How New York City artists are coping with the COVID-19 crisis

How New York City artists are coping with the COVID-19 crisis

This spring, I was thoroughly looking forward to seeing the operatic adaptation of the play “Intimate Apparel,” written by ​two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Lynn Nottage. As a vocalist and theatre lover, I was stoked. But due to the COVID-19 crisis, the production abruptly closed its run at Lincoln Center Theater on March 12 — joining a cohort of art events across New York City that have been postponed or canceled for the foreseeable future.

As performance venues, galleries, museums and organizations remain shuttered, ripples resonate throughout the artistic community. The city’s creative sector employs some 293,000 people, and over 62,000 of those individuals are self-employed. With organizations unable to present art to the public, suddenly thousands of local artists are without the ability to work.

Initial Reactions

For Cindy Trinh, a freelance-based photographer and visual journalist, spring and summer are typically very busy times of the year for her work. Her clients are nonprofit and grassroots organizations that hire her to photograph events, workshops, lectures and panels. But in the wake of COVID-19 closures, she said, “I’ve basically lost my entire stream of income.” And she’s not alone.

Many artists who entered the year with a clear schedule of paid work saw significant portions of their annual income disappear in the span of a couple weeks. Drummer and percussionist Chris Gelb recalled the last night he was able to see a performance. After the show, all the musicians were anxiously monitoring their emails. “Everyone kept on losing gigs in front of each other,” he said. “The [notices of cancellations] kept pouring in.”

Though based in New York, saxophonist, composer and educator María Kim Grand earns most of her income by performing out-of-town. She was touring Europe with Mary Halvorson’s band, Code Girl, just before the crisis took a turn for the worse. “Someone would cough in the audience, and you could just feel how tense everyone was and how anxious everyone was,” she said. The tour ended after playing only half of the scheduled shows. At the time, Grand was in the final trimester of her pregnancy. She had planned on saving her earnings from the gigs to help pay for maternity leave, an option unavailable to her as an independent contractor. With the support of her family, she is staying positive. But the situation is far from ideal.

Luisa Muhr, an interdisciplinary artist and founder of Women Between Arts, had most of her performances canceled, including a mid-April residency. She was also commissioned to compose an opera and is uncertain about the future of the production. Creating art is so deeply part of her life, Muhr said, that she feels like she doesn’t “have air to breathe.”

Like Trinh, Gelb, Grand and Muhr, many artists with confirmed tours, commissions, residencies and performances are finding themselves in unpredictable and highly stressful circumstances. DANCE/NYC recently conducted a survey of nearly 1,000 independent dance workers. Of those who responded, 63% reported cash flow issues and 75% said they need funds for their mortgage or rent. The average total income of respondents was $33,215. To put that in perspective, the median household income in New York state is $67,844. As more studies continue to reveal, artists across disciplines face a similar reality.

Survival Mode

Now two months into isolation, there still is no clear indication as to when the arts and culture industry will reopen. Will New York follow cities like Los Angeles, where large gatherings such as concerts may be pushed until 2021? With venues closed, the question artists are asking themselves is: “What am I am going to do until I can work again?”

It is challenging to maintain a steady income and save in an expensive city like New York, especially when employed in an industry where working paycheck to paycheck is common. Facing uncertainty amid coronavirus-related closures, even if an individual has savings, it is unclear how long the funds need to last.

“I live hand to mouth,” Muhr admitted candidly. “I have what I have in my bank account, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.” 

Rent is often the largest expense. Of households in New York City, 44% are rent-burdened, meaning they contribute at least 30% of their income toward paying leases. The May 1 rent strike gained support due to the overwhelming number of people who have little to no income for the foreseeable future. Likewise, New York state’s eviction moratorium is in effect until at least August 20. But tenants are concerned about how and when they would be able to pay rent back once it’s lifted.

“It’s hard to budget right now when you don’t have anything coming in,” Trinh noted. She is among the artists who support a rent and mortgage freeze. She has attended virtual town halls, signed petitions and called elected officials demanding them to enact legislation. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive Democrat from the Bronx, is co-sponsoring a national bill to cancel rent and mortgage. But even if the billed passes, will it be enough?

Artists are among the 1.4 million people in New York state who have applied for unemployment benefits —  including traditional unemployment insurance and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance — since the crisis began. They are also applying to emergency funds. Artist Relief, an initiative distributing $5,000 grants to artists in dire need, received 55,744 applications from across the country in its first 15 days. Artists are among the most severely affected workers by the pandemic. With 62% of artists and creative workers nationwide now fully unemployed as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, individuals across the cultural sector face an overwhelming need for funding to pull through.

Pivoting and the Virtual Transition

Surviving in the creative sector is more than being able to pay bills. Artists by nature need to create, usually with other people. To suddenly lose that ability is both logistically and emotionally difficult to process. “My lifestyle is so fast,” Nigel Campbell, entrepreneur, dance artist and co-founder of MOVE|NYC|, shared. “I was moving so fast. There was no time to stop. And the world stopped, and I needed some time to catch up with myself. And I literally sat on the couch for a week.” A Bronx native, Campbell naturally embodies the pace of New York City. He is like many artists who spent the first couple weeks of confinement navigating anxiety and grief before finding some peace and acceptance.

Digital and social media platforms have helped people develop a new artistic practice by allowing them to construct quasi-performance venues, rehearsal spaces and classrooms at home. Quilan “Cue” Arnold is a dance artist and hip-hop scholar who rapidly pivoted to working in a new modality. He teaches virtual classes for Camille A. Brown & Dancers and Hunter College. An active member of New York City’s street dance community, Arnold also organizes online dance battles. Though there is a learning curve to creating a virtual platform for dance, he sees this time as an opportunity to connect deeply with the community he serves. 

Sandra Velasquez has been able to transition by responding to the demand for fun and upbeat learning content for children. The songwriter, vocalist and bandleader of the musical group Moona Luna is licensing her bilingual music to educational digital platforms, as well as performing in virtual concerts for children through Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Public Library. She is among countless artists experimenting with different kinds of models to provide art to the public online.

Some artists are hosting donation-based events online and through social media out of generosity and out of love for their craft. “I do more of my art for free than others,” actor and NAACP Image Award-nominated singer-songwriter Mykal Kilgore said. But there is a debate about whether offering reduced prices online will devalue the art over time. With a significant portion of former audience members no longer able to afford to pay full prices like before the crisis, artists are wondering if people will pay them what they deserve when the pandemic is over.

The Future and Hope

The truth is that there is no simple answer for what happens next for artists. I find Kendrick Lamar’s sage wisdom, “Be humble/ … Sit down,” rings particularly clear for me in this moment. Now is a chance for New Yorkers to practice, perhaps ironically, patience. It is unclear when the creative sector will reopen and when people will feel safe gathering in public again to experience art together. But it is clear that this time can be an occasion in the arts and culture industry to rebuild and create new opportunities like never before.

“It is a blessing to help other people and redistribute my own resources,” Joshuah Campbell said. The singer, songwriter and Oscar-nominated composer is grateful to be of service to his community and help younger artists. He also sees this as a moment to address the deeper societal and institutional systems that have contributed to making artists a vulnerable population during the pandemic.

Overall, there is a strong sense of solidarity, gratitude and good old-fashioned kindness among artists determined to support each other through this crisis. According to Americans for the Arts, 76% of artists have devoted their practice to raising morale, creating community cohesion or lightening the experience of COVID-19 in the arts and culture community. The outpouring of generosity from people shines an optimistic light on the future.

Positive about the next chapter, Kilgore believes that the best way forward is to lead with compassion and an open heart. According to him: “Our job is to take ashes and make beauty.”

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