on all levels so fundraising as a team is more successful. Working together also allows for centralized messaging, which helps in fundraising and thought leadership. Finally, it helps to keep low overheads.
We had to work fast. Artist Relief funding cycles are one month long, so artists will know shortly if they are funded or need to reapply. Money is disbursed within days.
As Artist Relief moves forward, we are making a point to listen to artists. This is why we partnered with Americans for the Arts to co-launch the COVID-19 Impact Study for Artists and Creative Workers. The results of this survey have helped the entire field better understand what we’re up against. A few takeaways: 62% of artists in America are now fully unemployed; artists have lost an estimated average of $27,103 in annual income; 80% have no path toward recovery. This year, artists and creative workers—including members of our most vulnerable and marginalized communities: the disabled, people of color, LGBTQ+—will lose around $50.6 billion. As the protests that have gripped the country in recent weeks make clear, inaction is itself a choice, and one that has consequences.
Angela Hennessy, Black Hole, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Artadia. Angela Hennessy was a 2019 Artadia Awardee.

Angela Hennessy, Black Hole, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Artadia. Angela Hennessy was a 2019 Artadia Awardee.

Artist Relief cannot solve this alone, but we can be a bridge for artists, and an example for other funders. As we evolve over the coming months, we will also be focused on advocacy—not only within the private and nonprofit sectors, but also when it comes to public policy. At the heart of this is the need to elevate the vital role artists occupy in society, so that we continue to advocate for their labor and needs. Moreover, we must specifically elevate BIPOC artists—those who have been systemically and categorically underrepresented, underfunded, and underrecognized both in the arts and in culture at large. The unifying vision of supporting individual artists is amplified and strengthened when we work together.
When the NEA made the decision to stop funding individual artists, the message was clear: Artists in this country were not essential; the arts were peripheral. Myself and my colleagues have spent our careers showing this sentiment to be woefully misguided. One need look no further than the closed museum doors, its unlit galleries, and silent concert halls to imagine a society without artists. Soon, with the help of all of us, this will be another challenge that artists have surmounted. Until then, the COVID-19 crisis is an unprecedented opportunity to radically rethink how we support our artists. Whether it’s through a donation to Artist Relief, spreading the word about grants and available resources, or advocating for artists in your community, together we can get to the other side.
Carolyn Ramo