Relief Funding in Real Time

From Esther Grimm and Meg Leary

Responding to: How can funders balance support for people or/and institutions knowing the impact of coronavirus pandemic has unequal impact across the arts ecosystem?

We are just two of the many partners involved in the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund (AIRF) effort that set sail in March. What follows is a glimpse into this work-in-progress from our vantage points at 3Arts and the Walder Foundation, along with some of our shared observations.

The nature of emergency funding is that it evolves from moment to moment, as designing processes to address new information takes place almost at the same time as the grantmaking itself. That means that we are learning something new, on a daily basis, about our entrenched philanthropic practices, the prevailing values of our field, and ourselves. We share here just some of the thoughts that are rising up for both of us right now.

The Arts for Illinois Relief Fund emerged through a collaboration between the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, private philanthropies, and individual donors and is designed to support the full spectrum of the Illinois arts community during the COVID-19 crisis. Last month, at the onset of our stay-at-home order, a group of funders came together to imagine a collective effort to provide statewide relief grants—not just for artists or arts organizations, but for both. The fundamental idea behind this approach was that one branch of the sector is linked so closely to the other that the whole is only viable when the halves are as well. By late March, the core implementing partners had been identified: 3Arts would develop and manage the grants program for individual artists; Arts Work Fund would develop and manage the organizational grants program; and Arts Alliance Illinois would anchor the whole endeavor through project management and fundraising.

With so many entities involved – each with their own missions and firmly rooted practices, requirements, and priorities – getting to the starting gate of opening the online application portals was a spirited ride. From the beginning, though, it was understood that saying “no” was not an option. Without skimming over the tough spots that required by-the-seat-of-our-pants invention, along with deliberate negotiation and navigation, there was the brilliant fact that no one said, “this can’t be done.” We are a motley crew of nonprofits, massive and modest foundations alike, major donors, and grassroots contributors that joined together to send hope to the arts organizations and artists across our state to whom we owe so much for the million ways they have graced our lives. We cannot meet the immense need, and that’s the hardest, most regrettable part. However, in a matter of weeks, $3,359,000 will have been distributed to artists and arts organizations in our first round of emergency grantmaking.

Our observations about emergency funding are wide-ranging and run deep, but here are just a handful that rise to the top of our thinking at this moment. We share these with the hope that we can learn a few things from the expedited processes of relief funding that might lead to significant change in our habituated systems.

YES, AND. We are Chicagoans, so The Second City’s “Yes, And” improvisation prompt is ingrained in us. Our appreciation of that concept was as useful in the planning phase of AIRF as it is now in the implementation of our first cycle of grantmaking. We understood that no single entity could or should run a program of this magnitude alone. We welcomed any and all new partners to share the responsibility across many shoulders and add brain power that helped us co-create paths none of us had tread before. We also shared the emotional weight of being immersed in thousands and thousands of applications that have one thing in common—lost livelihoods, leading to the inability to pay rent, buy groceries, and support family members.

After 3Arts was invited to oversee the artist grant process, a legal team and the Board of Directors had to weigh in on whether breaching the parameters of the organization’s Chicago-focused, equity-based mission was possible in order to support artists in a wider spectrum of disciplines and geographies. Arts Work Fund also expanded to support organizations throughout Illinois. Early on, there was no question that 3Arts would say “yes, and,” although “how?” was still on the table.

When we diverted 3Arts to this effort, we had to invent a program of a far greater magnitude than we were used to in our small, relationship-oriented outfit. It has been revealing and healthy to expand our practice in that way. We believe that sticking only to what we as a field have accepted as “best practices” and reverting back to that default again and again is precisely why onerous and oppressive structures remain lodged in place. How about we aim for better practices—more human-centered, more all-for-one-and-one-for all, more exploratory of parts unknown? We imagine that would feel a bit like shaking off a big, wet, heavy overcoat after a long winter—and then chucking the monstrosity because it has become moldy, frayed, unbecoming, and utterly useless. We believe there is an opportunity beyond this crisis to learn how to collaborate across differences and despite structural obstacles.

NEED IS NEED. Notions of quality and judgement that are often instilled in grantmaking practices had to be dropped like a hot potato—only to be picked up again, stared at, dropped again, and fretted over (is it over-baked? Fried?). Instead, reviewers were asked to consider eligibility and need above all else. For some of us, operating outside of normative concepts of quality is a common practice embedded in our missions. For others, ranking applications based on quality is central to the selection process. We observed in this relief funding process that organizations and artists who have rarely, if ever, applied to traditional grant programs were in the mix in both application pools. The relief effort has brought them to our attention and pushed many in our consortium to think even further about who is included, and who is not, in our regular practices. We believe there is an opportunity beyond this crisis to consider how judgement (and whose judgment) is brought to bear in our work and how perpetuating standardized perceptions of quality might be discouraging artists and organizations from seeking support.

EQUITY. At the start of the relief effort, we agreed that the parameters for eligibility had to be as wide-ranging as possible within the arts arena. Virtually every kind of artist and any size organization would be eligible. As our conversations continued, we further agreed that we would operate within a frame of equity and not lose sight of the horizon in the throes of our swift-moving work. This was underscored during the brief planning period, as we were learning more and more about the disproportionate impact of the virus on communities of color. Following equitable practices, a complex lottery system was developed to randomize the nearly 8,000 (so far) round-one artist applications before they were sorted by funder restrictions for review. For the 532 organizational applicants, priority was given to those that are by, for, and about ALAANA,* LGBTIQA,+ and women, which were evaluated on the basis of immediate and most pressing need. As we write this, the first grants are going out to 906 artists, 70% of whom are artists of color and artists with disabilities. Nearly half of the first-round organizational grants also reflect this equity focus. We believe there is an opportunity beyond this crisis to center multivalent and intersectional equity for good. Full stop.

We could not possibly cover all of the details, including the many generous funders and individuals involved in this effort, in this short blog post. Please visit Arts for Illinois to learn more. And, please say “yes” to supporting the arts and artists wherever you are.

* ALAANA stands for African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, and Native Americans.
+ LGBTIQA is an evolving acronym that stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer/questioning, and asexual.