During the COVID-19 crisis, Boston’s flagship cultural institutions have suffered greatly. Canceled events brought canceled seasons, which brought furloughs, layoffs, and millions of dollars in lost revenue for the theaters, music groups, and museums we love. The nonprofit advocacy group Americans for the Arts estimates the US arts sector has taken a $14.1 billion hit.
But the city’s freelance artists — painters, craftspeople, musicians, theater technicians, and more — can’t slash thousands (or even hundreds) from their budgets. Many were squeaking by long before the COVID-19 crisis. Now the pandemic has claimed the craft fairs and art markets where visual artists sold their work. It has erased the busy performance calendar that meant Boston musicians and theater artists could build lives and careers here. According to multiple surveys by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, almost a thousand artists in the state lost an average of $8,500 in earnings this year.
The Globe spoke with dozens of freelance artists over the past few weeks, with many describing the pandemic’s financial strain and its personal toll. “You want to ask for help,” said Boston painter Marlon Forrester. “But you also have a certain level of pride.”
Arts organizations still need financial support, perhaps more than ever this year. But as patrons plan for end-of-year giving, it’s important to remember the independent workers who make our region so interesting. Here are six ways to help your favorite local artists survive the holidays this year.
There’s one simple action that came up again and again with creators who spoke with the Globe: Purchase art directly from artists rather than buying gifts from Amazon or big-box stores. Shoppers are urged to scour their favorite artists’ websites, stalk their Instagram feeds, or look for work they like on Etsy.com, an e-commerce site focused on handmade, vintage, and craft items. Tip: Customers can search Etsy for artists by region, thereby supporting creators close to home.
“When you buy straight from the artist, you know where that money’s going,” said Maine fiber artist Judith Daniels. “You know it’s not being cut away in any form. You know they’re getting what they believe they deserve.”
Need a little more help finding art by local creators? Try looking on Artists Sunday, a new national effort scheduled for the big post-Thanksgiving shopping weekend (akin to “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday”). Two thousand artists, including two dozen from the Boston area, have signed up for the campaign. You’ll find their work in the easy-to-search directory at www.artistssunday.com.
The goal? Turning the Sunday after Thanksgiving into the year’s single most profitable day for independent artists and makers. Artists Sunday founder Christopher Sherman said the initiative also supplies participating artists with a marketing toolkit, complete with instructions on how to blog, use social media, and sell products on the Internet. “Individual artists don’t have a lot of marketing dollars,” Sherman said. “Artists Sunday is a rallying point for artists all across the country.”
At the same time, it’s important to support artists “on the other side of the digital divide,” said Brain Arts Org co-director Emma Leavitt. In fact, creators who lack access to computers and Internet may be faring worse than other visual artists this holiday season, now that in-person sales are limited by social distancing.
Arts patrons can help by giving money to groups that meet artists where they are, Leavitt said. This includes Leavitt’s home organizations, Dorchester Art Project and Brain Arts Org, which share a storefront building with a friendly retail space filled with local art and craft. Other community organizations that directly aid artists include Dunamis Boston and Mass Creative.
These groups do outreach in their immediate neighborhoods, forging relationships with artists who remain invisible on the screen. “So many grants and funds require people to send an email here by a specific date and time,” Leavitt explained, “and that’s not a possibility for everyone.”
If you’d rather see funds go directly to creatives whose work you admire, set up a monthly donation. Plenty of artists have profiles on the subscription service site Patreon or the more artist-focused Fractured Atlas. In certain cases, these contributions are even tax-deductible.
Establishing a steady stream of income is especially important for those specializing in public art, said Kim Bernard, a creator whose work often incorporates materials recycled from her Rockland, Maine, community. These pieces take longer to commission and create, with a final product that’s a lot less marketable than, say, a painting. “A sustained donation is guaranteed income,” Bernard explained.
Performing artists are in an especially precarious spot this season, since indoor concerts and shows will likely remain on hold for several more months — or until a vaccine becomes widely accessible. In the meantime, our sources suggest patrons donate to organizations that help performing arts groups and their workers.
President Amy Spalletta of the Theatre Community Benevolent Fund said her group is receiving almost four times as many applications for aid in one month than they used to receive over an entire year. That means TCBF gave away $220,000 to 83 individual theater artists and 23 theaters since March. More than eight months into the crisis, the need is really straining TCBF and its 14 volunteers, who never actively fundraised in past.
“We want to keep helping freelance artists and technicians,” Spalletta said. “And we were prepared for an influx of applications. But none of us expected for this to go this long.”
However, artists say none of these short-term measures should detract from efforts to address structural problems in the US safety net. People who care about the arts are encouraged to support the workers’ movement and the push for an unemployment system that functions equitably for freelancers and the self-employed. And the issue is urgent, since the federal CARES Act program providing emergency coverage for freelancers expires in a few weeks on Dec. 26.
Performing arts and live event workers took to the streets in multiple protests recently, calling for extended unemployment benefits and rallying against the processes that make it difficult for freelancers to acquire aid. They called out how applications for unemployment often require documentation including W-2 forms, which independent contractors do not receive from their employers. This has blocked or delayed the self-employed worker’s ability to access funds needed to survive.
“Really, the tax system is not set up to help freelancers,” Leavitt said. That often leaves artists with no choice but turning to their community for help.