Courtesy of Monica Trinidad

Keeping Art Alive During a Pandemic

South Side artists find creative ways to secure funding and do their work despite COVID-19 restrictions

When Chicago DJ Sadie Woods lost the opportunity to perform for a live audience—or a live audience in the same physical space, at least—she had to ask herself a lot of questions. She doesn’t have all the answers—but the business side isn’t her primary focus right now. 

“Actually thinking about the well-being of people, their mental, emotional, physical health, I think is more a priority now and including that for myself. So it’s been a time [to] pause and reset and recalibrate,” Woods said. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a unique set of challenges for workers in a field that holds human interaction at its core. Social distancing practices have forced artists across Chicago—many of whom are freelance workers—to rethink how they produce, monetize, and engage with their audiences. And then, of course, there’s the emotional toll of living in a country in crisis. 

“I think being in a pandemic amplifies all those things that have already existed before…with the police brutality cases across the states [and] the killings that have happened, everything is amplified right now,” Woods said.

The Arts for Illinois Relief Fund—a partnership between the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, Arts Alliance Illinois, and numerous other philanthropic groups—has structured relief for artists struggling during the pandemic. Individuals like Sadie Woods and art education facilities like Global Girls and Little Black Pearl alike have received grants from the fund. 

But funding has just been one component of the larger reassessment taking place: artists falling back upon their networks—albeit at a distance—and finding ways to give back. 

Art and the Community, at a Distance

When the pandemic hit, many artists’ first thought was how they could use their platform to support others. For the People Artists Collective, a group of Black artists and artists of color that incorporates their work into grassroots organizing, diverted grant funds from the Field Foundation into relief funds for marginalized artists in Illinois. The need was overwhelming; within four hours of opening the grant application, over sixty artists applied, leading the collective to close the application out of lack of funds. With additional funding secured, they opened a second round, and received 100 applicants within the first couple of hours. 

For The People have continued their arts activism with greater urgency during the pandemic. They’ve partnered with the Chicago Community Bond Fund on the “Decarcerate Now: Virtual Quilt,” honoring people who have died of COVID-19 while in Cook County jails, and joined forces with the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization to create posters protesting the demolition of the Crawford Power Generating Station smokestack during the pandemic. 

In an interview, For The People co-founder Monica Trinidad reflected on the importance of engaging their work with the Black Lives Matter movement. Trinidad urges those who may not be able to physically protest—be they immunocompromised, traumatized, or undocumented—to help create posters or graphics. Trinidad herself has created a graphics portfolio, #BrownArtistsForBlackPower, as a response to anti-Black attacks in Little Village. 

“[Art] has this ability to create a visual mythology [of] power for those that feel powerless in this moment,” Trinidad said. 

Other artists have taken it upon themselves to help their communities through platforms they’ve built over the years. Chicago-based Sicangu Lakota hip-hop artist and musician Frank Waln usually brings in revenue with concerts and other appearances, since streaming royalties don’t amount to much. Now, during a global pandemic, Waln has used services like Instagram Live to perform concerts at a distance, and has attended digital meetings and webinars to connect with organizations like the Dream Warriors, an Indigenous art collective he’s affiliated with. 

“Now, I can just go into my home studio and […] turn on my spotlight and put up a nice blanket and do an hour-long show,” Waln said. 

Waln has also been able to work on two albums—one dedicated to his mother, another focused on Native flute—set to release in the next couple of months. But all the while, he’s had to rely on his audiences to raise money for Indigenous communities across the country.

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Some art organizations have insisted that the show go on. Free Street Theater got its start—fittingly enough—in the aftermath of the 1968 riots. Wasted, their newest production, was originally slated to open May 1. That hasn’t happened, but they’ve continued to prepare via Zoom rehearsals and socially distant equipment transfers. Karla Estela Rivera, the group’s executive director, hopes to present the production online in June. “[What] I love about us is that we’re really thinking about the things that we can do, and thinking about how we can, you know, we don’t necessarily have to be together to build community,” Rivera said. 

Nowhere is the drive for community support through art stronger than in art education organizations. Little Black Pearl, a Kenwood/Oakland-based arts education center with an adjacent high school, has switched to online learning. Monica Haslip, LBP’s Executive Director, hasn’t just been busy organizing coursework and figuring out how to make technology accessible to her students—she’s also been focused on material concerns, like making sure LBP’s on-campus café is still serving food to the community. SkyArt, Chicago’s only free visual arts education center for youth, has given away over 1,000 free art kits to participants and kids in shelters. 

Some art educators worry about how the arts translate to a digital platform. 

“To keep our youth and our actors engaged, we tried to have Zoom rehearsals,” said Marvinetta Woodley-Penn, the executive director of Global Girls, a  youth performing arts education center in South Shore. “[It] does not work, especially for ensemble work, if you’re all trying to talk at the same time or sing at the same time.” 

Despite her faith in the resilience of her students, Woodley-Penn worries they are not being challenged enough, and spending too much time on their screens. “I’m very afraid, [and I don’t] think we’re giving enough attention to that,” Woodley-Penn said in regard to the loss of routine during the pandemic.

Funding Amidst Economic Crisis

Across art organizations and individual artists, funding has been of great concern. With many artists being freelancers, and an overall feeling that the arts are undervalued in society, there is a fear that the arts are being overlooked in financial relief programs. The inability to perform and showcase art because of the need to practice  social distancing has led to a decrease in revenue for art organizations and individuals.

“I think that people underestimate the scale of the industry,” said Monica Haslip of Little Black Pearl. “The need is great.” 

Arts for Illinois Relief Fund, the prominent emergency funding source during the pandemic, has relied on their grantmaking partners 3Arts and the Arts Work Fund to help manage grant applications from individual artists and art organizations. As of May 18, the fund has raised $6.5 million dollars, and 906 artists and 166 art organizations were awarded funding in the first round. 

Other organizations like Free Street Theater have applied to numerous other funding sources, receiving a PPP loan through the CARES Act. 

But even grant recipients have doubts about the accessibility of funding. Many grant applications require proof of loss of income, which is hard to furnish when you are self-employed. Trinidad noted that many applications also operate on the lottery system, meaning that artists who need funding may not get it. 

“I really see it’s important to…prioritize queer, trans, gender non-conforming people of color, communities of color, disabled people, undocumented people who are not getting stimulus checks,” among others, Trinidad said.

And of course,  funding is limited: the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund can only give $1,500 grants to individuals and $8,000–30,000 grants to organizations. The shortcomings of the grant model have made many in the art world reconsider how they can cultivate an environment more supportive of the arts and freelance workers. Many artists hope that with the challenges leveled at the art industry during the pandemic, more people will understand the value of the arts.

In an interview, Arts Alliance Illinois (a member of the coalition supporting the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund) Executive Director Claire Rice emphasized the fund is for emergency support. “[We] are working on medium- to longer-term policy interventions and systems change that will bring broader relief to our sector,” Rice said. 

“To really have a strong fabric that can support artists and see the value of artists, [the city needs to] give stipends and allow them to make more money,” said Eric Williams, founder of Hyde Park boutique The Silver Room. For the first time since 2002, Silver Room’s blockbuster Block Party has been cancelled. And while the store is shuttered, employees—many of them artists, including a writer, DJ, and photographer—have no income or meeting space. “We had a GoFundMe for them, [and] that helped a little bit, but you know, just don’t have physical spaces, it definitely hurts,” Williams said. 

“Now it’s gonna be even harder for a lot of artists to make it, when it’s not considered ‘essential.’ You know, I would argue that art is essential. I wish people saw it more as essential. It’s not always compensated that way,” Williams said.

Supporting Artists and Opportunities for Change

Though they’re still waiting on larger changes, artists have pointed to the many ways the public can continue to support and engage with the arts. Many artists underscored the importance of directly supporting individual artists or art organizations that have made a difference in your life with cash-transfer apps like Patreon, PayPal, and Venmo. 

Other ways to support artists include donating to larger funds like the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund, as well as local mutual aid efforts. Artists also emphasize the importance of engaging with the arts, sharing the work of artists, and participating in digital concerts and events. 

With the pandemic, Frank Waln has also been reminded of the importance of fans. 

“I just, you know, want people to know and remember that y’all give us hope and you make a difference in the artists you support’s lives, especially in times like now,” Waln said. 

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Walter Li is a student at the University of Chicago majoring in anthropology. He is a first-time contributor to the Weekly.

Yiwen Lu is a politics reporter for the Weekly. She last wrote on COVID-19 and “essential workers” on the South Side.

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