Courtesy Kelly

Has Anyone Asked Artists What They Need?

It's Monday, May 4, 2020 at 6:20 pm and I start a text chain with 10 artists I find in my phone. I'm at home, I am bored, and I am in this sort of limbo with myself. Dusty Springfield has been on repeat. In my head. My love-letter-slash-sad-love-song to New York City right now: I just don't know what to do with myself.

Usually, I work all the time and I work as much as I can, and it almost feels like a disease. But I also love my work. I get up before 6 am; I go to the gym; I clear my inbox, and get on the subway. I work for three to four hour slots between different gigs, jobs, commissions, and in between, I take phone meetings, Skype calls and I field hundreds of text messages. At some point I'll eat something. When the evening hits, about 5-6, my work day is done and then I go to rehearsal until 10 with my company. There is a warm-up, conversations about everyone's feelings (we don't have an HR department) and then we dance, we make theater, and we record some media and we work until the someone kicks us out. We always pretend we thought the clock was too fast. However, we have packing up in less than two minutes down to a science. I get home as quickly as I can. Answering emails on the subway or in my budgeted Lyft rides. Home. Eat, maybe. Stretch, nope. Watch that YouTube video, read that script, pray to Jerome Robbins. 1 am, just three more emails, Bobby. An hour later, bed. Four or five hours later: Repeat.

I have a complicated relationship with this routine. But, as an artist, this is simply what the hustle looks like.


On February 25, I had my directorial debut with the show We're Gonna Die at New York City's Second Stage Theatre and on March 2, I flew to Seattle to tour my work for the first time. A solo show, Ugly. On March 9, my husband flew to Seattle, and two days later became symptomatic for the novel coronavirus. My family, in Seattle, my incredible family, locked him in a basement and we took care of him and washed our hands, and took care of him and washed our hands. Ugly went on, and closed early on Friday, March 13 and We're Gonna Die closed early on Sunday, March 15. Both the last public performances in Seattle and New York respectively. And the cities shut down.

Afterward, my husband and I were stuck in Seattle for a month. Incredibly fortunate to have family there, but no option to get back to New York City. Not smart to travel, and not safe either. In that month of time, nearly every job, contract and opportunity that I had for the next two years was canceled indefinitely.

But I got three grants last year, remember? So I must not need any money. Not true. Those funds are for my company. For the 28 members of the feath3r theory; the 18 dancers that are meeting via Zoom to try to move our work forward; the eight designers and two administrators who have always worked from home or virtually for at least 80 percent of the time. Since starting my company in 2009 I have rarely taken a fee or salary—something at this moment that I am reconsidering seriously. It does make sense that I would be paid by my company, right? I always thought it was my job to sacrifice my needs for the sake of the company, because I guess I don't have to have one. It's not essential.

I need to figure out a way to make money. I immediately apply for a new credit card and slip deep into what feels like a kind of depression or shock and then I start the hustle. The Zoom hustle.

Black and white shot of Zoom grid

Courtesy Kelly

In-between my Zoom meetings and Zoom rehearsals and Zoom tutorials, I start to see an influx of emails all asking for me to donate to artists in need. I begin to see institutions and organizations, newsletter after newsletter give the call to action:

Dear Beloved New York City Artist and Art Lovers,

Now more than ever, in these uncertain times, we are all in this together and we will all come out of this together. Our time, right now, reveals an unprecedented need, for unity, to rise up, to fight against and to stand. As our city grapples with a profoundly "new abnormal," the health and safety of our community will remain our top priority. During this aberrant time, since we can't meet in person with this unsettling social distancing, our artist community has been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. As we respond to the COVID-19 outbreak, the safety and well-being of the community comes first. The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled performances, exhibitions, and other events this season and in the unknown future. The COVID-19 pandemic has canceled our lives. But this closure is only temporary. We know that artists and arts workers are struggling, and many are facing dire financial emergencies, from canceled shows and exhibitions, to challenges accessing unemployment, to the reality of not being able to pay rent and put food on the table. We know artists are hurting right now. Support the resilience, don't arrest creativity, make way for the innovation that artists continue to bring into the world. Artists are a force for change. Artist carve the path forward. Artists will design the plan for the reclamation of culture. Artists are here to transform, challenge and make meaning. Artists are here to constantly reimagine our world and show us what our world could be. Artists are here to bring people together and build communities. Artists have been here for entertainment and culture time and time again. Today, (here we go again) in these uncertain times, now more than ever, you can be here for artists.

The following are three options to support artists:

  • Buy tickets to a show or event that didn't happen (give me money)
  • Buy tickets to a show or event that might happen (give me money)
  • Or just give us your money

Here's what YOU get:

  • A "Thank you" on Facebook or Instagram
  • A sticker
  • A Zoom champagne toast (procured by you) with a famous "artist" that has done nothing for anyone but themselves and has zero reputation in the community.

And then the promise:

We know what artists want and need. We promise that if you give us your money, we will take what we need (to pay ourselves) and we'll continue our process of making artists apply to us to prove their worth. This time, we'll make them prove how much in dire need they are, and when we got back to normal, we will open up our regularly scheduled application process where we ask our artists to prove their artistic merit. Then we will give them money to make shows we produce so that we can as a community pay our bills, rent, buy food and otherwise live.

At least that's what I am reading. I don't know about you.

But I digress (again).

It's Monday, May 4, 2020 at 6:20 pm and I start a text chain with 10 artists I find in my phone. No one is asking me what I need right now. As one of these artists who everyone is out here fighting to protect and save and bring home, no one is asking me what I need. Why aren't there surveys, call-in lines or Google docs, where these "artists" are being asked for what they need. Artists have always needed money. Always. Not just for making our work, but for supporting our lives.

So I asked my colleagues, What do you need? Who's got your back? And, What's next?

(names have been changed to colors, conversations have been edited down, and some organizations redacted)

Raja Feather Kelly:

Hey, has any institution that you have been a part of in the past 3 years asked you for what you need right now?

PINK:

They haven't.

BLUE:

there's surveys on what my experience is, but I'd say no. I don't have an institution that considers me theirs. I don't have an institution that I can consider a home really.

BLACK:

nope

not at all

but I'm getting emails from theaters to donate

it's f***ing sick. I never want to do theater again

BROWN:

Twice... once as they told me something wasn't going to happen, second time were in the process of asking me for something.

ORANGE:

No, aside from vague "we are here for you" -esque form letters/mailings that are actually asking for money.

Raja Feather Kelly:

Do you feel supported? Do you want some kind of support? What do you need? And who's got your back? And what's next?

PINK:

It's so interesting. I kinda feel like I have no idea what support truly looks like in these times

BLACK:

oh Raja...I don't know...I am not able to be as creative as I want/wish I could. Institutions just copy/paste my name onto an email and ask me for money. I mean…I'm not surprised at all. I have never felt supported…

YELLOW:

Yes and I responded by saying "I don't know" what I need right now. Or I ignored the survey (because I felt like I wouldn't be able to articulate what I needed)

WHITE:

Yes institutions

My friends and family ask what happens now

I have applied for the relief funds that people are giving. Did you apply?

I've applied for things but I can't think of institutions who have personally called to ask what I need.

Raja Feather Kelly:

I did apply for [grant]

And gurl, they gave me a check for $750

And then sent a bill for $1100

WHITE:

Me too!!! Quick too! Oh god

Courtesy Kelly

At this point, I was already gutted to hear what I heard. I am talking to people that range the field, from Broadway choreographers, to celebrated teachers, well-known performers, and those who have made great contributions to their art communities.

The conversations continued.

Raja Feather Kelly:

Isn't that unfortunate?

There are many institutions that are deciding for us right now, what we need, and that they are going to be the ones to give it to us. So while we sit deciding, thinking, feeling, it seems the choice is being made for us

PINK:

right

Raja Feather Kelly:

It's shame. What do YOU need? What do you NEED? Money is always a need…

PINK:

Absolutely! The truth is I think you asking me has made me realize I never assume I'll be asked something like this. It's pretty powerful

In my quick responses back, I said, that I had to be more thoughtful in considering organizations or institutions that I feel are trying. I certainly couldn't speak for all of them but to the ones I know, but this was why I decided to reach out.

BLUE:

What about you? Has any institution asked you?

Raja Feather Kelly:

If I am being honest, yes, The Invisible Dog. I do feel like that is a home for me and they are growing so much too. They are just as old as I am as a company, I believe they are truly artist focused, a new model.

Other institutions that came up included Queer Art, HERE Arts, American Theater Wing, Artist Relief and their associated organizations, Sydney Skybetter, New York Live Arts, and Jerome Foundation. These institutions and individuals were named for their particular efforts in both getting artists substantial money, but also asking questions like, Is there anything more we can do?

However, something I still didn't quite understand is why so many artists still feel without a home, and under-supported, not just because of the impact of the novel coronavirus but generally as culture leaders. It seems that COVID-19 is only shining a light to what has always been there.

BLUE:

I mean. I think that's the problem with the model. The institutions do have to exist, but when s**t gets hard they have to care about their staff, not their gig workers, or their artists. I mean they might say that they do, but there's no net for the artists I don't think because the artists aren't employed by anyone. The artists are self-employed.

Raja Feather Kelly:

Sooo… Why are all these institutions sending emails that say HELP THE ARTISTS to the artists? Are you being asked to participate in any kind of institution reaching out?

BLUE:

I have not been asked to participate in any outreach. No institutions have acknowledged that I have ever been a part of them except Brown and FCA - who actually are making grants available to past grantees. I feel like maybe there's a secret society, or maybe a popularity contest. It's all quiet as far as I can see. Crickets.

YELLOW:

some of the institutions offered concrete opportunities/services that I was like, "yes that is a tangible thing I need to do right now." Free consultation with a CPA and a bookkeeper, help applying to PPP and EIDL. But that doesn't get at the core of what I feel like I'm missing (which is sort of more in the emotional feeling reflective realm)

WHITE:

I think everyone got the wind knocked outta them and everyone is trying to survive

So in saving their institutions they may think that means saving artists too.

Ppl's minds are going so fast they probably don't think about the individual people. Maybe?

There seems to be so much content out there. Artists are somehow still making, and doing. I know I am. Creating is what keeps me going, and that is a spiritual thing. So I wonder what we are still making and if that is helping what we think we need or responding to a need that we are told we need in order to barter.

Raja Feather Kelly:

Are people still asking you to participate in "stuff"

BLUE:

I've been asked to share my work a lot online and I'm just trying to turn that into, no let's do more and you can pay me to do it.

WHITE:

YES and I'm tired of it!!! Tired of being "on." I have said no to podcasts and interviews. I don't wanna be a part of it. I want to use this as ME time and to explore all the things you've mentioned. What is my core? What really matters?

PURPLE:

I need space and time. And lots of books. I need to sometimes check in with community to make sure I'm not diving too far off the deep end.

Raja Feather Kelly:

Who has your back?

BLUE:

I have no idea who has my back.

RED:

I don't think anyone is having a real conversation. They are trying to capitalize first, which is totally understandable. Because people are scared about losing work, etc. But no one is talking about the fear.

YELLOW:

I def feel supported by friends/chosen fam and fam

WHITE:

Everything is in limbo,

Raja Feather Kelly:

What's next?

BLUE:

I'm in my studio right now hand soldering.

What I actually need is health insurance. Insurance that covers mental health would be next. I need to go to the desert soon. I'm thinking of moving there. I don't enjoy NYC. I don't know the community here. Or. I very much feel not part of it.

GREEN:

Well first I need landlords to back the f**k off, haha...

#RentStrike2020 Today was my last class and hopefully my June online class will run, but for all of May, I will not have income. There may not be any work for the rest of the year, so I will have to get innovative to pay basic bills and feeding myself. The money is likely to run out. Thankfully I am not on any medication,

BROWN:

I think there is the possibility in this moment and looking at screens etc to feel slightly outside of ourselves...we are literally spectators of events unfolding and other people's pain...our own pain...so how do we allow ourselves to feel and be...instead of returning to what this country/economy/capitalism wants us to be...which is product/producers/workers/etc

WHITE:

I need a man!!!!

When I ask myself these questions, What do I need? Who has my back? and What's next? I think: I'm trying to lean far back into why I do this. This art thing. I never wanted to do this for money. And yet I need money to keep doing this. I don't know if anyone has my back if I can't offer them something in return. I think I might not know who has my back until it's too late and I'll either die or be surprised by who catches me. And I welcome both those outcomes.

WHITE:

We just gotta fight for self care right now.

BROWN:

[Sends picture]

A text comes in from a friend who is not in this thread of conversations. It just says, "just feeling sad about making art and dance... i really love it and miss it." So I obviously ask "What do you need?" And the response is, "to know somebody has my back, a good cry, maybe someone to talk to this week?" I later learned my friend had just gotten another rejection for a grant they applied to.

Is this what we're working so hard to return to? Is this where all your money is going? Do artists have to feel this way all the time?

Have you, institutions, organizations, businesses, studios, theaters, etc, taken a moment to call your artists and ask them what they need, so when you're ready to open back up, they are mentally, physically and emotionally ready as well?

Artists are a force for change. Artists carve the path forward. Artists will design the plan for the reclamation of culture. Artists are here to transform, challenge and make meaning. Artists are here to constantly reimagine our world and show us what our world could be. Artists are here to bring people together and build communities. Artists have been here for entertainment and culture time and time again. Today, in these uncertain times, now more than ever, you can be here for artists.

I dare you.

Remove us from your email lists asking us for money, call us and ask us what we need. Let us know you have our back, and ask us what is next.

Here is a script.

Hello [insert name and affiliation]

I am calling to ask how you are doing. How are you? [wait for response]

I am calling to say thank you.

[choose all that apply]

Thank you for performing

Thank you for renting studio space

Thank you for your work, and what you have brought to this theater [or appropriate venue]

[Insert an anecdote here—make it personal, and make it good. Speak truthfully and be as specific as possible.]

[And then say three times:]

Without artists like you, culture would not exist.

[And then repeat it until you mean it or until they stop you.]

On behalf of [insert affiliation], thank you.

[Then say:]

I want you to feel that we at [insert affiliation] have your back, and we want to know what you need, and what's next.

Please note that money will always be at the core of our needs, but sometimes we need something else, or something more. To know that we matter, and to know that our contributions are valuable and to know when you say, "We're going to get through this together" that we are a part of that "We."

And while we're here, let's think deeply about what we are going to return to, and what that will mean for us artists. More applications, more competitions, more fundraisers and more need. We are not machines. Give artists homes. And mean it. What is next is a choice. Each choice we make today designs our world for tomorrow.

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