It Shouldn’t Take an Emergency to Fund Artists’ Basic Needs

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Like many small arts nonprofits, Bindlestiff Studio, dedicated to emerging Filipino American and Pilipino artists, moved programming online and established a COVID-19 relief fund for their artistic community. (Beth LaBerge / KQED)

In March, as soon as shelter-in-place orders set in and businesses closed, the lists were everywhere: emergency funds for freelancers and creatives, grants divvied up by discipline and region, mutual aid efforts so grassroots they only included a Venmo handle. Navigating these offers of support took time and energy, but for those who received funds, they provided small moments of relief in an otherwise bleak year.

San Francisco musician John Elliott, who was scheduled to set off on a multi-state tour by bike and train this year, has received two emergency grants during the coronavirus pandemic: $1,000 from the California Relief Fund for Artists and Cultural Practitioners and $2,000 from the Hardly Strictly Music Relief Fund. While he’s extremely grateful for that monetary support, $3,000 doesn’t go far in San Francisco.

What a year

“Basically what I did here was this was offered, I’m really grateful for it, I did the work to get it, I deposited it in my bank account and then I just transferred it to my landlord’s bank account,” he laughs. “And then I got a month.”

Elliott says the real saving grace this year was the fundraising he did to cover the costs of his now-delayed “Freedom Tour 2020,” celebrating the release of his newest album The Information Age. “There are other times in my career where this could have hit and I don’t know what I would have done,” he says.

“I used to say, ‘Well the one thing I know is I can always show up somewhere with my guitar and make some money,’” he says. “And it’s like actually, no, you can’t!”

Surveys conducted by Americans for the Arts over the past nine months show that nationally, 62% of artists have become fully unemployed because of the pandemic, and 95% have experienced income loss. In California, the financial impact is substantial, with one-third of the arts, culture and entertainment industry out of work. In an ordinary year, the arts represent $650.3 billion of the state’s economy, and 15.4% of its jobs.

Data from the San Francisco Bureau of Labor Statistics, September 2020. (Courtesy Economic Recovery Task Force Report)

A chart in the city of San Francisco’s Economic Recovery Task Force Report, published in October, shows the local artistic community’s precarious financial situation in the most plain terms. Already on the low end of the earning spectrum (an average of just over $50,000 a year), the arts, entertainment and recreation sector is second only to “accommodations and food services” in terms of pandemic job losses.

It’s bad. Anyone with any connections to the local artistic community knows it’s bad. The question is, what steps can we take to make sure something like this never happens again?

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Emergency Grants: ‘They’re Not Even Band-Aids’

The demand on the region’s COVID-19 emergency funds shows just how dire things became only days into shelter-in-place. Artists were already existing on the margins with little to no savings, but the types of jobs that allow for the flexibility to pursue artmaking were some of the first to go: art handling, bartending, events staff, public-facing museum positions.

Laura Poppiti, grants program director at the Center for Cultural Innovation, which administered five local emergency relief funds in coordination with other Bay Area nonprofits, says the pandemic has made clear there are seismic cracks in our system. “What COVID has brought to light is that grants and these one-off programs, they’re not even Band-Aids,” she says. “We don’t have good or solid safety nets for artists and everyone else who shares those circumstances.”

In some of the grants Poppiti helped oversee, the available money was enough to fund only around half of their applicants. The San Francisco Arts & Artists Relief Fund supported 699 individual artists and 65 arts and culture organizations, but received 1,400 applications in total. The East Bay/Oakland Relief Fund for Individuals in the Arts awarded 515 individuals, but received around 900 applications.

Even instances where it might seem like need was met—by the City of San Jose Coronavirus Relief Fund and the Hardly Strictly Music Relief Fund, which were both able to award all their applicants, 94 artists and 330 roots musicians, respectively—might not be indicative of the true breadth of the situation. The San Jose relief fund only reimbursed eligible expenses as defined by the CARES Act. And Elliott, who received a grant from the Hardly Strictly fund, noted the application process was geared towards musicians who already had an online presence and ready-to-go digital files.

As the Economic Recovery Task Force Report states: “Bureaucracy is even more burdensome at a time of great need.” Multiple nonprofit administrators interviewed for this article spoke to the artistic community’s exhaustion. Not only did artists need to seek out and apply for various grants, many had to navigate filing a claim for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), an expansion of unemployment insurance for self-employed workers and independent contractors. (PUA is set to expire on Dec. 26, a fact Poppiti calls “appalling.”)

“I can’t imagine the emotional labor and trauma that so many artists were going through, putting out application after application after application and getting rejections,” Poppiti says. “Demand far outweighs the resources available.”

And if, like Elliott, you were a recipient of a grant (or two), how does that help you a month, six months, or a year after your main source of income is gone?

Venues like the Warfield, which closed in mid-March per San Francisco city orders, won't reopen until full-capacity indoor events are allowed once again. (Beth LaBerge / KQED)

Alternatives Hampered by Traditional Funding

While even those administering emergency grants admit they’re stop-gap measures, the alternatives are limited by the current funding landscape. Much of what’s available to both nonprofits and individual artists is project-based; funders are interested in pointing to specific exhibitions, performances or objects as the products of their generosity.

That approach, Poppiti says, is partly based on the “overhead myth”—that a well-performing nonprofit has low administrative and fundraising expenses.

Margaret McCarthy, executive director and co-director of Southern Exposure, which dispersed two rounds of emergency funds in lieu of their annual Alternative Exposure grant (normally project-based), says the pandemic has forced many funders to abandon this standard. With space rentals and ticket sales off the table, nonprofits losing their general operating income turned to funders to release previously restricted grants.

It’s a shift McCarthy says she’s been trumpeting long before shelter in place. “As organizations, we want to pay our staff an industry-competitive compensation. We have to do things like pay our rent,” she says. “Project-based support just tries to leap over the operating costs in order to produce the more glamorous projects.”

This isn’t about privileging arts administrators over artists, but acknowledging an organization as a whole entity, the health of which benefits the broader arts ecosystem. “These are people who should be living full lives,” Poppiti says. “Philanthropy has rewarded arts nonprofits for underpaying their employees.”

McCarthy puts it bluntly: “Why should it have to get to an emergency state before we fund the basic needs of organizations?”

Extending that line of reasoning out to individual artist grants only makes sense, says Valerie Imus, Southern Exposure’s artistic director and co-director. “It’s so beyond just trying to support artists to buy supplies,” she says. For its first round of emergency grants, Southern Exposure received 189 applications for 60 available slots. The second, restricted to only San Francisco artists, saw 125 applications for just 19 grants.

Like other grant administrators, Imus knows the psychological toll of sifting through artists’ statements of need and making incredibly difficult decisions about who would receive funding. In notes of thanks from recipients, they mentioned being able to buy groceries or support their extended family for another month. “The stories were just so hard to read,” she says. “It was heartbreaking to not be able to give more.”

Southern Exposure being used as a polling place on Nov. 3, 2020, with an installation by Related Tactics titled 'Never Again is Now' on view. (Beth LaBerge / KQED)

While other industries have been able to reopen in stages, the arts, culture and entertainment sector can only return in full force once the region is completely reopened. Predicting ongoing need, Theatre Bay Area, in partnership with Dancers’ Group and InterMusic SF, established the Performing Arts Worker Relief Fund, which distributes $500–$1,000 grants to individuals on a rolling basis. So far they’ve raised over $600,000 and funded around 700 applicants, with approximately 120 still on the waiting list and 20–30 more each month.

“The fact that people have to reapply ... [shows] it’s not enough,” says Kimberley Cohan, TBA’s programs manager. The relief fund is an exercise in rapid response and coalition-building. Cohan says partnering with other organizations pooled their fundraising power and helped get the word out to even more applicants. Immediate financial need is still present, she says, but she’s also turning her attention to other concerns: helping artists stay in the Bay Area.

Problems Grants Can’t Solve

Lee Lavy, a visual artist and musician who was working as an art handler at the beginning of the year, decided to leave San Francisco with his partner Kelli Wong just before shelter in place took effect. Facing no work and confinement within a tiny apartment, the couple opted instead for Bitterroot Valley, Montana, where Lavy grew up.

“Until the virus hit, we had no intention of leaving San Francisco,” says Lavy, who graduated from UC Berkeley’s MFA program in 2015. In fact, the two returned and resumed work when restrictions lifted somewhat in the summer. But two months later they lost their apartment, a rent-controlled spot Lavy describes as the only reason they were able to live in San Francisco in the first place.

Now they’re two of the many artists who have left the Bay Area for good, a decision Lavy notes is only possible because of family support and the couple’s financial ability to move.

The frequency of such departures is hard to quantify; we no longer have regular gatherings at which to mark sudden absences. Months from now, when we can once again rub elbows during events, the pandemic’s toll on the local art community will be visible in all the empty spaces where our friends once stood.

Chinwe Okona (top right) and her art critique group on Zoom. (Chinwe Okona)

For those who have managed to stay, financial difficulties are just one facet of maintaining a creative practice during the pandemic. Intersection for the Arts, a San Francisco nonprofit that offers fiscal sponsorship and professional development to artists, began holding virtual “Coaching Circles” in April. Amy Kweskin, director of professional development, says the weekly conversations followed a fairly clear path through the stages of grief.

“Navigating the loss of live, in-person—that’s what they mourned—‘I can’t be on a stage reacting to the energy of the theater, I’m behind this anonymous flat screen,’” Kweskin says. “So we spent a lot of time in those coaching sessions figuring out how do you still get those emotions, how do you get that feedback.”

“Especially in the arts, where collaboration is so important, artists and arts workers are not having opportunities to connect,” says Izzy Parlamis, Intersection’s communications director. “The circles allowed for a space to gather and speak.”

Just as emergency grants won’t guarantee an artist’s financial stability in the long run, support systems cannot ignore the nonmonetary pressures on the local arts community, which this year included renewed calls for racial justice and the largest fires in the California’s recent history. 2020 demonstrated the need to serve artists as whole people, not just as producers of projects or owners of dwindling bank accounts.

Looking Ahead to 2021

In order to create a Bay Area where artists have any hope of sticking around, let alone meaningfully pursuing their crafts, we need to radically rethink both funding protocols and the types of nonmonetary support offered to artists.

Some of the most immediate shifts are coming from the city of San Francisco, signaled within the Economic Recovery Task Force Report, which identifies the survival of the city’s arts, culture and entertainment sectors as necessary to its economic recovery as a whole. And the report’s already yielded a tangible result: Mayor London Breed announced a pilot program in early October to provide 130 artists with $1,000 a month for at least six months.

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Artist Power Center, a web and hotline resource, received additional funding from the SFAC to expand its reach in 2021.
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Artist Power Center, a web and hotline resource, received additional funding from the SFAC to expand its reach in 2021. (Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts)

Joanne Lee, the deputy director of programs for the San Francisco Arts Commission (SFAC), says the pilot program is “a way to provide a steady consistent stream of income that is nonrestrictive and builds on trust and choice for what artists need.”

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) will receive a $870,000 grant to administer the basic income program, along with $250,000 to operate an “Arts Hub” (an expansion on the organization’s Artist Power Center) of resources and support services for artists. Funding for both comes from a allocation of the Arts Impact Endowment.

YBCA’s CEO Deborah Cullinan says ideally the basic income program will last much longer than six months, so they can more deeply study how it will impact artists’ lives. Applications will be open to individual artists, with the first month’s funds disbursed by March 2021. The program will prioritize those who had little to no safety net even before the pandemic: BIPOC artists, LGBTQ+ artists and artists with disabilities.

Cullinan sees the Artist Power Center and the basic income pilot program as part of an encompassing plan to develop the capacity of artists who are driving social change. “It has to be that you’re addressing the whole person,” she says. “It can’t be what we’ve done over these many years, which is this kind of transactional grantmaking.”

UBI is gaining traction nationally, thanks in part to Andrew Yang’s presidential campaign, as well as evidence that the direct cash provided through the CARES Act prevented an estimated 12 million people from sinking into poverty. Programs like Stockton’s $500-a-month UBI pilot may be the beginning of a national trend.

“It’s not just artists. There needs to be some restoration of the safety net with no questions asked,” Elliott says. “I like the idea of universal basic income. That could really go a long way to putting a floor under people.”

Lee says initiatives like the basic income program, along with freeing up other SFAC funds towards general operating expenses, are “very big” for city government. And while the enthusiasm for large-scale change is there (the task force came down in favor of health care and internet for all, and student and consumer debt relief, among other progressive proposals), the real test will be funding these initiatives in the long term—or more likely, convincing the state or federal government to do so.

As Poppiti says, “Long-lasting change will be the systems-level change.”

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