I don’t typically cry at work. But last week, the tears flowed. I’ve read thousands of grant proposals in my career. None have been as devastating as the applications my organization, Asylum Arts, received from 141 artists as part of our emergency Covid relief funds.
We have $50,000 to disburse to artists impacted by the pandemic, thanks to the generous support of the CANVAS initiative, a partnership of five Jewish foundations working with Jewish Funders Network. But we know that every single artist across the globe has been hurt by the pandemic. The cultural sector is one of the industries that has completely shut down, exacerbating most artists’ already precarious place in our economy.
Supporting artists and culture in this moment is not a luxury. During this period of social distancing, all of us have been comforted, inspired or moved by a work of art. We’ve read poetry, attended online performances, listened to podcasts or toured museums digitally. These experiences allow us to understand and process our world, creating understanding and empathy, and shifting our perspectives. They expand our minds and hearts. All of those experiences are possible only because an artist spent hours working to share their creative voice with the world. And much like other vulnerable members of our society, many of these artists are struggling with basic needs right now.
Artists typically survive on a patchwork of paid jobs, creative gigs and travel to wherever a grant or commission can take them. Now they have lost most of that work, and are not being compensated for much of the investments they’ve already made. Very few venues are honoring contracts, even when artists have already spent a significant amount of time and money (shipping art across the world, buying materials or hiring colleagues). Many have lost income from work they did before the pandemic. One New York artist shared that she had paid for shipment and materials for two shows slated to open in Poland in the spring, both of which were cancelled. Although galleries have reopened in Tel Aviv and Berlin, live venues have not, and due to the larger economic situation, it’s unlikely even those now-open shows will result in significant sales.
By necessity, artists often live a nomadic life. The pandemic has exacerbated the risks of this lifestyle. We’re hearing of artists stranded in unfamiliar communities without a network of support and navigating a foreign government’s bureaucracy and health system, all of which is terrifying during a crisis. Many artists have insecure visa situations, and aren’t eligible for emergency support. One artist who relocated to Australia shared that, “Despite being registered as a resident in AUS and paying taxes to the Australian Tax Authorities in the last 2.5 years, I am not eligible for any financial aid from the Australian government since all the financial aid offered (both those specific to artists and those to the general population) are reserved to Australian citizens and those with permanent resident status only.”
Artists’ creative and collaborative processes have also suffered. Nearly all artists work in a community, whether they are visual artists in a print or pottery studio or a choreographer making large-scale work with 30 dancers. The pandemic isn’t just making the work impossible, but robbing artists of inspiration, connection and cross-pollination. Artists can still create at home in isolation — and many do — but this is just a fraction of their actual practice. And most artists, and certainly the Jewish ones, are drawn to cities, with limited space, higher costs and greater exposure to the virus.
At Asylum Arts, we put out a call to our network of nearly 700 artists, offering $1,000 grants that we named Sustaining Practice Grants, specifically intended to allow them to continue doing their creative work. We asked artists only to apply if they had lost more than half of their household income. Our application allowed artists to share the pandemic’s impact on their practice and life. We received 141 applications, far more than we can support. And each application is a microcosm of both suffering and resilience.
We have given 50 of these 141 artists grants that will perhaps pay part of their rent, or allow a breath during a moment of acute financial stress. One artist who received funding wrote, “Sweet and calm tears of joy and gratitude soothingly glide down my face. I feel like somebody cares if I’m safe with stable housing and feels like my art has a positive contribution to make in this world. That is a gift from beyond the beyond.” And if you are doing the math, that support only reached 35 percent of those who applied and qualified.
In this moment, we all need to support our artists, whether it is purchasing an album you’ve been streaming, buying a new work for your home or, if you’re in the position to do so, donating generously to an organization or fund that is supporting artists directly. We must ensure that our Jewish artists can continue to work, creating culture that will allow us to reflect on this moment, and have hope for the future.
Rebecca Guber is the director and founder of Asylum Arts, and previously was the founding director of the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists.