NYFA’s Sandy Emergency Relief Fund

A Brief Case Study in Emergency Arts Management

Immediately following Hurricane Sandy, the Andy Warhol, Lambent, and Robert Rauschenberg Foundations (“the primary funders”) approached the New York Foundation for the Arts to administer a fund to provide grants to individual artists in all disciplines from Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. In addition to the substantial and catalytic support from the three foundations, NYFA also raised additional funds for this project through further donations from our generous individual and institutional supporters and collaborators. The fund was established to provide a maximum grant of $5,000 to cover losses of any kind as a direct result of the storm, including (but not limited to) damage to property, lost or damaged equipment or supplies, lost income as a result of canceled work or lost opportunities, or damaged artwork.

In this piece, I will examine three issues related to the NYFA Emergency Relief Fund: the rapidity with which the program was implemented, the various hurdles we faced in doing so, and the lessons learned for future such projects.

How the Emergency Relief Fund Came Together So Quickly

It is important to note that the three primary funders initiated the rapid response to this disaster. As soon as the disaster occurred, their representatives began a conversation about how best to help artists from the region recover from the damage. With the goals of covering as much loss as possible, as quickly as possible, the foundations reached out to NYFA in light of our knowledge and experience with emergency funding for individual artists across numerous disciplines.

After a brief but intense internal assessment, NYFA provided the funders with a basic set of guidelines for how we intended to distribute the fund. The most important issues were creating an accurate and efficient application process, and putting together competent and flexible panels to properly evaluate applications. We suggested an entirely online application that emphasized documenting the artist’s loss, and online review panels supplemented by conference call discussions. Multiple panels would be necessary in the early stages to accommodate the huge volume of requests.

The three funders agreed to these suggestions, and the application went live on November 21, 2012, less than three weeks after their initial outreach. NYFA has subsequently held seven funding panels, reviewed 506 applications, and awarded a total of $1,310,800 to 369 artists (an average of $3,552 per award).

Challenges or Hurdles to Implementation

By far the biggest challenges to this grantmaking initiative related to technology, communication, and volume. On the technology side, NYFA had to work with a software developer to design a secure application platform that would accommodate numerous applicants and reviewers, and this had to be done within weeks (if not days). Specifically, we needed to develop an online application that allowed artists to provide a brief narrative, the total dollar amount of their loss, their method of calculating the loss, any appropriate backup documentation, and a résumé, web link, or other proof of their status as an artist. As no one had anticipated the need for such software before Sandy, this was done from scratch.

Communication also proved challenging, both with the artists and the panelists. For the artists, NYFA was engaging a population that had been severely affected on a physical, economic, and psychological level. We wanted to streamline the application so that it could be completed by individuals with limited resources — including technological access — or limited experience with grant applications generally. Even with a simplified application, NYFA staff devoted significant time and resources to helping individual artists complete the forms. Furthermore, NYFA had to use its extensive artist network, as well as its partnerships in the arts community, to ensure that the target population became aware of the fund’s existence.

Communication was an issue with panelists as well. Applications were reviewed by a panel of five artists and administrators, who voted “yes,” “no,” or “maybe” on each application; those that received “no” or “maybe” votes were discussed on a conference call to finalize the decision or clarify the reasons the application was not accepted so that information could be appropriately communicated to the applicant.

The administrative panelists were recommended to us by the three primary funders, the three state arts councils, and the artists who are members of NYFA’s artist advisory committee, so all had a high level of expertise and familiarity with the grantmaking process. Nevertheless, the goals of this grant were unique, so panelists had questions about what kinds of losses could be considered artistic losses. For example, many performing artists lost wages when their shows were canceled due to flooding or power outages. While these types of losses were covered, panelists sometimes had a harder time recognizing these artists compared to those who lost works or equipment. NYFA provided all panelists with written guidelines, but we ultimately held an additional group conference call just to address these and other questions.

Volume underlay all of these technical and communication challenges. With hundreds of applications requiring attention in a short period, NYFA engaged multiple panels simultaneously. While this approach allowed us to review all applications thoroughly, it created more demands on technology and staff. It also made it harder to apply lessons learned from panel to panel. Normally, NYFA observes what does or does not work for a grant panel, and then makes modifications as needed between grant cycles. With the relief fund, we needed to adapt almost instantaneously.

What We Learned in the Process

While NYFA learned a few lessons on the technical side (how to better vet documentation that supported loss claims, for example), by far the biggest takeaway for us was the importance of educating artists about disaster preparedness. Hurricane Sandy caught most of us by surprise, despite warnings about our region’s vulnerability. Artists were no exception. Relatively simple actions like obtaining insurance could have helped many artists better offset the damage.

On a more uplifting note, NYFA was pleased to see the incredible generosity of the arts grantmaking community. Beyond the major contributions from the Warhol, Lambent, and Rauschenberg Foundations, other donors who wished to add to the fund reached out to NYFA unsolicited, and we have subsequently taken further steps to keep the fund viable for the many artists still recovering from Sandy. If artists and grantmakers alike can learn to prepare for future disasters as a community, we will have taken a very positive step.