Hurricane Katrina, 9/11

Helping artists and arts organizations in times of extreme emergency

Ted Berger

This time it was the catastrophic devastation in the Gulf States. Last time it was the 9/11 attack. Before that were the floods in North Dakota, the earthquakes in San Francisco and Seattle, and Hurricane Hugo in South Carolina, and then

Each time disaster strikes — whether natural or man made — communities face inestimable emotional and economic suffering. When artists, arts organizations, and cultural institutions are affected by these disasters, the confusion and bewilderment about what to do and how to help extends very directly to us as arts grantmakers.

At the recent GIA meeting in California, Claudine Brown (Nathan Cummings Foundation) and I organized a conference session, added at the last minute, in an effort to better understand:

• the arts situation in the Gulf states,

• ways other communities responded to arts emergencies,

• the response system we have in place for the emergencies artists and arts organizations face everyday, and

• what might be done to strengthen our capacity to confront daily and large-scale emergencies and to prepare for the inevitable next time.

Pam Breaux and Veronique LeMelle of the Louisiana Office of Cultural Development along with Gerri Combs of the Southern Arts Federation provided an overview of the situation for arts and culture in the Gulf states in general and in New Orleans in particular. Other artists and administrators from the region provided important insights into the ways that people were coping — in some cases by running organizations virtually, in many cases by relocating to other parts of the country.

Discussion focused on the need for immediate, short-term, and long-term response — on strategies for recovery and for rebuilding. Especially in a city like New Orleans, rebuilding in thoughtful and sustainable ways will be very complex. It will require not only advocacy, but also a commitment to maintaining the historic patterns that are so essential to the cultural and artistic dynamics of any community.

Specific examples

While the scale of the Gulf states' crisis certainly sets it apart, the ways that other U.S. communities have responded to emergencies provide useful information and practical steps that inform this situation and others in the future. It is important to point out that, especially as it applies to the arts, little of this information has been comprehensively documented and/or disseminated in a thoughtful way.

The web site posting by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) of its experience with its 9/11 New York Arts Recovery Fund was cited as a valuable example of information that benefits a wider field. Another helpful report is that of Artist Trust documenting its response to the Seattle-area earthquake (Artist Quake Aid Report, posted on Artist Trust's web site).

Julie Dalgleish (Bush Foundation) provided information about how, in 1997 when Grand Forks and Fargo, North Dakota endured a once-in-500-year flood, the Bush Foundation collaborated with other funders to create a regional “clearinghouse” to get materials and goods for rebuilding into the hands of nonprofits in need. Such a clearinghouse collaboration is particularly helpful for less affluent and rural communities.

Christine Elbel, (Fleishhacker Foundation) also spoke of funders pooling support for an arts emergency fund in response to needs after earthquakes in Southern California. This pooled fund concept served as the model for the New York Arts Recovery Fund.

Cornelia Carey (Crafts Emergency Relief Fund, CERF) spoke about ways that CERF responds to craft artists in Gulf states and other large-scale crises as well as to the everyday emergency needs of individual artists. She spoke of the “patchwork quilt” of emergency funds for artists that presently exists.

Communication among funders and others

The first-ever meeting of emergency arts funders, co-hosted after 9/11 by CERF and NYFA, revealed the unevenness of such support. While emergency funds exist in some parts of the country and in some disciplines, no ongoing comprehensive emergency system for artists is in place. Moreover, many of the funds that do exist are undercapitalized and are severely challenged when trying to respond to major crises. (A list of emergency fund resources is available on NYFA Source,

Cornelia also spoke about CERF's current efforts to create a National Task Force to address the arts community's needs in times of local and national emergencies. Suzi Surkamer (South Carolina Arts Commission) reinforced the need for such a task force, indicating how helpful this would have been to the emergency efforts on behalf of the arts in the wake of Hurricane Hugo.

Discussion among participants emphasized what was certainly true throughout New York's 9/11 experience — that much greater communication is needed, not only among ourselves, but with non-arts agencies that grapple with the same emergencies. For example, we need ongoing dialogue with agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Small Business Administration (SBA), and the Red Cross on national, statewide, and local levels. A recent joint publication of the NEA and FEMA was identified as a helpful start. Tony Chauveaux (NEA) told of the Endowment's efforts to work with Congress to assist the arts in Gulf states. Patrice Walker Powell (also with the NEA) spoke of the importance of having the arts “at the table” when decisions about planning and funding for local recovery and rebuilding efforts are being made. An email message written in preparation for this session by Claire Peeps (Durfee Foundation and GIA board of directors) emphasized this point:

“We need to seize the moment to better position ourselves with elected officials and the general public so that we can be a more effective partner in the event of future crises. Private philanthropy, while essential, can't begin to match government funds in immediate relief; we will probably be most effective — and needed — in succeeding stages and will be called on to have the staying power for the complex process of rebuilding. We know the role of the arts to be critical throughout the process, but we should be practicing our case statements.”

What we can do

Discussion at the conference session reinforced what we know is true in many other situations, and consensus emerged around the following:

• Greater collaboration among communities of arts funders, with non-arts funders, and with public and private aid agencies will help garner more effective emergency support for artists and arts organizations.

• Sharing information and strengthening communication about what we and others are doing and have tried to do will reduce our need to “reinvent the wheel” and will strengthen our abilities to respond quickly. Suggestions include setting up community information clearinghouses when a disaster occurs and establishing a national web-based clearinghouse both for links to existing resources and for use during a crisis.

• Continuing involvement after the initial moment is needed to understand the ripples and long-term implications of crises on individuals, organizations, and whole communities and to make sure that our stories are told and that the strength the arts bring to community revitalization and to people's lives is well understood.

• Building a stronger everyday-emergency support system for artists and communities in every part of the country is critical.

As we discussed the present situation and remembered past emergencies, emotions were strong. Our individual and collective vulnerabilities become all the more heightened when we confront challenges like these — whether in our own community or in another part of the country or world. The fragility of our present emergency support system adds to the sense of vulnerability. Since crises can exacerbate the fault lines that exist in any community of artists and arts organizations, bonds must be strengthened during times of less stress through ongoing efforts to build healthy arts communities. A report published right before Hurricane Katrina struck, Louisiana: Where Culture Means Business, considered all of what this means: we must pay attention to “the full cycle of cultural activity from origination to production, markets, and the larger system that supports these activities.”

Why is this important?

At the GIA conference we came together to strengthen our response because we care about artists and arts organizations that face extreme emergencies, but also because we know that their creative work helps build the future, remember the past, and get through crises in the present. A prologue written for Culture Counts, a report published by NYFA right after 9/11, talks about how the arts responded ... and will always respond.

As it has in other times of crisis, in the hours immediately following the attacks, the cultural community provided aid and comfort to those most in need. The City's museums, performing arts, and community-based organizations in all disciplines and all boroughs gave people a place to go, to reflect or, at least briefly, to forget, to celebrate life, to remember the lost. Shrines of flowers, candles, drawings, and photographs began appearing as an expression of collective grief. Artists and citizens created art spontaneously in acts of communal healing. In the years ahead, the experiences of these terrible events will become part of the work that artists create, and the public will benefit from their transformative vision.

This GIA session began a discussion that must continue. While we all live with the hope that our field, our country, and our world will never again have to face such emergencies, we know they are inevitable. The fragile condition of our present arts emergency response system demands that we continue to work together to build a new level of national and community preparedness and emergency response for the arts that is long overdue.

Ted Berger was executive director, New York Foundation for the Arts from 1980-2005. Building on his past experiences, he is currently embarking on a new life as executive director of New York Creates and as project director of the Urban Artist Initiative for New York City. He can be reached at