Art Will Save Us, but Only If We Support Our Artists

Reflecting on: What are grantees asking for? How can funders listen and respond accordingly?

I have cried more in the last few weeks than I have in my entire life. My grief began the day Washington State Governor Jay Inslee banned large events in Seattle-area counties, effectively closing all cultural institutions, performance venues, and arts spaces. It was one of the State’s first steps in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Soon, a stay-at-home order would be issued, shuttering all non-essential businesses across Washington.

The day the Governor banned large events, my organization, Artist Trust — a nonprofit serving individual artists of all disciplines in WA — launched a survey to gain an understanding of how artists were being impacted by COVID-19. Within the first few hours, we’d received more than 300 responses; it would close with over 1,000. Later that night, after my wife and kids went to sleep, I stayed up reading through them.

In my role as program director at Artist Trust, it is my job to understand the needs of artists and create responsive programs to support the business side of their practice. Normally, this means offering workshops on changes to tax law or making improvements to our grantmaking programs to ensure they’re more accessible and equitable. In reading the survey responses, I learned very quickly that we were no longer living in a normal world.

Artists needed our help, and they needed it now. They had lost their jobs, gigs, and contracts. Every performance, show, and event had been canceled. Their livelihoods were gone, and most had absolutely no safety net. They were afraid, angry, and alone. They wondered how they’d survive, if they’d be able to pay their rent or mortgage next month, if they’d be able to feed themselves and their families. They were worried about their compromised immune systems and mental health. Some were sure they had the virus, but couldn’t get tested no matter how hard they tried.

All of these artists were suffering, and the kind of help they needed was beyond our organization’s programming. In between my tears, I got to work.

Days after sending out the survey, our team at Artist Trust pivoted the entire organization, pressing pause on business as usual to focus on COVID-19 response and recovery for artists. This required us to re-imagine our 34-year old organization; how could we give grants for artistic excellence when artists couldn’t even afford to live?

Our response began with the COVID-19 Artist Trust Relief Fund, providing rapid response relief for Washington State artists impacted by the pandemic. We seeded the fund with $50,000, matched by the City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, and have since grown it to more than $600K, largely from individual donors.

Our next step was to gather COVID-19 resources and create a Facebook group for artists to connect and support each other through this crisis. Both the survey and Facebook group have informed our understanding of artists’ needs besides immediate relief, like help applying for unemployment and information on renters’ rights and mortgage aid.

From the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been in close contact with existing grantors and donors to keep them updated about our work. We’ve participated in ongoing conversations with local, regional, and national partners to support and learn from each other, and started conversations that led to new partnerships with businesses and foundations we may not have worked with, in a normal world.

Through the whole process, we’ve had to think outside the box. The work we’ve done in the last few weeks would normally take months of planning and relationship building — but we don’t have time for that. We have to make the best decisions we can with the information we have, knowing it could change at any moment, all while we’re in professional and personal crises and deep states of grief.

We have no idea when the pandemic will end. In Washington State, we’ve been ordered to stay home until at least May 4. Once we’re able to leave our homes for more than essentials, I don’t know what our world will look like — but I believe artists are going to be the ones who lead our recovery. Their work will help us grieve and cope. Their events, performances, and shows will be the reason we come together again as a community.

If artists are going to bring us back, we need to be there for them now to make sure they survive.