Arts and Culture, Part 3: Helping and Hurting Artists

Seven weeks ago I published two essays on the way U.S. arts advocates — the established institutions in particular — responded to the pandemic. The first one criticized the narrow, economistic, and backward-looking calls for funding issuing from red-carpeted marble halls. The second one called for very different statements and actions, grounded in social benefit, with investment in jobs and partnerships that respond to the crying need.

Since then, there’s been considerable media attention to funds set up in the U.S., Canada, and Europe to support arts organizations and artists. It’s easy to generalize about them: almost all the funders who said they would increase giving in this time have prioritized the recipients they’ve been supporting all along, wanting to fill income gaps that come from pandemic-canceled projects. It isn’t that they don’t need the money; it’s just that this pattern gives priority to those who already have access to resources.

Given the nature of cultural funding — both public and private — in the U.S., most of these resources support established organizations. To pick a random example, using the phrase “cornerstone organizations” to describe its recipients, the Gulf Coast Community Foundation announced ten grants “effectively doubling Gulf Coast’s investment in these organizations at a uniquely difficult time.” Most are the usual suspects, ballet company, regional theater, museum, symphony, opera.

For context, it helps to know that historically, such institutions receive the lion’s share of both public and private arts grants, but those funds typically amount to just a portion of their support, which is much more likely to come from individual donors, gala events, and ticket sales. Their expenses are inflated by costs not directly involved in artmaking, such as the aforementioned marble halls, star salaries, blockbuster art acquisitions, large marketing and promotion staffs — all the trappings that add up to the designation “major institution.” So while any of these organizations may realistically project a major shortfall due to the pandemic, the shortfall is proportionate to their usual inflated expenditures. If the point is to present wonderful opera performances, just offering them in an ordinary hall without Pavarotti et al in the cast but with affordable ticket prices would easily obviate the problem. The red-carpet arts institutions simply want to continue in the style to which they have become accustomed, and are happy to accept both public and private funds toward that end.

There’s a nice presentation of this question in Oregon Artswatch. If you scroll down, you’ll see I commented, sharing the story of “years ago working with a theater company in the Twin Cities when they learned that the Guthrie’s budget for tartans for a production of Macbeth was far larger than their entire annual budget.” Seen in this light, the funding sector’s relationship to equity calls for once again quoting my favorite from Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

Philanthropy, in its majestic equality, enables the rich as well as the poor to stay that way. The whole “we’re all in this together” frame promoted by powers-that-be around the pandemic and economic consequences obscures that for some, belt-tightening means cutting back on champagne and for others, going without food.

This isn’t just an issue for the cultural sector, of course. Surely the U.S. Treasury Secretary has refused to disclose recipients of $600 billion in taxpayer-funded loans to avoid the fallout that would come from learning how much of your money and mine has gone to protect wealth and privilege. Several publicly traded companies were earlier revealed as recipients, and some of them were embarrassed enough by public shock to give the money back.

So who in the cultural sector is hardest hit? Small community-based organizations and projects, and artists who work from gig to gig, on a project basis, without steady employment. This is equally true in the U.S., and most places abroad, even in countries that have had decent relief programs. And it comes at a time when their work is sorely needed, as I wrote a few weeks ago, speaking of 100 community artists who gathered to discuss the situation on Zoom:

We all understood that the work we do is needed now more than ever. Artists grounded in community and committed to loving and just practice have such important roles to play under such circumstances: bearing witness to both history and present-day experience; bringing people together in communities of consolation; weaving social fabric; and dreaming the future we want to help bring about.

Funding has come to individuals in the U.S. via enhanced unemployment benefits — open to gig workers and independent contractors who have the energy and perseverance to get through the bureaucracy, be denied ordinary benefits, and apply for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. (Here’s a story about just one state’s woes with demands on the system.) Some other countries have done better — there’s a roundup in the Guardian.

There has been some organizing around support for independent artists. Art Workers Italia has gotten a lot of attention since the release of its manifesto at the beginning of May. Researcher and writer Susan Jones has been one of the most active in the U.K in exploring the situation for individual artists, with a special focus on visual artists. There have been statements focused on specific groups of artists, such as this one on artists living with disabilities.

Most recently, a large number of community-based artists in the U.K have signed onto an open letter to high officials and Arts Council England calling for more dialogue, funding, and other actions to strengthen what they call “participatory arts.” From this side of the ocean, I was struck by how polite and collegial their demands are. I guess that is the difference between a context in which protesting artists have a realistic hope of actually being heard, and one in which it is hard to find grounds for hope.

The whole wicked problem of sustenance for artists, especially those who place their gifts at the service of community, could be seen to stand in for the entire challenge of supporting people through crisis. As has so often been pointed out, philanthropy’s good intentions are often distorted in practice into harm. Vu Le’s wonderful blog, Nonprofit AF, is one of the best places to learn about this. Check out his recent essay on barriers to equity and justice in the nonprofit world as exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.

If I were queen of the world, the support systems I would advocate are those I’ve written about many times before, most recently in part two of this series. A universal basic income is a far better solution to individual livelihood than any system based, as almost all U.S. arts support programs are, on time-consuming competitions for inadequate resources. The one-time $1200 individual relief payments that went out as part of the federal COVID-19 relief package, repeated monthly, would be easier to access and administer, cheaper than supporting the enormous rejection apparatus that is part of every existing punitive and means-tested program. It would stop the ridiculous contest of special pleading for artists when many workers are in the same boat and no one is served by claiming one group is more deserving than others. Most of all, it would remove the stigma and pain of rejection generated by every grant initiative, as I can’t think of one that doesn’t receive ten times as many applications as could be financed through the funds set aside for it.

A good example of this story is unfolding right here in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Acting quickly on the desire to support emergency funding to local artists, the City Arts and Culture Department partnered with the Lannan Foundation to create the “Culture Connects Coalition Artist Relief Fund.” The project received a great deal of press attention when it was announced in March. Its stated priority was “artists from communities that have been historically and systemically economically disadvantaged.” The guidelines amplify this a bit: “If there are more requests than funds available, we will give priority to requests from Black/Indigenous/People of Color, transgender and nonbinary, and/or artists with disabilities.” Funds were being raised to support $500 grants, two rounds so far (and perhaps more if more funding is obtained).

I’ve been hearing of talented and dedicated local artists of color, steeped in community service, some in extreme economic straits, who received form rejections: “Dear Artist, We write to express our sincere regrets that, unfortunately, you have not been selected at this time….” I obtained a full copy of a form response to rejected applicants from the Arts and Culture Department, and it was sobering. Some of the low points:

It was stated that 150 artists applied for the second round, but no information has been released as to how many were funded or who they were. I have seen no official statement explaining this, but have heard that grant lists have not been and will not be released because the program is based on need, for fear of embarrassing the recipients by stigmatizing them as needy.

No information is in circulation about who was on the decision-making panel or how they deliberated and decided.

What I find most troubling is that in a misguided attempt to clarify the guidelines for future submissions, rejected recipients were offered the following suggestions to strengthen their future applications:

There are essentially three things the jury will be looking for in future rounds. When crafting your statements (you can start now), please consider these criteria:

1) Urgency of Hardship: How drastic has the loss of income/opportunity been for you? Do you have other circumstances (health, etc.) that are worsened as a result of lost income/opportunity? Have you had other losses?

2) Timeliness of Request: Is your request a result of anticipated losses (an art market in August vs have you already missed a major market income opportunity in May)? The committee appreciates artists who plan for the future, but there may be other artists suffering currently who need help now.

3) Degree of Reliance on Art for Income: Under normal market conditions, what percentage of your annual income is derived from art and/or art related activities?

I am reminded of the 12th-century Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides’ discourse on the eight levels of tzedakah. In Hebrew, the word means both charity and justice. The highest levels on his ladder were helping someone to become self-sufficient and giving to those in need without revealing either the specific recipient or donor, to avoid unseemly preferences or obligations and to perform tzedakah “for the sake of heaven.”

In circumstances like these, when the aim is to disperse emergency aid quickly, a cleaner, more streamlined process would help. Be transparent about how much funding is available and how (and by whom) it is to be allocated. Create a very simple and easy qualifying form enabling applicants to list work or funding they’ve lost, and to check boxes specifying any preferential categories they fit. From the list of pre-qualified applicants, chose recipients by lottery from the whole pool or from a pool segmented by objective categories such as equal numbers of performing, literary, media, and visual artists or equal representation of specific communities. Publish the list of recipients without framing the whole thing in a way that is intrinsically shaming.

I shudder to contemplate a world in which hard-pressed social and environmental justice-oriented artists are asked to plead that their poverty, ill health, or ill fortune marks them as more deserving than others; and found wanting by these criteria, receive a “Dear Artist” rejection letter. I have no doubt that in this small program as in virtually all the others of any scale, the intention was positive and worthy. I am acquainted with some of the people involved, and I am certain their aim was to do the right thing.

But for the sake of right relationship, the execution needs to be considered separately from the intention. Ethics demand examining how such arrangements look, feel, and impact all perspectives: applicants, recipients, the rejected, the larger community, and so on. The way things are usually done, virtually all such funds set up a competition grounded in scarcity; reproduce the larger society’s assumptions about who is worthy to judge and who to receive help; introduce humiliation into already-stressed lives; and in the place of decent transparency and accountability offer a kind of public-private noblesse oblige.

This small and well-intended relief program is but one example of the serious flaws built into the existing philanthropic system. Overall, despite good intentions — most people I’ve met who work in the sector are motivated by the desire to help — the system in this country, both public and private, is so skewed it is hard to see how to fix it except through a complete rethinking and overhaul. Stated simply, the day has come to challenge the existence of a system that mostly finds it okay to leap to red-carpet institutions’ support without looking overmuch at the outdated, inflated, and inequitable way they raise and spend their money, yet puts hard-pressed and dedicated community artists through humiliating rituals in the hope of receiving $500.

Bob Dylan, “Crossing The Rubicon.”

Writer, painter, speaker, consultant activist. Learn more about

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