National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response

Mary Margaret Schoenfeld

Lives are snowflakes — unique in detail, forming patterns we have seen before, but as like one another as peas in a pod (and have you ever looked at peas in a pod? I mean, really looked at them? There’s not a chance you’d mistake one for another, after a minute’s close inspection.)
  —  Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Lives, snowflakes, and peas provide apt metaphors for thinking about disasters. Superstorm Sandy followed patterns we’ve seen before, but presented unique circumstances and challenges for residents, first responders, and the community at large interested in addressing both immediate needs and long-term resilience. Our understanding of the complexity of response to crises keeps growing. Major catastrophic events since the 2005 megastorm on the Gulf Coast have demonstrated that extreme weather is becoming the new normal for all parts of the country — not just “disaster-prone” zones — and underscore both the vulnerability of artists and creative communities and the urgency for concerted action.

The National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response grew out of the 2006 national meeting hosted by CERF+ (Craft Emergency Relief Fund + Artists’ Emergency Resources) and Americans for the Arts, at which a group of funders and arts service organizations came together to discuss how the arts and culture community could become more resilient, more in control, and better able to withstand a wide range of natural and man-made disasters. The coalition provides the forum for strategizing, planning, and communications, while coalition members create tools, resources, and emergency response mechanisms to serve the field. 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.

Superstorm Sandy provided a stark reminder of the importance of preparedness and emergency response work as hundreds of artists and organizations were displaced from their homes and workplaces, and faced work-interrupting/work-ending losses of their artwork, buildings, tools, equipment, documents, and other critical components of their art practice. The magnitude of this storm inspired collective, on-the-ground relief efforts for artists and arts organizations by foundations and arts service organizations. The coalition contributed to the effort by:

  • Coordinating with the National Endowment for the Arts and state arts agencies (SAAs) in the affected areas to identify and share resource people and assessment methods used by SAAs previously affected by disasters.
  • Distributing the coalition’s Essential Guidelines for Arts Responders Organizing in the Aftermath of Disaster to agencies and arts service providers.
  • Hosting six conference calls for representatives from arts agencies, foundations, and various service organizations in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C. Thirty-seven participants from twenty-five organizations took part in one or more calls, providing updates on assessments and activities.

The coalition’s Steering Committee met at the Actors Fund in New York in January 2013 to discuss lessons learned (to date) from Superstorm Sandy, and to strategize about the next steps necessary to move forward on preparedness and emergency response in the arts sector. Among the lessons learned were the following:

  • There is a hierarchy of needs that informs the timing of requests for assistance. People deal with their most basic needs first, and they may not address their art- /business-related losses until health, shelter, and primary income questions are resolved. So while funding may be more readily available shortly after an emergency, the full magnitude of need and funding, resources, and support required may not be evident until much later.
  • Different disasters require different types of responses, and the same disaster presents different needs, assets, and challenges depending on the jurisdiction. The New York region provided an unfortunate opportunity to compare the response to 9/11 to the response to Hurricane Sandy. While many lessons learned from 9/11 proved useful for Sandy, funders and service providers needed to adapt to different impacts, changes in technology, and variations between arts disciplines and geographic locations.
  • Grantmakers have a need to strike a balance between simplicity of process and the information required for decision making and accountability. While not unique to a postdisaster environment, the acute timeliness and severity of some needs and, occasionally, the lack of access to key documents can challenge the typical requirements of a funder.
  • High-touch vs. high-tech communication: the primacy of people-to-people contact proved central to effective response. Examples included in-person visits to artists’ homes and studios to assess damage; providing spaces for people to meet and share stories while getting relief information; providing individualized attention by phone and in person; connecting leaders in affected areas with arts leaders with previous experience in disaster response; and holding regular calls and meetings among colleagues.
  • Organizational flexibility was an ongoing necessity, especially to reassign staff to meet critical demands, adjust processes, and deal with ambiguity.
  • Remote workers and pre-established virtual business practices helped arts responders maintain operations when their main offices were inaccessible.
  • Making creative use of assets was vital to the arts responder role. In addition to providing grants and loans, funders and service organizations were able to support the field with noncash assets, including offering assistance in grant writing, providing access to underutilized space, and coaching people through insurance claims and government relief processes.

Southern California Arts Responders Network

Experiencing a large-scale emergency heightens awareness of the need for preparedness. Having been engaged in the philanthropic response to the October 2007 wildfires in the San Diego region, coalition steering committee member and GIA board member Felicia Shaw and the San Diego Foundation recognized the need and opportunity to organize within the arts community to further nurture relationships that would prove critical in any future response efforts. Shaw is collaborating with CERF+ to manage a pilot project for the coalition, the Southern California Arts Responder Network. This project, funded in part by the Nathan Cummings and Joan Mitchell Foundations, as well as the National Endowment for the Arts, has started work with five hub sites in Southern California to assess readiness of artists and arts organizations, seeding the plans and relationships critical for effective disaster response. Resources provided include a planning handbook, veteran arts responder mentors, and group training sessions to orient participants to the various players in emergency management. The California Arts Council provides communications support. As this network grows, the National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response will document and refine the development and management model, with the intent of replicating responder networks in other parts of the country.


The lessons learned from the Southern California Arts Responder Network pilot, along with information gleaned from Superstorm Sandy and other crises, will inform the coalition’s upcoming planning process. The coalition will examine models and options for further development of this national network, interview stakeholders, and analyze opportunities to advance and sustain a preparedness and emergency response agenda for the arts sector.