Today the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) announces new grants for arts and culture organizations under President Biden’s American Rescue Plan. The pandemic relief fund set aside $135 million for both the arts and humanities endowments, nearly double the amount that was available to cultural groups in President Trump’s CARES Act. Eligibility requirements for NEA grants have also been modified to allow for a broader pool of applicants.
At the height of the pandemic in 2020, 63% of artists and creatives experienced unemployment, according to Americans For The Arts. In Washington, D.C., Arena Stage tried to help artists by letting them advertise work-for-hire services on its website, everything from hosting yoga parties to virtual chess lessons.
Making coasters to make a living
Costume designer Ivania Slack is making personalized coasters. She’s keeping a sense of humor about it — one customer asked for a series with images of dachshunds. “I’m working on a set now that’s all the musicals that an actress has been in,” says Slack.
Like so many artists, Slack is self-employed. If she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid. To earn a living, she says she needs to work on about ten shows per year. “Pretty much all the shows for a year were canceled and theaters did their best to at least pay us out or do partial payments,” she says. “And I just sort of faced this idea of, ‘Oh, I just built this career for over 20 years and I’m going to have a year of not doing any of it.”
The pandemic hit artists hard. Given that both performance venues and restaurants were closed, they couldn’t even wait tables to make ends meet.
“Cultural organizations were among the first businesses to shut down at the start of a pandemic, and they’ll be among the last to fully reopen,” says Ra Joy, Chief of Staff at the National Endowment for the Arts.
NEA officials heard from arts groups when they were distributing grants under the CARES Act. In that round of relief funding, only organizations that had received NEA grants within the last four years were eligible to apply. That cut out a lot of arts groups that were suffering during the pandemic. “I mean, it became very clear that there was a sort of a tiered system of who was going to get the available funding and who wasn’t,” says Michelle Ramos, a former dancer and executive director of Alternate ROOTS, which works with artists and cultural groups in the South. “And so you did see a lot of people kind of step up and say, ‘Hey, we want to help folks that we know aren’t going to get the help.'”
The NEA says it’s listening, and changes are coming
Ra Joy says the NEA got the message and made changes this time around.
“We have spent a great deal of time listening and learning from leaders in the field,” says Joy. “Organizations who have never received funding from the arts endowment or never received federal funding are eligible to apply. We really want to open the doors of opportunity to new cultural organizations across the country.”
Arts organizations can apply to the NEA for direct grants of up to $150,000. They can use the money for reopening, rehiring and general operating expenses. The NEA is also distributing a portion of the money to local arts agencies around the U.S. for subgranting. Complete guidelines for the grants will be available on the NEA’s website beginning at 10:00AM ET.
What has not changed from the CARES act is that individual artists are ineligible for direct grants from the NEA. Under federal law, the NEA can only award grants to individuals for a literature fellowship, National Heritage Fellowship, or American Jazz Masters Fellowship. It’s a policy that frustrates Ramos.
“Many individual artists, especially gig workers, folks that work job to job, that aren’t affiliated with an organization, that don’t have a 501c3,” says Ramos, “These are all, you know, a big portion of the arts community.”
The pandemic has been a catalyst for artists and arts advocates like Ramos to form coalitions calling for change in how creative workers are supported. She says she and others are raising questions about “who has access to funding, who gets funding and who doesn’t … I think that what we’re seeing is a lot of reverberation of folks stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, we need to take care of all of our artists. Not just the artists that are in the big white ivory towers.'”
Meantime, with more arts organizations now eligible for relief grants, the NEA is gearing up to process a lot more applications.
This story was edited for radio by Rose Friedman, and adapted for the web by Rose Friedman and Petra Mayer