Art Business: Disaster Relief For Artists

When disaster strikes, people often lend a helping hand, and Hurricane Katrina brought forward an outpouring of assistance from around the country for many artists and their art business careers.

by Daniel Grant

When disaster strikes, people often lend a helping hand, and Hurricane Katrina brought forward an outpouring of assistance from around the country for many artists and their art business careers.
When disaster strikes, people often lend a helping
hand, and Hurricane Katrina brought forward an
outpouring of assistance from around the country
for many artists and their art business careers.

Artist Gabe Gomez was living in New Orleans, Louisiana, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005. His home was destroyed, but he was able to escape the wreckage and continue to work and salvage his art business because the Santa Fe Art Institute offered him a two-month residency that included a stipend, room and board, and studio space. When disaster strikes, people often lend a helping hand, and Hurricane Katrina brought forward an outpouring of assistance from around the country for many artists, including Gomez. In addition to the Santa Fe Art Institute, art schools and communities in Vermont, California, and Colorado offered residencies to displaced artists. The Savannah College of Art and Design, in Georgia, offered free tuition and housing assistance to students attending colleges that were shut down because of the hurricane.

The Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, in Texas, established a fund to help artists living in the hurricane-damaged area, and the Louisiana State University School of Art, in Baton Rouge, collected art supplies for artist-evacuees. The Getty Foundation, in Los Angeles, created the Getty Fund for New Orleans, which distributed more than $2 million to the city’s arts institutions. The New York City-based Joan Mitchell Foundation has paid at least $450,000 in grants to more than 80 artists affected by Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, which hit the Gulf Coast about a month after Katrina.

Every time a disaster happens, the process of creating or reviving relief funds starts again. The New York Arts Recovery Fund, created by the New York Foundation for the Arts, for example, distributed $4,635,000 to organizations and individuals in New York City after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The Washington, DC-based Americans for the Arts, whose Emergency Relief Fund gave $116,815 to Gulf Coast arts organizations in the wake of Katrina, recently reactivated the fund to help arts groups that have suffered as a result of the wildfires that ravaged southern California in 2007.

Now, however, in an attempt to plan for the future, a consortium of more than 20 local, state, and regional arts councils, artist-focused organizations, and arts supporters from around the country, calling itself the Coalition of Emergency and Disaster Preparedness for Artists, is trying to coordinate the efforts of its members and speed their response to whatever might come next.

“One of the problems with emergencies is that you don’t know what anyone else is doing,” says Kerrie Buitrago, the executive vice president of the New York City-based Pollock-Krasner Foundation, which provided $425,000 to individual artists after 9/11 and $309,000 to Gulf Coast artists affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “You don’t want artists left out in the cold because everyone thinks some other foundation is taking care of them, and it doesn’t make sense for an artist to get 10 grants from 10 different agencies.”
The Craft Emergency Relief Fund, in Montpelier, Vermont, which has spearheaded the coalition, distributed between $200,000 and $300,000 to Gulf Coast craftspeople after Katrina. Additionally, the organization brokered free and discounted supplies and equipment, free booth space at craft shows, and free workshops for artisans in the region. Cornelia Carey, the executive director of the fund, notes that a lack of knowledge about the arts infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi made it difficult for outsiders to assist artists there. “We also found that many of the organizations on the ground in Louisiana and Mississippi had either suffered direct hits or had staff members who were displaced and thus unable to deliver assistance,” Carey says.

Serving as a regional model for the coalition, the Atlanta-based Southern Arts Federation, which distributed approximately $200,000 to the state arts agencies of Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi after Katrina, is developing a plan for readiness, response, and recovery that includes a fund-raising system, a clearinghouse of information, help in designing emergency preparedness plans, and work with policymakers and elected officials to coordinate assistance to the arts in the event of future disasters.

Carey notes that a fully functioning national emergency response and recovery program for artists and arts organizations will not be in place for a few more years, although elements of it will become available sooner—such as online information on available resources and a calendar-size “studio protector” that will describe how to prepare for a disaster and what to do in the first 48 hours of an emergency. In addition to hashing out organizational details, Carey says some advocacy work needs to be done, such as convincing the Small Business Administration to give loans to self-employed artists even when collateral requirements cannot be met, and persuading the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide money for the tools of one’s trade even when an individual is self-employed. State unemployment insurance agencies provide disaster unemployment aid to the self-employed but only when future income is predictable. “Things are improving,” Carey says, “but the safety net for artists is still inadequate, and there is a need for a system-wide response to disasters, not just a singular set of resources.”   


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