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For artists in need, a new coalition brings $11.6 million in speedy relief
The writer Anne Finger, who received a $5,000 grant from Artist Relief Fund, in Emeryville, Calif., April 29, 2020. Artist Relief, which will continue distributing grants every week through September, is one of many emergency efforts that have sprung up across the country to help creative workers in the wake of Covid-19. Jim Wilson/The New York Times.

by Jillian Steinhauer

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Anne Finger is a writer of fiction and nonfiction who, like many others in her field, can’t rely on income from her creative work alone. A polio survivor and wheelchair user, Finger bought her loft in Oakland, California, 22 years ago with the idea that it would serve as a steady financial source. She rents out the space for photo and video shoots and also began listing her son’s former bedroom on Airbnb once he moved out.

“My idea was that my loft was going to support me for the rest of my life,” she said.

The arrival of COVID-19 disrupted that plan. All her rental activity has stopped, and even if it were to start up again soon, Finger, 68, who recently battled pneumonia, would not feel comfortable letting anyone into her home.

“I’m high risk, so I’m kind of imagining that I’m going to be sheltering in place for a long time,” said the writer, who has spent decades fighting for disability rights. “I want to keep doing my art for another 20 years if I possibly can. So I really want to stay alive.”

A few weeks ago, Finger received some much-needed good news. She was one of 100 recipients of the first round of $5,000 grants from Artist Relief, a new initiative dedicated to helping artists who are facing urgent financial circumstances as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. She “wept with joy” when she got it, she said.

Artist Relief, which will continue distributing grants every week through September, is a coalition comprising seven core partners, including the Academy of American Poets, Creative Capital, and United States Artists. It’s one of many emergency efforts that have sprung up across the country to help creative workers in the wake of COVID-19, by organizations large and small and by groups practicing mutual aid. But the speed and scale of Artist Relief’s endeavor, raising $11.6 million so far and drawing support from the likes of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Sundance Institute, are notable. They also speak to the severity and scope of the crisis.

“We’re reading everything from elders who can’t afford their insulin, mothers who are skipping meals to feed their kids, artists who are sick and live alone and have COVID-19 and don’t have any cash flow to get things delivered to them,” said Deana Haggag, the president and chief executive of United States Artists. She was speaking about the flood of applications that Artist Relief has received — 55,000 in the first two weeks of the initiative.

Just how dire the situation is for artists has been revealed by an impact survey conducted by the coalition with Americans for the Arts, a national arts advocacy organization. Of the 19,068 creative workers surveyed (as of this writing), 95% reported a loss of income from their creative practice, while nearly 62% said they had become fully unemployed because of the pandemic. A little more than half said they did not have any savings, and 80% said they did not yet have a plan to financially recover from the effects of the crisis. (The results are updated in real time online.)

The grim findings echo and amplify those of other, smaller surveys. In one conducted by the Mid-America Arts Alliance in March (with artists in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas), 60% of respondents said their savings would sustain them for one month or less. In another survey by Dance/NYC of dance workers living mostly in the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, three-quarters of respondents reported needing help with mortgage payments or rent.

“There’s no immediate relief that’s going to work,” Haggag said. “Even if we had a billion dollars, it’s not going to solve this problem. For us it’s a bridge: Can we buy as many people as much time as we possibly can?”

Roberto Lugo was supposed to be abroad for at least six months. A winner of the prestigious Rome Prize in design from the American Academy in Rome, Lugo makes sculptural pottery painted with elaborate images of people of color, from political revolutionaries like Angela Davis to cultural figures like the rapper Notorious B.I.G.

Lugo sold his home in Philadelphia to take the fellowship, expecting that he and his wife, along with their two children, would move when they returned. In Italy, he planned to undertake an ambitious project: creating an updated version of Napoleon’s porcelain dinner set that would draw on his past as a graffiti artist.

But Lugo was there only a month when the pandemic cut his residency short. “I had to immediately leave everything” — right down to his paint brushes, he said.

Rushing back to the United States in mid-March, they had nowhere permanent to shelter in place. In mid-April, he learned that he was getting an Artist Relief grant.

“I feel like what it’s doing is liberating me emotionally to feel like I have a place to start over again,” he said. “When you’re going through all these things, without the acknowledgment of support,” he added, “then you feel lost and down.”

For weeks, Lugo moved between rentals with no access to a potter’s wheel or a kiln, though he continued to work however he could, molding cups out of clay. Now settled near his studio in Philadelphia, he has applied for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) but has yet to receive anything. Finger, who feels fortunate that she can write at home, has tried to apply several times, but thus far the online system hasn’t functioned properly.

Still, the fact that both artists are eligible for such benefits represents a new, positive development. The Artist Relief COVID-19 Impact Survey asks respondents to rank the programs and opportunities that would be most helpful to sustaining their creativity during the crisis. No. 1 on the list is unemployment insurance — something that has long been unavailable for artists who are self-employed, independent contractors making money through an assortment of temporary positions, projects and sales. The $2 trillion coronavirus relief package that created the PUA program, known as the CARES Act, changed that.

Freelancers have long gotten by without many standard labor protections and with sporadic income that’s often spread across different fields. Those conditions make it harder to find stability now. Art Handler magazine conducted a survey of art workers soon after COVID-19 hit the United States and found that freelancers were already faring worse than their salaried counterparts. Artists are no exception.

Before she learned that she, too, was a grant recipient, the choreographer Kim Brandt watched the different aspects of her professional life swiftly shut down within a week. “Everything stopped all at once,” she said. For Brandt, that “everything” included a large commission she’d been rehearsing as well as her part-time job as a studio assistant to a sculptor. She’d made a video for an exhibition at a nonprofit arts space in Brooklyn, where she lives, that closed early. Future projects and opportunities she’d been discussing were shelved indefinitely.

“What’s been very hard to accept is that my whole life is unrecognizable to me now,” said Brandt. “Taking dance class, going to museums, having rehearsal, working in the studio — my normal, everyday activities that I love to do but also make a living off, none of it’s available.” She noted that social distancing is especially hostile to creating dance. “By nature what we do involves being in a room together. And the fact that we can’t do that, it’s sad at best.”

For Brandt, the Artist Relief grant has been a lifeline both financially and emotionally. But in looking at the bigger picture of recovery, she emphasized the need for universal measures and programs to come from the government. “I think the things that would support artists are the things that would support everyone: a living wage, Medicare for all, and affordable housing,” she said.

Haggag noted that there’s one question she heard a lot when she was launching the fund: “Why are you fighting this hard to help artists when so many people are suffering?” To her, it reflects a lack of understanding of the material realities of artists’ lives — that they, too, are a labor force, and need help to survive just like anyone else. The answer, she said, is self-evident: “Artists are also people who are suffering.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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