Ever since the pandemic brought live performances to a screeching halt, Don*, a jazz musician, has been forced to put off addressing urgent dental work, without which it is impossible to play his woodwind instruments. Mary, a dance artist who has lost commissions and artist residencies, is two months behind on rent and has been facing the eviction of her entire family from their apartment. And Alberta, whose play closed due to the pandemic, has sunk deep into debt while simultaneously providing caregiving to family and grappling with the loss of other loved ones to COVID-19. These are just three of the heartbreaking stories that were shared with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation (DDCF) during the application process for the foundation’s latest funding relief effort in partnership with The New York Community Trust—and they underscore how artists are still struggling under the weight of the pandemic.
For performing artists, COVID-19 has been devastating. In addition to grappling with typical pandemic stressors, creatives needed to find a way to stay financially afloat after their industry shut down overnight. Even worse, artists could no longer turn to service sector jobs in restaurants and retail that have long served as a way for them to support themselves while pursuing their art. For the first time, it became impossible to earn wages from these sustaining industries, leaving many adrift. As I write this, the pandemic continues to unfold as a slow-moving disaster for the field.
Certainly, the pandemic exacerbated economic insecurity for artists, but this issue has long plagued the industry. Artists have always been vulnerable to having one personal—or national—crisis derail their entire career. If we truly believe that the arts are an essential part of our lives, then as philanthropists, we must create more financial stability for artists, particularly those BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities hardest hit by economic ebbs and flows. These professionals often lack access to funding. In this fraught moment when we need creativity and culture more than ever, we cannot lose these artists.
That is why, since before the start of the pandemic, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has been providing unrestricted funding to performing artists. In its latest round of grantmaking, our New York-based national foundation announced it would provide financial support to 300 performing artists impacted by COVID-19—no strings attached. These funds can be used to cover living expenses, rent, healthcare and medical needs, debt relief, transportation, child care and other urgent needs. If artists cannot meet their basic needs, including securing stable housing and having access to quality healthcare, their craft can suffer. It’s our hope that our support will give these artists the breathing room they need to resume performances when the opportunity arises.
We support unrestricted giving because it jumpstarts creativity by better supporting artists. Unlike other industries, the creative sector does not lend itself to tidy, measurable outcomes. Artists create art organically—no rubric or list of metrics can adequately measure these contributions to society. When funding creative undertakings, we need to afford more flexibility to allow their innovation and originality to unfold. We trust that when artists are cared for and valued, great art will follow.
Underscoring the extent of the pandemic pain endured by performers, hundreds of artists applied for funding through the DDCF. These submissions were wrenching. More than 80% of artists who applied had lost their main source of income due to canceled performances. Over 50% needed housing assistance. And more than 30% couldn’t afford the cost of basic healthcare as the pandemic raged around them. There was also a significant number of artists who were parents, caretakers or immunocompromised and could not work at all, leaving them especially vulnerable to gaps in our broken safety net.
Since the spring of 2020, the DDCF has allocated approximately $4 million to artists who have struggled throughout the pandemic. Through pooled funds, such as Artist Relief, Jazz Road Quick Assist, Dance/NYC and the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, we have been able to quickly distribute relief. When allocating funds, the DDCF made a conscious effort to reach underrepresented groups of artists—and succeeded. Of the 300 artists who received a total of $3 million in Doris Duke Foundation Performing Artist Recovery Fund grants, 70% identified as African American/Black, Arab, Asian, Hispanic/Latinx or Native American. Less than half of the grantees identified as male, 41% identified as female and 5% identified as transgender or gender nonconforming. Nine percent of the grantees were people with disabilities.
We’ve witnessed the power of unrestricted funding, even in relatively nominal amounts. With $10,000, Mary can stave off eviction and focus on her craft, Alberta can help loved ones without the additional strain of no financial safety net, and Don can pay for his $5,000 dental work, which will allow him to return to playing live as the world reopens. This funding is helping artists get back on their feet and back to sharing their talents with society.
Eighteen months of pandemic living has made the world less vibrant. We miss seeing a playwright’s work debut on stage, a dancer electrify a darkened theater with their kinetic power, a trumpeter blast out a series of bright, brassy notes in a packed venue. But as artists fight hard to rebound and continue to create, we have the opportunity to rebuild arts philanthropy by finally putting artists at the heart of our giving. Let’s use this moment to reimagine how foundations can prioritize the arts and pledge to do better in this new chapter.
* All names have been changed to protect the artists’ privacy.
Maurine Knighton is program director for the arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.