In late March, I looked at the rapid mobilization of arts funders to support artists and organizations affected by COVID-19. Two weeks later, many commentators’ worst-case fears have come to fruition. Organizations have laid off staff, while others have permanently closed. And with most U.S. cities under “shelter in place” orders, artists find themselves increasingly concerned about food, rent and healthcare costs.

Fortunately, funders have kept the support flowing as the sector enters a critical new phase.

“The arts are central to our ability to cope with the physical distancing orders that dictate our daily lives,” said Cate Fox, a senior program officer at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, after the launch of the new Arts for Illinois Fund. “The whole premise of the arts is bringing people together to make sense of an experience. Artists and arts organizations continue to do that; the only thing that has changed is, now, they receive little or no money. We owe it to artists and arts organizations to step up and support them in this moment.”

This second wave of support finds funders creating new emergency funds for small- to mid-sized organizations and artists while purposing existing funds for COVID-19-related efforts. Here is an overview of some noteworthy new efforts.

Major Funders Launch “Artist Relief”

A coalition of seven national funders, including the Academy of American Poets, Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, and United States Artists launched Artist Relief, which will provide unrestricted $5,000 relief grants to help artists facing financial emergencies due to the pandemic.

The fund will launch with $10 million, consisting of $5 million in seed funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, matched with $5 million in initial contributions from partner foundations. Organizers will continue to fundraise beyond the launch of the grant program to address artists’ evolving needs.

To that end, Artist Relief’s funders also announced the co-launch of the COVID-19 Impact Survey for Artists and Creative Works. Designed by Americans for the Arts, the survey aims to better identify and address artists’ needs moving forward.

“In hard times like these, we turn to the arts to illuminate and help us make meaning and find connection. Without immediate intervention, individual artists and the arts ecosystem of which they are the foundation could sustain irreparable damage,” said Andrew W. Mellon Foundation President Elizabeth Alexander. “As artists confront these new fiscal realities, we are proud to support this vital effort to address artists’ urgent needs. We call on others to join us in supporting artists so they may continue to be our lights, chroniclers, and connectors throughout this crisis and beyond.”

The fund, which will operate through the next six months, is now accepting applications at artistrelief.org

The Arts for Illinois Fund

In late March, MacArthur Foundation President John Palfrey told me that local arts funders were considering launching an arts-specific emergency fund parallel to the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund. On April 1, his prediction came to pass when the City of Chicago, State of Illinois, and philanthropic organizations including MacArthur formed the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund to support artists and arts and culture organizations experiencing hardship caused by COVID-19.

The private-public partnership will award grants between $1,500 and $2,000 to individuals and between $6,000 to $30,000 to organizations that have been impacted by the pandemic. The fund is also showcasing work from artists who have made their art available online and through virtual arts events. As of April 1, the fund had raised over $4 million.

“While the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund is open to artists and arts organizations of all perspectives, it has a central commitment to serving artists of color, women and people with disabilities,” Palfrey told me. “At this moment, when no revenue is being generated, artists and arts organizations are at their most generative, using their skills, talent and assets to benefit our communities. They are sewing face masks, creating music, and making us laugh when we need it the most. We need to support them when they need it most.”

A Lifeline to L.A. Arts Organizations

The Getty Trust announced the $10 million L.A. Arts COVID-19 Relief Fund with grant amounts expected to range from $25,000 to $200,000. Administered by the California Community Foundation (CCF), the fund will provide “emergency operating support and recovery grants to small and mid-size museums and nonprofit arts organizations that contribute so significantly to the region’s cultural and artistic diversity, and are struggling with the economic effects of the coronavirus crisis.”

In addition, the Fellowship for the Visual Arts grant, which is administered by the CFF from an endowment established by the Getty in 1988, will be repurposed as an emergency support grant for individual visual artists.

“The Getty has an important role in the cultural life of the city,” Jim Cuno, the president and chief executive of the Getty Trust, told the Los Angeles Times. “The idea is that we could work with others and get something done to address the needs of small and midsize institutions, which have fewer resources that can sustain them over time.” Cuno hopes other donors will chip in. “We don’t want to be doing it alone,” he said.

Getty’s leaders are drawing on their experiences in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the funder stepped up to save historic buildings and support local organizations. “In New Orleans, they didn’t know what was going to happen next: Would the people come back? Would the money come back?” said Getty Foundation Director Joan Weinstein. “It reminds me of the moment we’re in. Even if we get through this initial part of the pandemic, what will happen? When will we be able to venture back out again? Will people want to congregate?”

The Largest Commitment Ever by a Young Foundation

The Helen Frankenthaler Foundation announced a three-year, $5 million commitment to support artists and organizations affected by the coronavirus. The pledge is the largest amount the foundation has ever devoted to a single cause since its inception in 2013. 

The foundation will allocate the first round of $1.25 million accordingly:

  • $500,000 to the Foundation for Contemporary Arts’ COVID-19 Relief Fund, which is providing emergency grants to artists whose performances and exhibitions were canceled due to the coronavirus. The fund will offer one-time grants of $1,500 to offset artists’ losses, including the cost of already-purchased materials or equipment and an anticipated loss of income from ticket sales and artist and commissioning fees. 

  • $500,000 to the Artist Relief Fund, a new initiative that will offer direct grants to artists “for general financial hardship.”

  • $250,000 to support 15 small New York City-based arts organizations that present the work of living artists.

“None of us could ever have imagined the far-reaching medical and financial disaster that has engulfed us as a result of this pandemic,” said Chairman Clifford Ross. “The art world must galvanize to support both its artists and those that work every day at its museums and cultural institutions.”

The Andy Warhol Foundation Pivots To Relief

The Andy Warhol Foundation is authorizing the 16 organizations in its Regional Re-granting Program to repurpose annual $100,000 grants as COVID-19 emergency relief funds.

The foundation normally earmarks the funding for projects that fall outside the reach of conventional funding sources; now, the foundation, which is also one of the funders behind Artist Relief, will award $1.6 million in total funding without restriction.

“The Warhol Foundation is committed to working at both the national and regional level to provide support for artists at this critical moment,” said President Joel Wachs. “With the help of our Regional Re-granting network, we are able to directly address the emergency-related needs of artists in cities where the level of on-the-ground, self-organized artistic activity is highest.”

Other Developments

We’re also seeing steady support coming from regional and niche funders. Here are three examples:

  • A coalition of Louisville, Kentucky-based cultural groups established the Artist Relief Trust to provide Kentucky and Indiana artists with $500 “rapid-response micro-grants” to pay for basic needs such as food, housing or healthcare. The trust has received over 200 applications since its launch.

  • Anonymous Was a Woman (AWAW), which provides unrestricted grants to female artists over age 40, announced $2,500 grants for artists in this frequently overlooked demographic. The $250,000 in total funding, which represents twice the amount the funder normally allocates annually, can be used to cover basic necessities such as food, rent, childcare and medical costs. “This is the first time in 24 years that I’ve expanded beyond our stated mission because this is an unprecedented moment,” said founder Susan Unterberg. “Artists needed help, and I was able to help.”

  • The Bret Adams & Paul Reisch Foundation is redirecting its entire 2020 grant budget into emergency assistance grants of $2,500 to playwrights, composers, librettists and lyricists who have had a full professional show canceled, closed or indefinitely postponed due to COVID-19. The foundation hopes to give up to 40 grants of $2,500.

Praise for Funders, But More Relief is Needed

While funders have been supporting artists and organizations in the wake of the pandemic for over a month now, I’d like to propose March 20—the date when funders launched the $75 million NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund—as “day zero” in which philanthropy’s response reached critical mass. Three weeks later, we’re beginning to see some larger sector-wide trends taking shape.

First, arts funders have performed to near-unanimous praise. Unlike critics’ grievances with America’s billionaire class, no one is arguing that arts funders are tackling the wrong problems. Artists and organizations bluntly expressed their needs once the coronavirus hit—namely, immediate unrestricted funding and more grantmaking flexibility—and funders, even those with an aversion to doling out no-strings-attached cash, have stepped up and provided it.

The few critics I’ve come across are simply arguing that funders could be doing even more. In calling for a “Marshall Plan” for the New York City’s arts community, Karen Brooks Hopkins, the former president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music, noted, “While some foundations have jumped in to help, there are many more on the sidelines.”

And on March 20, Los Angeles-based journalist Jori Finkel penned an open letter to Getty Trust President and Chief Executive Jim Cuno asking the funder to assist the city’s arts ecosystem.

Citing the NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund, Finkel asked, “Where is the Getty’s sense of civic responsibility today during this unprecedented health and financial crisis?” before adding, “I trust you are also having wide-ranging and soul-searching conversations about the most meaningful ways the Getty could help the larger arts community here now. I just hope those talks will result in action soon.”

Getty announced the L.A. Arts COVID-19 Relief Fund less than two weeks later.

The trust’s response was telling, as it eerily mirrored the pre-coronavirus arts funding landscape. After all, one of the big themes in the arts sector has been diminishing public support for the arts, further amplifying philanthropy’s role in sustaining and cultivating arts ecosystems. COVID-19 has further magnified this dynamic.

Finkel’s letter to Getty’s Cuno cited the city’s “inadequate” support for artists and organizations thus far, while one of the less-celebrated takeaways from the $2 trillion federal stimulus bill is the fact that American cultural organizations received less than 5% of what they requested from Congress’s $2 trillion aid package. And on April 7, nine museum associations, citing an “existential threat,” sent a letter to Congressional leadership proposing responses beyond those contained in the stimulus bill.

As to where artists and organizations can turn for help in the meantime, well, we already know the answer to that question.

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