Philly, follow Boston’s lead and create an artist relief fund!

Filmmaker Melissa Beatriz makes the case for Philadelphia establishing an emergency fund for artists whose livelihood is impacted by the coronavirus outbreak.

Melissa filming The People's Supper event at FUMCOG, hosted by South Philly Barbacoa (2019).  (Ryan Collerd)

Melissa filming The People's Supper event at FUMCOG, hosted by South Philly Barbacoa (2019). (Ryan Collerd)

I’m a Uruguayan-American documentary filmmaker whose current production has been suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak. As a freelancer, this health crisis has jeopardized my ability to work on creative projects. And the same is true for my husband, a musician and teaching artist whose work has been cancelled for the foreseeable future.

My collaborators – whether they be muralists, poets, photographers or event producers – are all feeling the impact, too. They’re full-time independent contractors and their work can’t be performed virtually.

My one friend, who hasn’t lost her media production job, has had her hours drastically cut. Indeed, the coronavirus outbreak, and the ensuing cancellations of events and programs, is having a profound impact on the creative industry. The Washington Post ran an article which suggested that the coronavirus crisis could force arts organizations to close permanently.

But on the bright side, there have been some efforts to address this crisis’ impact on the creative economy.

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For example, the city of Boston announced the Boston Artist Relief Fund, which awards grants of $500 and $1000 to individual artists whose creative practices and incomes are adversely impacted by COVID-19.

The Arts Administrators of Color Network has organized the Arts and Culture Leaders of Color Emergency Fund. 

And Bandcamp, an online music streaming company headquartered in Oakland, California, announced a 24-hour suspension of their revenue shares, which means artists can keep more of their earnings.

“For many artists, a single day of boosted sales can mean a difference between being able to pay rent or not,” Ethan Diamond, the tech company’s co-founder, wrote in a blog.

Then there are the individual performing artists who have launched Patreon accounts to solicit donations. Others are offering online music lessons for a fee. However, structural relief is still needed nationwide.

In Philadelphia, we should follow Boston’s example and establish an emergency fund for local artists. This effort can be led by the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. The OACCE, in partnership with City Council and local grantmakers, should create opportunities for artists to apply for unrestricted grants, which means the money wouldn’t be tied to specific projects or outcomes.

TIMBALONA performing opening rumba music at Swarthmore College, during ¡BIENVENIDOS BLANCOS! OR WELCOME WHITE PEOPLE! bilingual theatrical production (2020). (Melissa Beatriz)

Philadelphia needs its artists, many of whom are freelance workers and don’t have healthcare. We do more than just entertain. We contribute greatly to this city’s economy.

According to a 2017 report by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the arts and cultural industry generated $4.1 billion, which is the equivalent of 55,225 full-time jobs every year.

Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, I had given a lot of thought as to how my collaborators and I could collectively address the inequitable relationship between artists and the corporations and venues who profit greatly from their outputs.

For example, a 2010 survey commissioned by W.A.G.E (Working Artists and the Greater Economy) looked at what New York City visual and performing artists were compensated between 2005 and 2010. 58.4 percent of respondents said they “did not receive any form of payment, compensation, or reimbursement” for their work.

According to a 2017 report from New York City’s comptroller, non-white creative workers overall earn 91 cents on the dollar compared to their white counterparts. Based on my experiences and interactions in Philadelphia, many artists who identify as people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ face similar experiences of inequity.

This pandemic has motivated me to advocate determinedly for artists to receive the same rights and protections as other workers. I now want to form a mutual aid collective, so that creatives are cared for during a crisis, such as the one currently consuming the globe.

As society stands still, let’s use the time to create a new social contract, one that takes all of us – including independent artists – into account, and provides adequate relief in times of economic turmoil.

Melissa Beatriz is a documentary filmmaker and researcher based in Philadelphia whose work focuses on the intersection of the arts, social justice, and policy. Follow her on Twitter here.

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