Arts workers have created support networks to weather the pandemic. Now some are becoming permanent because help is nowhere in sight


Paula Santos never trained as an accountant, but over the past year she has been tasked with distributing more than $ 110,000 to arts workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic across the Relief fund for museum workers. It became a second job for the museum educator, who volunteered up to 20 hours a week to process hundreds of requests and connect workers with $ 500 grants.

Relief funds like this, which sprang up following the first wave of industry-wide layoffs that took swept through American museums last March, were to last only one some months. But some organizers are now looking for ways to continuously continue their charitable campaigns as they receive a wave of demands for money from museum workers whose leaves have turned into layoffs or who have been unable to find a job. new job. The need for long-term infrastructure has only increased as other fundraisers close and the art world’s prospects for fully recovering from the pandemic stagnate.

“I had never created a support network before this,” said Santos, head of Intuit: Chicago’s Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, who said she was inspired by the activism of abolitionist groups. prison and the families who cared for them. another in the Los Angeles immigrant neighborhood where she grew up. “I have come to believe that mutual aid is something necessary for our survival. It is a way of showing care for those who have been put on leave or fired in a material way. “

The dozens of self-help networks that have sprung up over the past year have raised millions of dollars for endangered arts workers through a combination of individual donations, foundation grants and support programs. counterpart. Thousands of donors, from security guards to directors of institutions like the Brooklyn Museum, have contributed. With more than 15,000 cultural workers losing their jobs last summer in New York City alone, according to a report Commissioned by the city’s cultural affairs department, relief funds have become something new but necessary to deal with the economic impact of the pandemic.

The volunteer staff of the Brooklyn Museum’s weekly food distribution, organized in partnership with the Campaign Against Hunger. Photo courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

A broken system

With the volume of needs showing no signs of contracting, some museum workers are questioning whether turning a band-aid into a lifeline will have unintended consequences in an industry that has already struggled in recent years to improve wages.

Akane Okoshi, an arts specialist at the Brooklyn Museum who has helped raise nearly $ 80,000 to support more than 130 current and former employees, described the proliferation of these outlets as “a symptom of failure.” Going forward, she said, “I hope the institutions restructure in a sustainable way so that it is budgeted for future crises.”

When Marissa del Toro lost her position as curator at the Phoenix Museum of Art, she turned to professional groups like the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) for help. When none came, she turned to self-help groups, receiving $ 500 from the Arts Workers Relief Fund. This money was used to pay bills – student loans, credit cards, rent – and to pay it off eventually. She donated the remaining dollars to other racial justice support networks and other sacked workers.

“We should hold these associations accountable,” she told Artnet News. “Where was their support? “

Although the AAM has never launched its own workers’ relief fund, it has advocated for federal aid on behalf of the industry and has published tips for workers looking for financial assistance on its website.

“After reviewing our expertise, capabilities and the dire situation in the field, we felt that the leadership role we could most effectively fulfill was to advocate on behalf of museums and museum professionals for economic relief to the nationwide, ”said an AAM spokesperson. .

Kaylyn Kilkuskie, an artist at the Abrons Arts Center, sets up groceries for families in need on the Lower East Side on October 6, 2020 in New York City.  (Photo by Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

Kaylyn Kilkuskie, an artist at the Abrons Arts Center, sets up groceries for families in need on the Lower East Side on October 6, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano / Getty Images)

How it works

There is no quick manual for setting up a support network during a crisis, and many organizers told Artnet News that they initially linked their GoFundMe pages to their personal bank accounts, which experts say. fiscal warned against, saying the IRS might get curious and ask for additional documents showing how the money was used.

“Throughout the process, we made sure that we only had one bank account for all transactions,” said Santos, who initially opened a joint account to collect donations under his own name. Working with an accountant during tax season, she has since decided to process future donations through Open Collective, a company that helps community organizers raise and spend money.

Finding a tax sponsor has been an important part of navigating the fundraising logistics, but many relief funds closed last year when their contracts with these facilitators expired. This included the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s relief fund, which quietly closed its wallet after redistributing more than $ 110,000 to more than 200 community members last year.

“Our contract with our fiscal sponsor, Artadia, expires at the end of 2020, so we must close the fund and the aid request form on December 31, 2020,” the group wrote on its website.

Other self-help networks have closed, including the Los Angeles Art Workers Relief Fund, which raised more than $ 85,000 last summer, distributing a total of 85 emergency grants to people in need through the organization. Support arts.

“I am proud of the small role that I have played,” said Peter Mundwiler, an organizer of the fund. “I am also proud of the LA community for participating in a difficult time. “

“One disappointing aspect, however, was the lack of engagement of journalists,” he added, attributing the lack of publicity to the difficulty of reaching more potential donors.

The Union of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles.  Photo courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles Union.

The Union of the Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles Union.

In it for the long haul

Some organizers have found that donors have remained engaged. After taking a hiatus from fundraising in December, Santos said, “We were getting emails from various people saying they really wanted to give us money.” Over the past few months, she and her colleagues have started the process of registering the Museum Workers Relief Fund as an official nonprofit, indicating that they will be there for years to come.

Another group, Sick in the neighborhood, is also pursuing nonprofit status after creating a support network for the disabled community that raised nearly $ 5,000 during the pandemic and promoted methods of self-advocacy in the medical system . For group members, performing this kind of care for their peers has become routine.

“We have come together to help a chronically ill friend who contracted COVID-19,” said Caroline Schub, artist and group organizer. “We found that when she got sick there was no one to help her fight for her except the disabled community.”

Those who have benefited from mutual aid find it difficult to imagine a world of art where such a safety net no longer exists.

“I didn’t want to depend on caring,” said Isaiah Newton, a former café waiter at the Toledo Art Museum. “But I needed a boost.”

Money from the Museum Workers Relief Fund helped Newton pay his bills, putting him in a better financial position before the birth of his child last month.

“I was disappointed with the museums because we acted like family. It’s hard to believe we were driven out during the pandemic, ”he said. “Receiving the money was a shock; it was good to feel that I wasn’t just left out of the industry.

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