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Dorsey Proposes Relief Fund For Baltimore City Artists

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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After 15 years of musical performances and art advocacy across Baltimore, veteran rapper Eze Jackson thought 2020 looked promising. In January, he launched a record label for unsung city talent, prepared for two upcoming tours and began to plan a music festival.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit less than two months later, his plans — along with the scheduled shows, performances and exhibits of many other city artists — evaporated. 

“I may never get that back,” Jackson said, speaking in support of a proposed artist relief fund at a Thursday morning hearing before the Baltimore City Council.

That fund was proposed by Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who introduced a resolution calling on the city to put at least $1 million from any future federal relief funds toward a relief fund for city artists. The American Relief Act, passed earlier this week, will give Baltimore $670 million in direct support. 

The North Baltimore Democrat has argued that a thriving arts and cultural ecosystem is just as much a critical component of a city's health as restaurants and small businesses. 

“Both in terms of economic hardships and health care, this pandemic has negatively affected arts communities of color and further stifled their creativity and investment opportunities,” Dorsey said. 

A survey from the Americans for the Arts foundation found that 95% of artists reported losing income during the pandemic; 62% said they lost jobs.  

In Baltimore, the creative community has had to contend with scarce relief funds, most of which were spearheaded by artists themselves, said Jocquelyn Downs, the Director of the Arts Council at the Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts.

She pointed to the Baltimore Artist Emergency Relief Fund, a coalition-led initiative that provided microgrants to city artists and creative entrepreneurs last spring. The coalition spread $161,000 among 500 artists, who put the money toward food, child care and medication, Downes said. 

But the artists who applied to receive microgrants reported losses of $3.3 million in the first two months of the pandemic alone, she noted.

The fund “was only a snapshot that captured the perpetual need of the artists and leaders in the city,” she said. “As venues and restaurants slowly reopen and restrictions are eased, the livelihoods of thousands are still very much in jeopardy.”

 

While large amounts of economic aid both from the state and the city have gone toward businesses, very little has gone to support the creative economy, said Nicholas Cohen, the Executive Director at Maryland Citizens for the Arts. 

 

“The arts industry has never before seen such a massive economic decline,” he said. “This specific downturn within the arts sector is significantly more extensive and more devastating than the Great Recession of 2008.”

 

Adam Holofcener, the Executive Director of Maryland Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, said that twice as many artists as usual have asked the nonprofit for legal help since the pandemic hit.  

 

“The losses that they suffered had extreme legal implications in terms of an inability to pay rent for studio performance spaces, an inability to comply with contracts for performance and other exhibition obligations that they had,” he said. “We had to triage all those situations.”

Many of Holofcener’s clients patch together income from a combination of payroll jobs with W-2s, such as restaurant or bar work, and freelance creative work filed through 1099s. Income from the latter have traditionally been excluded from unemployment insurance benefits. And while federal coronavirus legislation opened the door for some 1099 workers to receive benefits, the system is incredibly difficult to navigate, he said. 

 

“That has been a huge problem,” he said.

 

The pandemic disrupted what was already a precarious infrastructure for city artists, said Alanah Davis, an essayist, cultural worker and graduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art.

 

“Visual, literary and multidisciplinary artists and the like typically rely on venue bookings, artists, fairs, festivals and vendor experiences to make money to support ourselves and our families,” she said. “All of that ceased. None of us were prepared.”

 

Davis spearheaded a mutual aid fund that raised money from small donors and distributed it to artists. On social media, she amplified GoFundMe fundraisers for artists who’ve become housing insecure during the pandemic. But the majority of the donations to all of these efforts came largely from fellow artists, who, despite a “constant financial deficit,” gave what they could, she said.

 

“We are exhausted by this world's commitment to not seeing artists as the mothers, fathers, cousins, friends and humans that we are. Our needs deserve to be met,” she said, and not just the needs of those who are “white or understood” but those who are “Black, queer, non-traditional, risque, obscure, in the shadows, not well known and housing insecure.”

 

If relief isn’t distributed among artists, Jackson, the rapper, said, some may have no choice but to take their cultural contributions elsewhere.

 

“There is a lack of support for artists here,” he said, so they are “looking outside and seeing other cities that have infrastructures that do not hesitate to support their artists.”