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Virtual Roundtable: Keeping Art "Essential" in the wake of Covid-19

From Chattanooga to Indianapolis, some of America’s brightest community arts leaders gather for a brainstorm on COVID-era innovation. 

Communities from coast to coast are feeling the effects of COVID-19 in countless ways. At Tom Tom, we believe that there’s a more pressing need for connection and conversation among peer community leaders than ever before. What specific struggles are they facing? Which of their turn-on-a-dime efforts have been fruitful? And how do nonprofits, who rely heavily on fundraising to cover operating costs, survive with asks for support coming from all sectors?

Our new Virtual Roundtable series assembles small groups to share struggles and exchange solutions. Last week, our inaugural roundtable convened nine arts leaders to discuss innovative fundraising tactics, shifts in sales strategies, and ways that artists and institutions can pivot to an online world. See an excerpt from the discussion below.

If you’d like to join us for our next arts roundtable, or a roundtable focusing on another theme related to innovation in America’s cities (economic development, education, justice, etc.), please reach out to

Meet the Arts Roundtable Participants:

Tom Tom: What creative solutions are you seeing where you live to engage and support artists in the arts community?

Rhonda Bellamy (Arts Council of Wilmington & New Hanover County): My organization is multidisciplinary. In Wilmington, one of the programs is a “ghost light” series where we showcase local artists and invite the community to send in donations. Those donations are then split with the artists in that particular week, and so we’re averaging about $150 to each of our artists. We also host fourth Friday gallery nights, representing about 20 galleries, and of course they’re all shuttered and so we see, including my own gallery, going with virtual exhibitions. Is this going to be the wave of the future? Will we ever come back up to full strength, if you will? The fact is that the virtual component is probably going to be just a normal part of life from here on out.

Melani Douglass (National Museum of Women in the Arts, Family Arts Museum): Because a lot of us are funded by private donors or have supporters that make us work in a small to a large way, I want to point out that it’s important to be really communicating with those donors—writing letters to them, letting them know how you’re pivoting, what you’re doing. And how do we assess exactly what the digital divide is? A lot of times, people have worked on this digital divide for years, but have not really had to have the demand for it or had to really truly assess this. Now, we’ve got schools, we’ve got services, there’s so many things that have to be online. I also want to point out that a lot of people are working—serving the community and the arts: We just have to admit that people are exhausted and tired, and that they were before this started. People really, in this society, haven’t had a chance to just think, to just be, to be at home, to cook your own food, to just nurture and come into the home space and really assess what you want for the future and how this time is a moment to just stop. This is the first time that people have had a chance to just pause and maybe think of what we really want, instead of just putting something out there.

Celeste Fetta (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts): In Richmond, we had our small art galleries and small arts organizations pull together to start a COVID-19 relief fund for artists—putting that out there last week, asking people to donate, and then dispersing those funds based on application and their work. That was great to see. It’s really encouraging to see a coalesced selection of groups who sometimes could be seen as competitors coming together to support the artists’ community as a whole. That’s been refreshing and wonderful to see. One challenge I’m trying to wrestle with is how do we say, The arts is as vital to support as an “essential need.” I hate breaking it down to essential and non-essential, but thinking along those terms seems to be ubiquitous right now, and it’s as valid as an essential service.

Lisa Murch (Mural Arts Philadelphia): In the spirit of the WPA, Mural Arts has worked closely with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, Broad Street Ministry, and a variety of partners to use the arts to enliven public spaces providing opportunities for artists to continue their work for the benefit of the public at large. The Space Pads project, for example, commissions artists to design social distancing spots.

Jim Walker (Big Car Collaborative): Not just in our city, there have been some grants to artists, but the funders seem reluctant to ask anything of them in return. But it’s nice if you’re giving a small grant to an artist, for them to do their practice—that they want to do anyway—as part of that. It makes sense, even if it’s not required: Giving artists a platform to be able to support their community or to even share what they’re working on. One more thing: A lot of shows are being cancelled, so one conversation we’ve been having here is about getting other organizations together to have a space—to find some temporary spaces, to show these shows. A lot of people had commissioned projects and had work that they were wanting to sell, and all the galleries and all the other art spaces, nonprofit art spaces, are cancelling at least a couple months of shows. That’s a lot of shows for a lot of people, so figuring out how to do that together to support artists is something else too.

Paul Rucker (Institute for Contemporary Art at Virginia Commonwealth University): There’s so many variables in careers. I think acknowledging there’s so many different levels of career in so many disciplines [is important]—that there’s a disparity and opportunity within those.

Marina Granger (The Artist Advisory): Yeah that’s absolutely right, Paul. Also, there are different levels of collectors you know, when it comes to the fine art. I just want you to know I’m seeing people that are selling things for under a thousand dollars who are emerging, and I’m seeing people who are established and are doing limited-edition prints that are more affordable. I’m also seeing mid-career artists getting commissions that are in the five-figure range. Haven’t seen a six-figure range in the past two months.

Douglass: At the National Museum of Women in the Arts, we’ve pushed most of our stuff forward. We’ve also put digital exhibitions online, if the exhibition couldn’t be moved forward, and created other ways of engagement for the artists to do artist talks, artist chats. We’re currently looking at broadening our ability to sell artists’ work online, as far as, like, crafters.

Granger: I’m seeing a lot of engagement between the artists and the galleries online. On Instagram for example, they’re doing Instagram lives. For example, Hollis Taggart gallery in New York is doing weekly artist talks and it seems to really promote the artists, and it’s an easy and casual way to do that. A lot of galleries are selling work for the sake of charity right now and taking a smaller cut than usual. People want art now. They’re spending so much time at home. It’s a thing.

Marlon Torres (North Carolina Arts in Action): At Arts in Action, as the executive director I’ve had to do extra work to make sure that our board of directors remains in the know of how our program is responding to this pandemic. Updating the board of directors regularly on how we are redirecting our work to continue to fulfill our mission has become really critical. It’s actually paid off. The board, especially the ones that are fortunate to have the wherewithal to support programs like Arts in Action, have contributed financially to make sure that Arts in Action can retain its staff and its teaching artists during this time. We had a really frank conversation about what it would do to a program like us, to have to let go of people at this particular, critical time. We made the commitment that we wouldn’t do that, even if we were facing a deficit and would need to work to secure the funding necessary to make up that deficit. To the other point of finding additional funding, then we just went ahead and pursued those federal opportunities that were coming down the pipeline. So, making sure we are aware of those and the organizations that are eligible for that sort of funding. I encourage you to really look into those.

Shane Morrow (Responsible Initiatives for Social Empowerment): Here in Chattanooga, we immediately went to our local foundations. We already had earmarked dollars for particular programs that we knew we could not do because of the virus, and we immediately asked the local foundations that gave us the dollars: Can we take this as general support versus in this designated program, so we can be able to be a little bit more flexible in regard to how we can be creative in our programming, to make sure everyone’s actively involved? Every foundation that earmarked that money for us gave us the opportunity to open it up for general offerings.

Bellamy: When we talk about going back to funders, is that the volatility of the stock market is kind of factoring into the fears that some of the larger funders have, as to how much they can reasonably afford to give out to the community while maintaining a strong position as they can.

Rucker: Can we talk about the opportunity here as well? I’m actually looking about property right now, and if you have the funds, this is a great time to be looking. If you have donors and if you’re in a space that’s not your space, this may be an opportunity. The other thing is as we must think long term. I’m a musician, as opposed to visual arts, but I’m also a historian and I’ve studied the pandemic of 1918 long before people were talking about it now. That pandemic did not make us better people if you actually look at the history of the rise of the Klan after that and Black Wall Street and Red Summer. We need to think long term: In three to five years, how we’re gonna make it through and what opportunities exist in this period as well. If we’re just being short-sighted in thinking that this is going to be gone in three or four months, it’s probably not going to work very well. If you know history, pandemics last for 12 months to 18 months, In short, we need to look at it as glass half full as well; funders may have a new “come to Jesus” moment and realize that they want to have some other legacy besides having a lot of money.

Douglass: I’m glad you brought opportunities around housing for artists. I don’t think it’s been fully assessed as far as what it means for artists, for creatives, not to own their own property, and if this is a good time to get people into some housing, it could make a difference. If someone knows exactly what they have to pay monthly for the next ten to thirty years, that changes the game and a lot of artists don’t. The other question I have: What involvement do we have towards changing policy about people having to pay rent and mortgages right now? Even if it’s for a three to six month relief. Or pay student loans. Where’s the swell to push for those changes?

Bellamy: Well I think that some of that is happening on a national level. I know here, and certainly on a statewide level here in North Carolina, your water or your lights can’t be turned off for like three months now. So, there are some things that have been put into play as stopgap measures, to ensure that people don’t fall further and further behind with income just suddenly for many of them just cut off. I’m going to go back before both of our governing bodies and ask for transformational investments in the arts, particularly at this time.

Walker: There should be more coalitions of organizations who are doing similar work in different places, and things like this to help people stay in touch with each other. A lot of times, any kind of policy work that’s happening and in a different state, can translate really well to another state. I just think there are some splintered coalition-things that are usually organized by funders, so I think having a conversation where people stay connected and can work on things together would be a really good outcome of this.


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