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Fund the Artist First

By Evan Aanerud


For the past four months, you’ve probably been inundated with calls to #SaveTheArts and requests to donate to your local community theatre, museum, or arts organization. Maybe you’ve given through a virtual fundraiser or a live-streamed cabaret where artists cheekily sing show tunes in their living room while a dog barks off camera. Regardless of where you have put your money (or who you’ve debated giving to), there’s no question that everyone in the arts is struggling right now. 


As thousands of artists lost their jobs, income, and livelihoods in less than a week, relief funds quickly formed to provide quick and immediate financial aid to those in need. Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been distributed to artists across the country through these programs; organizations, celebrities, and arts leaders have been able to raise an astounding amount of money to support working artists.


Of course, artists aren’t the only ones in financial turmoil. Museums, regional and community theatres, and other nonprofit arts institutions recently began to establish emergency relief funds for general operating support: heat and electric bills, rent or building expenses, and staff salaries. Understandably, they ramped up their fundraising campaigns, stressing to donors the importance of giving to “save” their institution. It is widely understood that this economic crisis threatens not just the unemployed artists and staff, but the institutions themselves.  


Yet, just two weeks ago, several major arts organizations received millions of dollars in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, only after implementing new layoffs and furloughs. These layoffs target the lowest-paid workers at any institution (often the most racially diverse of departments), while executive staff, senior managers, and board members continue to receive disproportionately higher salaries. 


Organizational pay inequities, relief funds, and social media campaigns probably aren’t new information for you. But it’s important context to set the omnipresent tone: this is a critical moment in the arts industry. Especially for theatre artists, performers, and any artistic discipline that requires public gathering, we are in an indefinite pause. As dismal as the future of our industry looks, there’s a hopeful, inspiring silver lining in all of this. No, it’s not something that Good Morning America will feature on a morning special. Losing our jobs, our artistry, and our institutions has brought a long-overdue institutional reckoning. We have the chance to look critically at how our artistic fields operate, and reexamine who benefits the most, and the least, from our work. (Hint: it’s not the artists…)


I’m not here to tell you where to put your money...wait...actually, I kind of am. 


I’m not asking you to sever your financial ties with your local community theatre. I’m not asking you to withhold your support from a museum you grew up attending. In a time when money is tight, I’m asking you to step back and look critically at where your dollars are going. 


“As we look towards the horizon, perhaps the importance of ‘Patron Lounges’ and glamorous building renovations will wane as we come to realize that theatre exists in the artists that make it, not the buildings that house it.” says Nicholas Berger in his blog post, “The Forgotten Art of Assembly.” Have arts institutions lost perspective on what is most important? Have our theatres, museums, and universities lost touch with their capital investments? 


The numbers speak for themselves. Last year, the Philadelphia Museum of Art successfully completed an over $455 million capital campaign, the largest effort in the museum’s history. Among the things included are a $25 million new museum auditorium and $25 million towards gallery renovation and expansion. The Museum set a whopping total of $233 million dollars solely for capital (building) improvements.The Museum has now cut more than 100 jobs from its staff, over 20% of its staff due to depleted admissions, retail sales, food services, and special-events income. Yikes. 


In 2016, Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago began a $73 million ambitious campus expansion, phase one of which included a new 80-seat flexible performance space and an all-day and evening cafe and bar. Phase two, set for completion in 2021, includes a new 400-seat in the round theatre, a two-story atrium lobby, and a wine bar and sidewalk lounge. As of July 14, Steppenwolf has laid off 47 part-time employees, 14% of its full-time staff, and has furloughed 52% of staff for various lengths of time due to pandemic-related budget cuts. 


We must instigate institutional change in the arts fundraising landscape. Theatres, museums, and arts organizations have invested billions of dollars in capital campaigns, new facilities, and shiny infrastructure to appeal to donors. But where does that value go when everything shuts down? How do you feel about the brand new, state-of-the-art lobby you just finished fundraising for, now that a majority of your staff are unemployed? COVID-19 has cast a light on the ugly truth that production, building, and other capital expenses are prioritized in fundraising strategies over basic living wages for employees. The institutionalized arts industry is in desperate need of a value check. 


If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that established arts organizations must prioritize their most important assets: the people. Not only the administrative staff, but the bartenders, custodial workers, ushers, and master electricians, all are more valuable than the art itself. 


Put your people over your art. “Art is our mission and it connects us all!” This is a nice, pretty bow that institutions wrap to conceal the fact that they’re paying a majority of their staff an embarrassingly-low wage. Without your people, art doesn’t happen. 


This is not a call to defund arts organizations across America. Most are doing incredible work to keep their staff on payroll, and as artists, we need these institutions. This is also not an attempt to be divisive in the arts community. This is a call to hold ourselves accountable to support the artist first, and to advocate for a shift in priorities of all arts institutions towards the people. Look critically at what your donation will support. Will it directly benefit a working artist? Or will it fall into general operating support?


I’ve been inspired by the efficient and selfless work of Springboard for the Arts in St. Paul, MN, within their own Emergency Relief Fund, and the communal network they’ve formed of national relief fund groups. Springboard’s Executive Director, Laura Zabel, believes small, local programs can fix bigger systems. I think we must realign our organizations, board members, trustees, staff, audiences, and members towards this “bottom-up” thinking in our fundraising philosophy. Let’s use COVID-19 to be artist-centric: assert that your donation to any organization will go directly towards an artist’s salary or wages. 


The Emerging Artist Initiative was formed with this principle in mind. We knew we wanted to support young artists that are left unqualified for other relief funds. We knew we wanted to hit the ground running instead of waiting to launch until we had fundraised $15,000. Above all, it was important that we were putting money directly in the pockets of young artists, giving them the financial stability so they have a future in the arts, in the theatres, museums, universities, and institutions that will need their skills within the next ten years. 


Arts organizations do not exist without the artist. As institutions begin to open and ask for financial support, think long and hard about what your dollars are going towards. The $600/week pandemic unemployment compensation program ends next week, putting countless gig workers, contract workers, and self-employed artists at risk. These are human survival needs. Do not forget that artists are struggling to pay essential living expenses. We must invest in the artist before we fund the institution. 



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