Modeling Artist Relief Initiatives: Unprecedented help in unprecedented times

From Suzy Delvalle and Deana Haggag

Reflecting on: What recommendations do you have for how to create an equitable system of distribution for emergency relief funds?

Among the hardest hit in the COVID-19 crisis are the country’s over 2.5 million professional artists. Social distancing saves lives, but it has also cut off the livelihoods of artists across all disciplines. The answer — because social distancing is an absolute necessity — is an immediate and aggressive financial relief program. In response to this urgent need, on April 8th we launched Artist Relief, a coalition of seven arts grantmakers. While we can only speak to our own efforts, we hope that our experience can be a model for similar initiatives moving forward.

As a coalition of small- to mid-sized grantmakers, we each have a deep understanding of our constituencies, a unique geographical and cultural vantage point, and the flexibility to move quickly and adjust course when needed. Working together, we were able to scale up quickly — after three weeks we launched with an initial $10 million in funding, generously supported by a $5 million match of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among others. That’s enough to provide emergency $5,000 grants to 100 artists every week from now until September.

If we don’t raise another dollar, we can fund 2,000 of the country’s 2.5 million artists. In the first 12 hours of open applications, we had over 12,000 applications. The math — and the need it represents — is plain as day. Two things must be done: We must expand our fundraising efforts, and we must work to distribute those funds as fairly and equitably as possible. As far as fundraising goes, we are working around the clock to engage foundations and philanthropists across the country. We’re also accepting individual donations on our website; not only are they tax-deductible, but 100% of the donations go to funding artists.

As to how the money gets distributed, we need to remember that the COVID-19 crisis is unprecedented. Artists need our help, more than we can give, and they need it today. And so we have to quickly create a distribution plan that takes into account variables which are just beginning to appear — no easy task, as you can imagine.

Here’s where we’ve landed. Aid should not be a question of competitiveness; we offer financial resources to those in dire need. We do not ask to see JPEGs or letters of recommendation. Applicants read our FAQs to see if they are eligible for the grant, and then they apply — we have strived to make the application process as simple and transparent as possible. We hold the broadest possible definition of “working artist,” one which takes into account the various cultural and financial realities of contemporary life.

Similarly, while we acknowledge that dire is subjective, we take a purposefully broad approach, characterizing it as a “lack or imminent endangerment of essentials such as housing, medicine, childcare, and food.” We ask artists to explain their situation, trusting that they will be accurate and respectful of the needs of their community members. In reviewing the applications, we take care to be equitable and cognizant of diversity across disciplines, geography, and identity.

With the ubiquity of technology in certain fields, it’s easy to forget that a technological divide still exists in this country. We are fully aware that information moves through communities at different speeds. To correct this distortion, we are working hard to reach as many folks as we can — and we are inspired by the artists helping one another by applying on behalf of elders or those without computer access.

Lastly, we close the application pool at the end of each month and then reopen it; applicants who were not awarded the grant in the previous month are then encouraged to reapply. Basically, it allows everyone a fresh start — five times over the life of the fund. While this might take a few extra minutes, it’s a small price to pay for a more equitable system.

At the end of the day, however, humility and realism reign. Not even a perfect system would be able to help everyone in need, and Artist Relief is far from perfect. But we’re dedicated to adapting as we go along, further refining our outreach to help as many artists as possible across the country, in different disciplines and different demographics. To gain a clearer understanding of the road ahead, we’ve partnered with Americans for the Arts to co-launch the COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Workers. By learning how this pandemic has affected all of us, we can draw a clearer picture of our artists’ needs, today and moving forward. This will allow Artist Relief, and other coalitions like ours, to better serve artists in the uncertain days ahead.