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After its original publication Saturday, this story was updated with the latest information for print on Wednesday. Those updates are reflected here.
“As an independent artist, I’m scared,” said Durham DJ and event curator Gemynii, summing up the anxiety and uncertainty that prevailed among the dozens of local art workers the INDY spoke with while events and audiences evaporated because of growing concerns over the coronavirus. The wave of event cancellations that began on Thursday and Friday was breaking, by Monday, from prevalent to near-universal.
“I’ve had a tour canceled because sponsors froze their assets and a gig this Saturday canceled at Motorco,” Gemynii said. “I also have a gig in New Orleans at the end of the month, and I’m worried about that being canceled as well. We have a whole community of creatives who are just as worried as I am about their survival. Some folks live check to check. I live gig to gig. No parties means no funds to pay the essentials like rent and groceries.”
Among artists without academic or corporate funding, many of whom live on a shoestring already, Gemynii is far from alone in seeing not only a livelihood but also a passion for community-building put on pause as social distancing increases in prevalence.
“Many of my gigs have been canceled or moved to a virtual video call,” says musician A.yoni Jeffries. “Most of the work that I do intersects on the fronts of being a queer Afro-indigenous woman and creating spaces that allow for people like me to break out of social norms and find means of joy to seek fulfillment together. … I know that this will affect me deeply, as this is the way I support myself day in and day out.”
In a single day, Laura Windley of Mint Julep Jazz Band says she saw the cancellation of a charity fundraiser and two gigs. Meanwhile, she was canceling gigs she’d booked for others for the Triangle Swing Dance Society. She also learned that the pandemic would delay her payment from a recent European gig, while her husband, Lucian Cobb, lost two gigs at Sharp 9 Gallery.
As of Friday, some artists were still struggling with the ethics of continuing to put on events as concerns about the epidemic grow. Durham musician Charles Latham decided, though not without reservations, to go ahead with shows in Winston-Salem and Charlotte this weekend.
“I’m torn between good citizenship in the form of social distancing versus a need to both provide and experience the catharsis of live music,” Latham said. “Our bassist, Billie Feather, just brought me some latex gloves for bill-counting!”
In the end, though, Latham decided to cancel the Sunday gig in Charlotte; he says he’s planning a live-streamed concert to make up for it.
“It was a hard call because it put the venue in a tough spot and put us out of some good money and even better times,” Latham said.
Stacy Wolfson, who has both a Pilates studio and a dance company (The Bipeds), fears that even if she and Curtis Eller continue to host their lively monthly dance-and-music event at the small studio Shadowbox, no one will come.
“Social distancing is going to affect me on all fronts,” she said. “I am fully prepared to take [Pilates] clients via Skype or FaceTime if it comes down to that, but what about live shows? I fear our monthly Shadowbox sessions may take a hit with audience numbers. It is a wait-and-see game, and we are left questioning, what is the right thing to do? Is it our responsibility to cancel everything? Does the show go on? It is very tricky territory!”
For artists with immune-system vulnerabilities, the calculus of continuing or canceling is even more complicated. Marta Mickelsen is a self-employed designer who sells her wares at pop-culture conventions around the country.
“If I attend these events, I’m risking my health (I’m immunocompromised) and facing lower turnout, which will most likely hurt my projected sales,” she said. “If I decide not to vend at these shows, I risk not receiving a refund for my booth fee and sitting on merchandise I’ve already purchased for these events.”
Meanwhile, instead of grappling with whether to cancel, many artists are finding the choice made for them, with immediate economic repercussions and no end in sight.
By Friday, Durham musician al Riggs had already lost upcoming shows at Duke Coffeehouse and The Pinhook, which is remaining open for now but has canceled big events. (The Durham club has started a Patreon for its operations and staff to try to make up the loss.)
“We’re still trying to put on [the Duke Coffeehouse show] somewhere else, but we’re not going to be paid the same amount, considering the money would be coming from Duke,” Riggs said. “That money would have been a big help!” On Facebook, Riggs asked their fans to consider buying their new T-shirt or a CD via Bandcamp instead and doing the same for any artists and service workers affected by coronavirus-based cancellations. Riggs also played a free show on Instagram over the weekend; they say almost 100 people checked in throughout the hour.
By Monday, Chris Vitiello, aka Durham fixture The Poetry Fox, had lost dozens of upcoming gigs. He’s planning some online events to write poems for people live on video.
“Since arts spending is always seen as an extra, organizations that hire me and others will probably be cautious for another year,” Vitiello said. “We’ll have to cut our rates just to get gigs, and then it will be harder to get paid what we’re worth. I’d guess this is a two-year setback for The Poetry Fox.”
Artists are also trying to figure out not just how to ask for support, but what kind of support it’s OK to ask for. Tara Henry runs the art events-and-teaching business Pedagogy Art LLC and the Authors & Art Studio in Raleigh.
“March financial goals will definitely not be met,” Henry said. “New inquiries are not looking good for April. I am tempted to put every cash link I own on public sympathy. However, everyone is in the grips of uncertainty. I love my studio and the work it does for so many in my community, but folks are worried about their homes, jobs, and health.”
Henry did go on to start a sustainability fundraiser on Facebook.
“We went from a solid, comfortable coast through the rest of the 2019-20 concert season to up shit’s creek indefinitely in the blink of an eye.”
When an artist loses a gig, the effects ripple out beyond the artist.
Durham beat-music collective Raund Haus is suspending its popular parties until May, according to Nick Wallhauser. This nixes its first collaboration with The Floor, which would have taken place at The Fruit on March 21. Wallhauser says Raund Haus might explore streaming events if there’s demand, and The Floor has set up a GoFundMe to try to pay the canceled party’s support staff.
“I think artists who supplement their income with service-industry jobs and hospitality jobs—this goes from bars and restaurants to the CrossFit trainer who is also an artist—will have the worst of all of this,” Wallhauser said. “The staff of events places are in big jeopardy here.”
Rebecca Fox and Rebecca Jackson-Artis, who collaborate as The Rebecca Show, indefinitely postponed their sketch-comedy show What if I’m the Becky? on the day of its opening at Pure Life Theatre in Raleigh.
“Even though it was a painful decision, it was not a difficult one,” Fox says. “Considering we wrote an entire show around the concept of being ethical, even when it’s inconvenient, we knew this was the right decision. If we can prevent contributing to overcrowded ICUs, why wouldn’t we?”
But Fox acknowledged that she and Jackson-Artis were not dependent on the show, which was supported by a Manbites Dog grant, for their livelihood, and that for others, the choice of social distancing could be more consequential.
“The most painful thing for us is that we have to postpone paying our stage manager,” Fox said. “She has been incredible, and the plan was to pay her a percentage of the door. In addition to that, we’ve paid for the rental of Pure Life, for time-specific advertising, and of course, have put in lots of work. Public safety is more important than our posters, though.”
Shana Tucker is a performing and teaching cellist and singer and a small-business owner; she employs other musicians and support staff whose travel costs and performance fees and agents only get paid if she does.
“In a matter of minutes this morning, thousands of dollars disappeared from my anticipated income for the months of March and April,” Tucker said on Thursday. “Much of that income was from university-associated venues that closed because of the umbrella institution. Other income was coming from venues where their primarily older, financially-capable-though-retired audiences opted to social distance.”
Like several artists we heard from, Tucker is frustrated less by the necessity of social distancing than by the uneven distribution of access to it.
“I’m writing all of this to be reminded that this shit is real, that exemption/relief from the hardship and the virus is a luxury reserved for the wealthy,” she said. “I have every right to be frustrated and disappointed and concerned about the state of my industry, my livelihood, and my financial and physical health. … We went from a solid, comfortable coast through the rest of the 2019-20 concert season to up shit’s creek indefinitely in the blink of an eye.”
“Putting the brakes on it all in this moment has me worried that we’ll find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic looking like a sad week-old party balloon.”
While large venues and organizations with strong funding foundations will likely weather the crisis, it poses an existential threat to small or burgeoning organizations that already operate on the edge of financial possibility.
One such Durham organization is the barely-one-year-old (but already essential) NorthStar Church of the Arts, which has no endowments or corporate sponsors; it operates on donations, ticket sales, usage fees, and grants.
“As a seedling of an organization, losing any amount of revenue is a strain on our capacity to grow sustainably,” said NorthStar’s executive director, Heather Cook, who has been working full-time on a part-time salary while trying to build a sustainable five-year model.
“I believe we can do it but pushing pause on programming for two months is certainly an unpredicted and unprecedented hit,” Cook said. “Cancelling through April looks like us losing potentially $15,000 in revenue. Considering that our operating budget in 2019 was $70,000, it’s a huge setback in moving us toward a more sustainable financial model.”
There’s also the sheer workload of managing cancellations to contend with. “Cancelling what would have been the busiest season to date for us is taking tremendous hours of labor in rebooking with artists, volunteers, sound engineers, vendors, rental companies, etc.” Cook said. “It’s a roller-coaster of unprecedented chaos.”
Cook is also worried about less tangible long-term consequences, such as the tightening purse strings of donors as the economy craters and the loss of momentum for young, growing institutions, especially those that serve marginalized populations.
“Putting the brakes on it all in this moment has me worried that we’ll find ourselves on the other side of this pandemic looking like a sad week-old party balloon,” Cook said. “You’ll be able to see what was and what could have been, but we’ll all be too damn tired and deflated to be useful. Without some significant financial relief efforts (read: government and institutional funds), it’s going to take the Durham arts community a long time to spring back from this.”
While small institutions such as NorthStar might face greater permanent damage than large ones such as Full Frame, the cancellations of the latter have trickle-down effects on the former.
Dave Wofford of letterpress studio and gallery Horse & Buggy Press says that without a Full Frame program guide to design, which he’s done for years, he’s out a few thousand dollars and the chance to advertise his new PS 118 gallery and event space next to Chet Miller on Parrish Street.
“Who knows if people will feel comfortable going to visit galleries?” Wofford wondered. “I sure hope so. We are wiping down door handles and other common things people touch.” He carried on with the closing reception for a Horse & Buggy exhibit on Saturday afternoon, though he later closed both spaces. (Online viewing begins March 25, before the galleries—Wofford hopes—reopen April 1; visit Horse & Buggy’s website for details.)
The arts institutions best positioned to weather the storm are those with models reliant on public and private grants and sustainer programs rather than revenue. Saxapahaw performance lab Culture Mill is the prime example.
“I think this crisis exposes what many of us in the arts already know,” co-director Tommy Noonan said. “The arts are not, nor should they be, goods and services. The arts should not be subject to the same market forces as the rest of the economy.”
If there were ever a time to face and act on this truth, it’s now. At the INDY, we often talk about the need to support artists so they can make the art that enriches our personal lives and civic landscape. But this is different: At the most vulnerable end of the spectrum, we’re talking about the need to support art and service workers so that they can just live. Let’s hear from The Pinhook’s Kym Register in the thick of the crisis, and then dive into how we can help:
“If you were going to an event at The Pinhook or NorthStar and are now instead staying home, think of donating to your local music venues so that they can pay their staff. Those of you that have salaried jobs and might not be hit by this financial crisis as badly as others—think of reaching out to your favorite bartender or sound person and seeing if they need anything. It’s time for community response. People who live paycheck to paycheck need your help. We can’t rely on the government or corporations to step in and give us money or banks to give us breaks on loans or mortgages. We already know that. That’s not what capitalism is. So talk to your friends, neighbors, bartenders, service workers, sound techs, and musician friends and see what they need. We can only do this together.”
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP LOCAL ART WORKERS?
(We’ll continue to update this section with community resources as they emerge.)
DONATE TO OR START A RELIEF FUND. Durham has one, spearheaded by NorthStar, for artists and presenters who have lost money to cancellations, with priority given to the most financially vulnerable. There’s also an NC Artist Relief Fund, modeled on NorthStar’s but serving all North Carolina artists, launched by Artspace, PineCone, the United Arts Council, and VAE Raleigh. There’s the Orange County Arts Support Fund. And The Floor is crowdfunding to pay support staff from its canceled March party.
BUY MERCH. If there’s a piece of art you’ve been eyeing, an album you’ve been streaming, or a book you’ve been thinking of pre-ordering from a local retailer, now’s the time. Many dance and theater companies have gift certificates and/or sustainer programs, too.
BECOME A SUSTAINER. Chances are better than not that your favorite arts organization, and maybe even individual artist, has a sustainer program. Check the websites of the people and places that add the most to your life. Venues we know of with active fundraising campaigns include The Pinhook, NorthStar Church of the Arts, Nightlight, and Arcana.
AGGREGATE RESOURCES. Artists are essentially freelancers, and resources for freelancers are always vital and usually scarce. Now more than ever, consolidation is key so that people who need help and people who want to help can connect. This COVID-19 Freelance Artist Resources blog is a good start. You might also consider taking Americans for the Arts five-minute impact survey.
SUPPORT SERVICE WORKERS WHO MAKE THE ART EXPERIENCE POSSIBLE. Consider donating to the Creating Social Distance: Service Industry Workers fundraiser. If you eat out, tip extra to compensate for income loss and safety risk. If you were planning to go to something, consider donating what you would have spent on tickets, food, and drinks.
DON’T ASK FOR REFUNDS. I mean, if it’s a Live Nation tour at PNC Arena, get that money. But for independent venues, presenters, and artists, think about whether you can afford to just take the L before asking for a refund and clogging up their communications with unanswerable questions. I’d extend this courtesy to academic presenters, too—at Carolina Performing Arts and Duke Performances, consider making your ticket price a tax-deductible gift.
PUT YOUR HELP WHERE IT’S MOST NEEDED. I’m thinking of it this way: I know can afford to spend the money I was already planning to spend going out to restaurants, bars, and shows, so I’m going to spend it anyway. But when you’re thinking about where to put your discretionary income, consider whether your favorite artist has a large following, corporate support, or a stable salaried job. If they’re already being flooded with donations and purchases, maybe it’s time to try something new or go to one of the artist relief funds above so you can trust that your money will go to help the most vulnerable.
STAY ENGAGED. Many local artists are talking about testing the demand for virtual events, from performances to classes, and they need people to show up for them. And maybe they just need to hear from you in general. In addition to financial support, “Reach out and let them know how much you dig it,” Charles Lathan said. “If you were planning to come to a show that’s been canceled or aren’t feeling safe enough to come to one that hasn’t, tell them you’ll catch them next time. Sometimes those simple messages of support and encouragement are the fuel you need to continue on what can often feel like an uphill climb.”
Contact arts and culture editor Brian Howe at email@example.com.
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