Kansas City singer and harpist Calvin Arsenia was booked for performances all over the country until COVID-19 shut those performances down.
“As an artist, all these contracts being turned to ashes means I have no income anymore,” Arsenia said. “A gig on the calendar is how I’m going to eat that month or that week or that day.”
But even as the pandemic fire raged on, Arsenia was happy to learn in early May that he had received a $1,000 Rocket Relief fund grant available for artists who have been hurt by COVID-19. The Charlotte Street Foundation, Spencer Museum of Art and ArtsKC-Regional Arts Council, with underwriting from the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts and Theater League Kansas City, partnered to provide $120,000 in emergency aid. Beginning May 1, 10 eligible artists were to be randomly selected for the grants every week until the available funds were distributed.
“I feel very fortunate to be OK in this crazy storm right now,” Arsenia said. “I’m going to take this time and the opportunity the Rocket grant has given me to invest in the next batch of work I want to produce for my audience, a new format for immersive performance. This grant allows me to not be sniffing around for scraps.”
Arsenia’s story is emblematic of the pandemic’s attack on the art world and artists. According to survey findings released in late April by the national emergency fund Artist Relief, 95 percent of respondents reported loss of income due to COVID-19. The coalition of seven U.S. arts grant makers received more than 55,000 applications for its unrestricted $5,000 relief grants since launching the program on April 8.
Amy Kligman, executive artistic director of the Charlotte Street Foundation, said Kansas City’s arts and culture sector had been “punching above its weight for the size city we are” before the pandemic hit.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve seen in memory,” Kligman said. “Artists are used to surviving from gig check to gig check, but this is something we don’t have a road map for. It’s just kind of a perfect storm for a lot of artists right now.”
Kligman noted that many artists lack health insurance, including some who suffer from chronic health problems.
Kansas City artist Dylan Mortimer is no stranger to chronic health problems. “My sense of this is through a person that’s received two double-lung transplants,” said Mortimer, who was born with cystic fibrosis. “I’ve had to live this way before, with a mask and being careful when you’re out and washing hands a lot.”
But masks and hand washing have not protected Mortimer from the pandemic’s financial perils. “I’ve had to cancel shows, cancel speaking engagements, cancel trips to look at public art sites. It has had a dramatic effect. But some things have worked. I’ve been able to do some commissions, even now.”
Mortimer knows many artists who saw their financial underpinnings swept away by the pandemic. “There’s a lot of ‘Am I paying the mortgage or am I paying the electric bill or the credit card bill?’”
Commenting on the Rocket Relief fund, Mortimer said it was “incredible that people contributed to help out artists at a time like this. Often the arts seem to get the back burner. But even at times like this, we realize how critical they are. When everybody is in this kind of dire financial, social and mental state, art is what we turn to. We watch movies, we listen to music, we look at art.”
Kansas City artist Davin Watne and his wife, artist Diana Heise, were tapped as finalists in this year’s Arte Laguna Prize competition, which had been scheduled for March and April in Venice, Italy. But around the beginning of February, they were notified that the show had been suspended because of the pandemic.
And that wasn’t all. “I had an exhibition planned in Iowa City for the fall, and that was put on hold,” Watne said. “Then my wife and I were scheduled to do an artists’ residency in upstate New York, but that was put on hold.”
Watne said his biggest worry is what’s going to happen to his job at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he serves as an educator and director of the gallery.
“UMKC has been hit extremely hard, to the point where they’re cutting back funding and all budgets have been frozen,” Watne said. “I’m very worried. I’ve got a class that I’m teaching this summer, and I’m on schedule for the fall, but if things don’t pick up I could very well be out of a job.”
Watne sees his worries reflected in the lives of other artists and art students. For example, those who wait tables to make ends meet have seen their restaurant jobs shut down. “A lot of my students have had to move back in with their parents. Some of them who don’t have that luxury have had to crash with friends or just end up on the street.”
But despite the financial hardships of the pandemic, artists and arts advocates see hope for the future.
“Artists are trying to be optimistic,” Kligman said. “I see so many artists who are trying to make the most of a bad situation. That’s the power of art. What we’re trying to do with the emergency grant is try to bring hope to the surface for them.”
Mortimer said artists were responding to the pandemic by “churning out more art and processing what they’re feeling and thinking. I’ve seen that in many, many cases — transforming a really difficult situation into some beautiful art. That’s an artist’s job, I guess.”
Watne said artists will remain artists. “That need to create is instinctual. You’ve got to eat and sleep and have a roof over your head. But as long as they can get those needs met, they’re going to be creating.”
Arsenia said those who feel a strong calling to make art should “go back and find that first love, and continue on that path. Doing the thing that called you into this precarious lifestyle is the only security we have. What the world needs, and what the universe will honor, is that we be fully alive and not distracted by our self needs but doing the thing that we’re called to do as artists.”
To apply for a Rocket Relief grant, visit charlottestreet.org/awards/rocket-relief-fund/. Applications will be accepted on an ongoing basis through July 10.