Photo: The Canadian Press
Apollo Theater marquee promoting the U2 SiriusXM concert.
Naia Kete, like so many musicians, had her life turned upside down by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost overnight, Kete’s busy schedule of concerts as a solo artist and with her reggae band Say Real was canceled, eliminating her primary source of income. So when she was approached by Artists at Work, a new initiative that puts artists on a payroll to create and launch programs in their communities, Kete jumped at the chance.
“Just the idea that there’s an organization that’s fighting on behalf of getting artists a living wage was something that I wanted to be a part of,” she said. “Just valuing art in that way felt like it was unheard of.”
The arts and culture industries have been battered during the past 21 months as organizations furloughed staff, canceled shows and slashed budgets to weather the pandemic. While Americans as a whole donated more to charity last year, a record $471.4 billion according to a report from Giving USA, nonprofit arts organizations saw a decline.
It’s not yet clear whether arts donations stabilized in 2021, but different initiatives have been launched to help both artists and arts institutions.
Live theater and orchestra concerts sponsored by nonprofits around the country, as well as high-profile, for-profit shows on Broadway, have been postponed as COVID-19 infections surge due to the omicron variant. If cancellations run rampant in coming weeks, it could deal another blow to nonprofit arts organizations that, as of July, had lost nearly $18 billion in revenue during the pandemic, according to the latest estimate by Americans for the Arts. About half a billion of lost revenue was due to canceled events.
Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater reopened in August for its first public event since the pandemic shut it down last year, forcing it to furlough 44 of its 61 full-time staff.
Donna Lieberman, the theater’s chief development officer, said they were able to raise $4 million in lost revenue last year through an emergency fundraising campaign. Racial justice protests in June 2020 heightened awareness of the Apollo’s virtual gala — nearly 20,000 people attended, she said, a big boost from the theater’s in-person capacity. The Apollo full-time staff eventually returned in January, though work for production and other hourly workers remained limited.
“To be closed, and unable to do what we really do for that length of time, was very, very difficult,” Lieberman said. “I was standing at the back at one of our earliest performances practically crying from happiness.”
The theater received two boosts this month — a $5 million gift from SiriusXM Radio, and a grant in excess of $100,000 from New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs. The agency announced it would award $51.4 million to more than 1,000 nonprofit arts and cultural organizations seeking to recover from the pandemic. Lieberman said the theater will offer a mix of in-person and virtual events next year, but it hasn’t decided if that will continue into 2023.
Even if COVID-19 infection rates decline, experts believe arts nonprofits will continue to use virtual events to create greater access for their shows and events. For example, a monthly event hosted at a New York City pub by House of SpeakEasy, a literary nonprofit that connects writers to audiences, was able to reach 16 new cities, and other countries, during the pandemic through livestreams and other virtual events, said Paul Morris, the organization’s executive director.
“These are people who never would have encountered us,” Morris said. The nonprofit plans to return to in-person events at the pub next month, but has also secured funding to allow it to record and post the shows.
“Those people don’t just go away,” Morris said. “We obviously care about them, we’re connected to them and we want to provide something of value to them as well.”
The in-person show will go on with an added precaution — all writers and hosts must get a COVID-19 rapid test the day of the event. Show cancellations in New York City, Los Angeles and other cities have heightened anxieties among some entertainment workers. The fears, in many cases, are warranted — job losses at arts and culture nonprofits during the pandemic have been more than three times worse than the whole sector, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies.
Rachel Chanoff, founding director of The Office, the performing arts curation and production firm behind events that include the annual BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn arts festival, wanted to address a very specific need once the pandemic shut down performing arts events: How can we get artists next month’s rent?
Taking inspiration from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration coming out of the Great Depression, Chanoff established the Artists at Work initiative, with help from the FreshGrass Foundation to fund a pilot program in Massachusetts. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation was impressed, and gave Artists at Work a $3 million grant this summer to expand it to Los Angeles, the Mississippi Delta region and the Borderlands region in the Southwest.
Artists at Work will hire 42 artists around the country to work full-time creating art for a year. “They’re on salary to make the beautiful work they make in whatever their practice happens to be,” Chanoff said. “But they’re also embedded in a local social impact initiative to bring their artistry and their creative problem solving to the mission of that particular social service.”
Kete teamed up with the Alianza Project in Holyoke, Massachusetts, a community support program that helps school-aged children deal with trauma through therapy, education and leadership training. She wrote songs with students about their lives. “To be part of that process of helping them feel truly understood and seen,” she said, “that is transformative and super powerful in itself.”
The initiative looks for creative people in all disciplines, already hiring musicians, choreographers, textile designers and others. In Los Angeles, it will embed artists in institutions ranging from the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy at the Japanese American National Museum to Chicxs Rockerxs South East Los Angeles, which helps transgender and gender expansive youth be heard.
“Artists are actually workers — they’re not some kind of luxury item that’s the first thing to go,” Chanoff said. “They should not have to go around spending half their time begging for grants because you can’t have a flourishing society without art.”