Building a Culture of Resilience in the Arts

A Funders’ Call to Action

Compiled and edited by Barbara Schaffer Bacon and Cornelia Carey


These are the sooty days and nights of fire, ashes and displacement. The aftermath of loss is reassessment and ultimately, response. We artists — poets, musicians, painters, photographers, craftspeople, writers, graphic designers, actors, sculptors, singers — possess the skills that can unpack the events and emotions brought forward by the devastating inferno of 2007. Our skills will also help us imagine a new San Diego. Our creative response to this tragedy serves neighbors, but our colleagues, students, and ourselves as well. We have not suffered more than others. Instead we suffer in league with our fellow San Diegans. We must help them cope, recover and flourish anew.

This call to action from artist and activist Aida Mancillas was Felicia Shaw’s wake-up call. Shaw (formerly the director of arts and culture at The San Diego Foundation [SDF]) noted: “the historic California wildfire of 2007, which was raging out of control at that time, was going to usher in a new era of responsiveness and responsibility for The San Diego Foundation.” The SDF, the largest philanthropic organization serving the region, had never done anything of the scale required in response to the wildfire disaster. But over the coming months and years, they were asked to do so, and they did respond by taking in $10 million in donations from across the country and determining how best to distribute these funds to people in need.

Because Shaw had the word art in her title, she was automatically tasked to figure out how to serve the special needs of artists affected by the fires. And despite her title, she felt unprepared for this assignment, as she says, “in every way.”

This is how many arts funders get tuned into issues of disaster relief and preparedness for artists (and cultural organizations). Disaster strikes their region or constituents, and suddenly they need information, advice, and strategies for getting resources to the right people in the best way. As the number and scale of disasters have increased over the past fifteen years, foundations, local arts agencies, state arts agencies, artists service organizations, and others have been thrust into the role of responding to artists in the wake of disasters without established mechanisms and existing networks to do this work. Fortunately, some funders have walked this road before, and since 2006, some have banded together as the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response.

The Coalition works as a cross-disciplinary task force addressing solutions to the vulnerability of the arts sector in the face of disasters, and how, in turn, a more resilient arts sector could become a more active and recognized partner in helping local communities rebound from crises. The voluntary group, a mix of government agencies and nonprofit service and funding organizations, has operated as a communications and advocacy group, and during several recent major disasters (including Hurricanes Irene, Ike, and Sandy) has served as an ad hoc national leadership team to novice “arts responders” in the affected locales. In addition, Coalition member organizations have produced and disseminated new information tools and piloted new training and technical assistance programs. Through a combined strategy of resource development, educational empowerment, and advocacy, the Coalition (collectively and through its member organizations) has made gains in strengthening disaster readiness and resilience within the arts and culture sector.

This past fall, in Houston, the Coalition joined forces with the GIA’s Individual Artists Support Committee to present “Supporting Artists from Crises to Recovery: Survive to Thrive.” The program brought funders new to the topic into contact with artists who have been directly affected by disasters and also familiarized funders with the work of the Coalition and its members. Participants benefited from lessons learned and helped the Coalition take a fresh look at what has been accomplished and to think forward about the needs and challenges of converting a crazy quilt of support with many gaps into a seamless national network of support for artists.

The pieces assembled here highlight some of the information shared and recommendations for action that all funders need to heed.

Putting Our Oxygen Masks on First

During the preconference, Felicia Shaw, then director of arts and culture at The San Diego Foundation, offered her experiences as an arts funder unprepared to respond to the community of artists after a major disaster, a situation she believes most arts funders are unprepared for. In hindsight, she notes, “I would have prepared myself first — put on my own oxygen mask, so that I would be able to help others who were in need.”

Ten Simple Preparedness Steps for Grantmakers Supporting Artists in the Wake of Disasters

Felicia Shaw, Young Audiences of San Diego

  1. Ask yourself, Who would I call after a disaster? And make sure those people and organizations know who you are before a disaster strikes.
  2. Consider what artists you would support after a disaster, because it will be impossible to support every artist.
  3. Know who the first responders are in your community before a disaster, and make sure they know you. And remember, you are not a first responder.
  4. Make a list of the organizations that serve artists in your region. Do you know the groups who are directly in contact with individual artists every day and could help with outreach when the next disaster happens? Are they already in your database? Do you have a relationship with them?
  5. Know how you would reach out to artists following a disaster. If all systems were down and you wanted to get information out to them, how would you do it? Bulletin boards? Local radio stations? Social media? All of the above?
  6. Who would you partner with in your community to respond after a disaster?
  7. Who within your organization will you need to educate so that when funds start coming in, the arts will be included in the allocation. Educate your executive director, board president, finance director now before disaster strikes.
  8. If a disaster affects your entire region of service, what organizations outside this area might you work with after a disaster? On a map, draw a radius at twenty-five miles out, fifty miles out, and then a hundred miles out. What organizations might be critical hubs that will need to be activated if a major disaster hits?
  9. Take on this work in “bite-sized pieces” so you can manage it.
  10. Be sure you know the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response. Get connected, get involved!
Significant projects realized — collectively or by individual members of the Coalition — include the following:
  1. Creation of the Essential Guidelines for Arts Responders. This electronic document is sent to arts council and foundation staff members in areas affected by emergencies. Designed to provide guidance to people during and immediately after events, the document provides resources and suggested methods for organizing response for the arts community.
  2. Creation of a white paper, A Vision for Emergency Readiness, Response and Recovery in the Arts Sector, which addresses the status and policy environment of readiness and response needs for arts organizations and artists.
  3. Release and promotion by CERF+ of the Studio Protector, the first-ever guide to disaster readiness and response for artists.
  4. Launch by South Arts of Arts Ready, a first-ever web-based business continuity planning resource for arts organizations.
  5. Expansion of artists’ emergency resource listings on New York Foundation for the Arts’ NYFA Source website, and addition of a reference section of reports on emergency readiness, response, and recovery for funders on the Grantmakers in the Arts website.
  6. Commitment from the National Endowment for the Arts to serve as the primary policy liaison to key federal relief agencies.
  7. Expansion of the human service and emergency recovery resources on The Actors’ Fund website.

What Does Emergency Assistance Look Like?

Craig Nutt, CERF+ (Craft Emergency Relief Fund+Artists’ Emergency Resources)

In a perfect world, we would all be prepared and have the resources to avoid or deal with emergencies, large and small, involving our personal lives and careers. In the real world, we may be able to raise the threshold for what constitutes a serious emergency and greatly improve our odds and speed of recovery, but there will always be a need for emergency assistance.

In CERF+’s thirty-year experience with responding to artists’ emergencies, we have identified six characteristics of emergency assistance to strive for:

  1. Fast (assistance delayed is assistance denied): We try to review completed applications and make a decision on assistance within two weeks, and often turn around applications within a week. CERF+ assistance is often the first money an artist receives, ahead of insurance settlements, FEMA, or other assistance. Artists often tell us that this early assistance gave them an important psychological boost when it was most needed.
  2. Compassionate: This should go without saying, but it is so important that it must always be on the minds of the organizations and individuals providing relief.
  3. Fair/proportionate: Given limitations on available funds, we strive to distribute available funds equitably and consistently. Severity of emergency is the most important of several factors considered in determining grant amounts. While fundraising is ongoing, CERF+ strives to maintain adequate cash reserves to ensure that no artist is turned away because of depletion of budgeted funds.
  4. Personal: Having a compassionate, friendly, and understanding person on the other end of the line can be as important as cash assistance. And through personal contact, CERF+ can often make referrals to other organizations and services, and broker assistance from manufacturers, suppliers, and show promoters.
  5. Continuing: The public attention span (and opportunity to raise funds) for any given disaster is far shorter than the time it takes to recover. CERF+ has a no-interest recovery loan program that artists can access in the process of rebuilding their businesses. In major disasters the recovery of a community typically takes five years or longer.
  6. Effective: Does the assistance help move the artist closer to their desired outcomes? In most cases, that is returning to work as an artist. This can be challenging to measure objectively. CERF+ now surveys its clients at one and two years after assistance. In time, we hope to have better information about the trajectory of recovery and how CERF+’s assistance contributes to recovery.

Assistance Matters: The Artists’ Perspective

The stories and artwork that a panel of artists — Diane Falkenhagen, jewelry artist; Paul Sanchez, musician; and Ginny Ruffner, sculptor and visual artist — shared at the conference illuminated the universal challenges that disasters and misfortunes bring to all people. Because artists most often work without the safety net of an employer, their experiences in crises expose the gaps in our already fragile artists’ support system. And yet artists out of necessity tend to be resilient, and their art making is empowering, especially when emergencies render them powerless. Very clearly, returning quickly to art making after a disaster is essential to well-being. And each artist’s experience illuminated the fact that art making itself is a potent strategy in recovery from disaster. Following are some of their recommendations to arts funders:

  • Keep up your post-disaster funding, but know that we will keep making our work even if you don’t. Your funding does, however, put us on the high dive.
  • Convene artists after disasters to share experiences, to be heard, to discover collaborations and/or opportunities to work and/or rebuild together.
  • Don’t ever underestimate the power of even a small grant after a disaster. It provides not just financial support, but hope — “when you give money, you give hope”; incentive to keep working (or get back to work quickly); the message that someone cares: “I’m part of a larger community that cares about me.”
  • Reach out to artists after disasters (proactive grantmaking), to address “I didn’t think to ask for funding until I was approached by a funder. I was too exhausted.”
  • Consider a uniform application to make the process easier and faster for artists.
  • Provide “a blueprint” for how to regain your career when everything is gone.
  • Support the organizations on the ground that already have the relationships with the artists.

National Recovery Support Systems and the Arts: Progress in the Aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Amy Schwartzman, California Alliance for Traditional Arts

After federally declared disasters, only a small subset of cultural organizations regularly qualifies to receive support from FEMA. These organizations must be nonprofit, be open to the public, own their facility or be required by their lease to perform all major repairs to their space, and have suffered physical damage to their facilities. Support for repairs consequent to the physical damage suffered comes in the form of financial aid through FEMA’s “Public Assistance” program. Conversely, artists’ professional damages do not qualify for FEMA’s “Individual Assistance” program, which helps people and households financially with personal consequences of disasters.

Post-Sandy, a new interagency scalable and sector-based approach to community recovery called Federal Disaster Recovery Coordination (FDRC) was inaugurated by FEMA. Within the FDRC, the Natural and Cultural Resource Recovery Support Function (NCR) aided the entire arts and cultural sector including artists and nonprofit arts organizations in all disciplines, though not financially.

NCR’s mission was to assess the unmet recovery needs of each of its named sectors — “natural” and “cultural” resources — and coordinate existing resources to meet them. “Cultural resources” as traditionally interpreted in various government programs and initially implemented in the NCR meant, however, that only historic sites and properties and institutions with collections qualified for support.

Luckily, key staff at New York’s FEMA FDRC knew and listened to members of the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response, who informed them that this approach would result in helping less than one quarter of the impacted cultural sector. A much broader definition of “cultural resources” that explicitly included artists and arts organizations was adopted, and an NCR staff member, whose focus was the arts, was hired.

Under this expansive view of “cultural resources,” the New York State NCR was able to collaborate with the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs and other NYC-based nonprofits to create CultureAID, the first citywide cultural emergency management network.

Unfortunately, it is not a given that this expansive interpretation of cultural resources will become a standard, nor that there will be an NCR in every federal recovery effort. Speaking as the former community planner in the NCR, I would advise that the arts sector needs to advocate for this to happen. If your community is unfortunately declared a federal disaster area, I suggest connecting with FEMA as it forms its Joint Field Office and advocating for a Natural and Cultural Resource Recovery Support Function within the FDRC that encompasses the recovery of artists and arts organizations.

Forming Arts Responder Networks: First Southern California then NYC…Is Your Region Next?

In 2011, inspired by her experiences of doing this work “on the fly,” Felicia Shaw led the creation of the first arts responder network in this country, the Southern California Arts Responder Network. The “SoCal” Arts Responder Network is an ongoing collaboration of three counties and four hub groups: the County of Los Angeles Arts Commission and the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, Arts Orange County, and The San Diego Foundation (SDF). Together, they created a disaster response communication and action protocol and built the basic framework for a response network that they hope to expand to surrounding counties over the next few years. As part of this project, the hub groups “test drove” new emergency planning resources produced by the National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response and its members, including the draft Arts Responder Handbook.1 They created an information-gathering tool that will be useful for the formation of future arts response systems. The Network became a member of the SoCal VOAD (a consortium of agencies to help Southern California residents prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters of all kinds) and is the first and only arts-focused organization now at that table.

In September 2014, New York Cultural Affairs Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl and Office of Emergency Management Commissioner Joseph Esposito announced the launch of CultureAID (“Culture Active in Disasters”), a response and recovery network committed to strengthening New York City’s cultural community before, during, and after disasters. To learn more about CultureAID, check out the website, overview briefing, and news release.2

A Challenge to Our Thinking

Kristen Madsen, The GRAMMY Foundation/MusiCares

MusiCares has worked for twenty-five years to build an underpinning of support for music people that is outside the boundaries of mainstream arts funding. We offer support for artists’ personal health and well-being to ensure that their most important tool in creating art — their physical person — is functional. We provide emergency financial assistance grants to see music people through the inevitable crises that come from the vagaries of making a living in music. This includes funds for medical expenses, rent, gear replacement, and daily living expenses for musicians who can demonstrate financial need. As a result, MusiCares looks through a slightly different lens when viewing the needs of the creativity community and how best to serve those needs.

Artists have been embracing the concept that they are small businesses — whether they use that language or not — for decades. Should funders recognize this de facto situation and adapt our funding patterns accordingly? And if that is true, should we consider supporting individual artists on a more parallel basis to how we fund organizations? Sustainability comes to mind. When we talk about the resources an arts organization needs for sustainability, we increasingly focus on general operating support versus project support. If we will fund rent, overhead, and salaries for arts organizations, couldn’t we consider funding those same needs for individual artists? And if we will fund the tools of the trade for arts organizations, is it a bridge too far to consider that mental, physical, and emotional stability are the most critical tools for an individual artist in order to compose, paint, and choreograph? To be even more literal, the voice of a singer, the ears of a musician, the eyes of a photographer, and the hands of a sculptor are the most essential elements of an artist’s enterprise. Following a hierarchy of needs argument, shouldn’t protection and development of these critical tools of individual artists be where we begin the funding dialogue instead of reserving resources until an end product can be envisioned?

While this concept shares some philosophical overlap with fellowship funders, there is still room for thoughtful discussion on how to break free of project-only funding. And this conversation can draw a lesson from GIA’s recent work on capitalization for arts organizations. It is essentially the same argument, but perhaps even more poignant for individuals than for organizations. Offering individual artists relief from the financial pressures of keeping themselves afloat speaks to them as they so often see themselves — as creative enterprises, in the model of sole proprietorships or small businesses. Finding ways to provide resources to artist enterprises could unlock innovative new models for supporting the creation of new work. Imagine the possibilities if arts grants offered not just the means to produce art but also the safety net of comfort in knowing that their basic human needs were covered as well.

Conclusions and Recommendations

While major declared disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy and the Tuscaloosa and Joplin tornadoes come to mind when one talks about emergencies, more common are the myriad personal emergencies that affect only one artist at a time. Studio fires, burst pipes, car wrecks, building collapses, workshop injuries, cancer, and other disruptions can be every bit as devastating to artists’ careers. Poverty, lack of cash reserves, and no or inadequate insurance are all factors that can turn a relatively minor setback into a career-threatening disaster. Reactive measures like emergency assistance are important “band-aids,” but a more proactive approach aimed at building resilience among artists is the better long-term investment. Survive to Thrive participants urged that funders who support artists in our grantmaking need to take into account artists’ whole lives. Investment needs to help individuals and organizations build resiliency. Until we do, our community will remain highly vulnerable to setbacks both small and large.

After a disaster, you may want to provide support to affected artists but not want to create your own program in order to do so. What can you do instead? You can become a member of — or provide funds for this purpose — to what is called an “Unmet Needs Roundtable” or “Long-Term Recovery Group,” both vehicles created through local or statewide VOADs (“Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters”).
To find out more about VOADs, Longterm Recovery Groups, and the Unmet Needs Roundtable model, go to:

With all of the talk about “place making,” in this work we advocate for “place keeping” or “place safekeeping.” Currently, emergency assistance available to artists is essentially a “crazy quilt.” Some artists qualify for multiple funding sources, while some qualify for none. Availability and eligibility vary widely, determined variously by discipline, medium, geographic location, career stage, financial need, emergency type, and artistic merit. The gaps must be filled. Establishment of the “SoCal” Arts Responder Network in California and CultureAID in New York City begin the creation of a nationwide Arts Responder Network. Building an Arts Responder Network that covers all disciplines and the whole country is actionable and achievable if funders step forward, and it is a priority. Facilitated planning for networks and with broader relief agencies is a way to begin.

There are many areas of policy across numerous agencies that can have impact — both positive and negative — on artists. The policy wins with FEMA in New York suggest that substantial gains can be made. Proactive policy work combined with partnership and network building with disaster relief services and agencies at national, state, and local levels is essential. As the National Endowment for the Arts has engaged at the federal level, foundations as well as state and local arts agencies are in a great position to convene, educate, communicate, and leverage support. They can encourage and support preparedness through their funding applications and evaluations and can reach across sectors within the funding community and beyond. Engaging more funders in artist emergency relief is critical. Internal education for foundation leaders should increase. Strategic cultivation of family foundations and artist endowed funds — which are growing in number — is a priority.

The National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response has proven its effectiveness and is now positioned to advance a truly national safety net for artists. However, this requires staff. Funding to date has come from a limited number of enlightened foundations and the National Endowment for the Arts. Increased investment from the funding community and expanded leadership are required to ensure the needs of artists are represented at policy tables and that states and regions that are ready to create their own responder networks can get the support they need.

We close with words from Judi Jennings, which inspired our organizing of the conference program:

The needs of feminist artists are the same as the needs of all artists, and the needs of all artists are the same as the needs of all humans. Human needs and rights include safety, respect, a living wage, affordable housing, and the right to cultural expression.

The 2014 GIA preconference, “Supporting Individual Artists from Crises to Recovery: Survive to Thrive” was initiated by Tommer Peterson, who in his long tenure at GIA has been a fearless champion of artists’ whole lives. It was generously supported by 3Arts, the Joan Mitchell Foundation, and the Windgate Charitable Foundation. The National Coalition for Arts Preparedness and Emergency Response thanks the following individuals and organizations for their contributions to the preconference: Theodore Berger, Joan Mitchell Foundation; Cornelia Carey, CERF+; SuJ’n Chon, Grantmakers in the Arts; Michelle Coffey, Lambent Foundation; Julie Dalgleish, Charlotte Street Foundation; Barbara Davis, The Actors Fund; Diane Falkenhagen, artist; Richard Graber, Houston Arts Alliance; Allison Hawkins, Joan Mitchell Foundation; Judy Jennings; Kristen Madsen, GRAMMY Foundation/MusiCares; Craig Nutt, CERF+; Tommer Peterson, Grantmakers in the Arts; Ginny Ruffner, artist; Barbara Schaffer Bacon, Animating Democracy, Americans for the Arts; Amy Schwartzman; Paul Sanchez, artist; Felicia Shaw, The San Diego Foundation.


  1. The Arts Responder Handbook, which will be released in digital format this year, is a toolkit for organizations, agencies, and foundations for planning arts disaster mobilization systems for their communities. The draft Handbook has since been used as a training manual for the development of CultureAID, New York, a new arts responder network and a post-Hurricane Sandy recovery initiative catalyzed by the Department of Cultural Affairs that began organizing in fall 2013.
  2. The CultureAID website is at; the overview briefing is at; and the news release is at