In this pandemic, artists are among the most financially vulnerable. At the last full Census count, 65% of writers, 57% of visual artists, 41% of musicians and singers, and 36% of performing artists reported being self-employed. For decades, economists’ research has revealed that artists’ incomes are far lower than other workers with comparable levels of education. What’s happening currently?
Drew Digby, Arrowhead Regional Arts Council’s Executive Director, reports that artists in our region have sustained job and sales losses at dizzying paces over the past few months. Even before March 1 and the stay-at-home order, theatres and music venues cancelled performances, often without paying artists cancellation fees. Art museums and galleries shuttered their doors. By March 15, almost every artist that ARAC staff talked to reported a substantial implosion in income, including losses from moonlighting as restaurant or retail workers. Until the CARES Act was signed on March 27, self-employed artists were ineligible for unemployment compensation. “The panic was incredible,” reflects Digby. “Many feared that would not be able to pay rent due on April 1.”
ARAC pitched in to help, reinventing itself by creating four emergency grant programs. They contributed to St. Paul-based nonprofit Springboard for the Arts who in turn offered artists emergency arts grants of $500. ARAC cut back on other activities such as trainings and converted all ARAC small grants money into emergency Covid grants of $750. “We received 25 applications from Arrowhead area artists who had been laid off or whose markets had been shuttered,” said Digby. They deferred their Established Regional Artist grant awards, transferring these funds to their Emergency Working Artists Grants. The McKnight Foundation permitted them to switch grant moneys from established regional arts to emergency grants of $2000 each to two dozen individual artists. ARAC then took every penny left at the end of the fiscal year to fund thirteen more. They again contribute to Springboard to quickly funded 12 area artist projects.
Arrowhead arts organizations and venues have been similarly hard-hit. To help cushion the blows of forced shuttering, ARAC continued to disburse existing organizational grants. ARAC’s Digby contacted fifty regional organizations to find out what they needed in terms of operating support.
“More artists and organizations than I expected, especially small ones, wanted us to keep money in project grants because that was a way to keep funding artists,” Digby reflected. “I was pleased that so many groups wanted to make sure that money was still flowing to their artists, one way or another.”
Digby and his board and responded with a newly-tailored Organizational Stability Grant. Organizations could apply for up to $2000 to keep running during Covid. The Board funded eleven of them.
ARAC mounted a fourth grant program tailored for the relatively isolated Grand Marais and Grand Portage arts community, funded by a private anonymous foundation. They awarded 54 grants for artists, with special emphasis for those on the Grand Portage reservation.
How well did Minnesota’s Department of Employment and Economics Development’s Covid program work for artists? DEED moved faster than any other state to provide and speed up aid to workers across the board, including artists, Digby shared. Minnesota’s responses have been creative, using a mechanism in disaster law that permits payments to people who aren’t qualified for normal FEMA relief. It’s still confusing, as DEED Commissioner Andy Groves acknowledged in a webinar open to the public last week. Artists were encouraged to apply for unemployment from the beginning.
Though it was a confusing process, “Minnesota managed to enroll many artists faster than in other states,” noted Digby. “The downside was that they didn’t stop to make it “pretty.”
ARAC is one of 11 regional arts councils in Minnesota, funded by appropriations from the Minnesota state legislature with money from the State’s general fund and Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund (Legacy Amendment). It also applies for and receives foundation funding. During this Covid stretch, ARAC conferred with the other regional arts councils - Digby serves as President of the group. “We initiated weekly calls with funders,” he shared. “We pushed for ‘listening to the arts.’” At the end of April, they ran arts town halls, one for organizations and one for individuals, involving more than 600 participants. The major convening organizations – Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, ArtsMidwest, and Springboard – all listened.
Artists are creatively responding to Covid challenges. A tiny percentage of artists are masters at on-line sales. Some are taking performances and classes on-line, for free or for a fee. This author paid for a stimulating jazz singing class by Sarah Greer, a frequent performer at Oldenburg House. I also plunked down for a wonderful evening of musical and dance performances organized by Minneapolis’ Patrick Scully. A recent Pine Knot ran a wonderful story about Mothy Groves and pals creating an online music video. Many parents, reports Digby, are begging teaching artists to give their kids lessons remotely. ARAC and partners are doing online marketing for artists including lessons on how to take your art to its next level.
Reflecting back, Digby recalls an adrenaline rush the first six weeks. “But there’s a lot of sadness in this. Many artists are fearing eviction, using rent money to buy food. There is still much to be done. I don’t think a $1,200 or $2,000 grant will alleviate all the pain that artists are going through,” he concludes. He leaves us with this prediction: “The rural areas that will make it economically are those with arts in them!”