CultureWorks Richmond has awarded grants to over 100 local artists whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic, prioritizing artists from marginalized communities. But there are still many more in need.
Since mid-April, when news struck that Virginia would be under a coronavirus-related stay-at-home order for an indefinite period of time, Richmond CultureWorks has awarded 131 grants of $500 each to local Richmond artists, musicians, and organizations through their COVID-19 Arts & Culture Relief Fund.
“The arts are sometimes the first thing that’s cut,” said Erin Frye, Director of Programs & Outreach for CultureWorks. “If people are going to prioritize food and masks — which makes total sense — then the arts are something that can be on the chopping block at times, when in reality our community and our culture wouldn’t exist without the arts. Without these things, we wouldn’t have this beautiful, colorful city.”
The fund was set up by CultureWorks along with seven other arts and culture organizations in Richmond, including 1708 Gallery, Afrikana Film Festival, ART 180, Iridian Gallery, Studio Two Three, Black American Artists Alliance of Richmond, Visual Arts Center of Richmond, and Oakwood Arts. These groups formed a coalition that fundraises for and distributes the funds. Frye said the coalition decided that funds would be distributed to those in communities that are usually at a socioeconomic disadvantage first and foremost.
“The coalition of partners decided the first step would be to prioritize communities that have been marginalized,” Frye said. “Anybody that has dealt with systemic inequality, because COVID-19 is obviously bringing that to light, and almost creating more of a disparity. We’re supporting LGBTQ, immunocompromised folks, people of color, first Americans, and several others.”
Ron Taylor, a Richmond local who was awarded the grant at the beginning of May, is a fashion designer who’s been unable to sell his products and conduct his sewing classes because of the pandemic. His commercial space, located in Hopewell, is still collecting rent. The grant has allowed Taylor to keep the lights on in his space so he can still make do what he loves and make alterations, even though he can’t teach classes.
Taylor said he hasn’t considered teaching his classes virtually because for starters, the warehouse doesn’t have Wi-Fi plus his classes are usually very intimate. He hosts sewing classes called “sip and sews,” where adults can drink wine while kids can drink juice and eat pizza as they learn to sew and making articles of clothing.
In addition to help pay the rent, the fund has also allowed Taylor to spend some money on materials to help build his advertising “up to par,” so he can get the word out that he’s still making products.
Though Taylor doesn’t have any income coming from selling his sewing creations right now, he did get the opportunity to make some money off of prom dresses he was making for four high school seniors. Instead, though, he decided to give them their money back, even though his contracts say he has a no refund policy.
“I just felt it wasn’t right because … it was their senior prom, so this was the last prom that they would go to,” Taylor said. And of course, proms were cancelled all over Virginia due to the coronavirus. “So as a business owner, even though no one asked for a refund, I just felt in my heart to let them spend that money on something that they were going to college for.”
Luckily, Taylor is still earning an income through his job as a communications staffer at a security company, but his job at Nordstrom, where he did tailoring and altering, was also put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike Taylor, Heidi Rugg, a local puppeteer who owns Barefoot Puppet Theatre, has no source of income currently, as she and her family haven’t been able to put on shows or sell any puppets. While Heidi is the actual puppeteer and her husband is the tech guy behind the shows, they have two kids at home, as well as her mother who recently moved in with them, that they have to provide for as well. Fortunately, the Rugg family was granted the COVID-19 Arts & Culture Relief Fund.
“It’s nice to buy groceries,” Rugg said. “You know, it’s just little things. There are no safety nets, we’re not part of a corporation. Gig workers are panicking all over Facebook.”
Rugg said funds like these are essential in a time of crisis, as many people don’t realize how big the arts industry is. According to the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, it makes up 4.2 percent of the GDP, which is larger than the national GDP for agriculture.
“The system was just not set up to handle gig economy workers.” Rugg said. “It’s like the federal government sent out this box of stuff without instruction or anything and were like, ‘Here’s this stuff you need to fix your problem. Go build it.’ But there were no instructions, and nobody knows what to do with gig economy workers. I mean, seriously — we’re odd ducks.”
Rugg said the only show on her schedule that’s set in stone isn’t until January 2021. There may be some shows that’ll be converted into virtual shows, but the rest have been cancelled. She said the year 2020 has been pretty much completely erased for people in her industry, leading her and her fellow performers to be left with “tenuous” budgets.
Knowing very well that there’s a plethora of moving parts in the performance industry, Rugg said she’s never seen the industry so dilapidated.
“It’s like there’s big machine and somebody threw a monkey wrench in it,” said Rugg. “Everything is all over the floor, and it’s a mess right now. We’re all just standing around staring at the mess, because it’s gonna be a long time before we can put it together again.”
Taylor and Rugg haven’t been able to put on any virtual classes or shows, but Neal Perrine, a local jazz artist, has taken this time to start livestreams with some of his friends from college. Perrine, who is currently out of work, said he’s only made a couple of bucks from these livestreams where he puts up a virtual tip jar, but people seem to really enjoy them so he and his friends are going to try to do one once a week. He said he found out about the relief fund via Facebook, and has used the grant he applied for and received to pay his rent.
“I don’t know if this is the same situation for anybody else, but I got no relief from any sort of rent, so I am still completely responsible for that, and it really helps with that,” Perrine said. “Every gig is gone. There’s no gigs for musicians — out in public, at least.”
Perrine said when word got out that there would be no gigs, he thought the situation was somewhat exciting because of all the unknowns. But as reality set in, so did panic. Thanks to the fund, some of this panic has subsided, so Perrine is making the most of his time off. Since he doesn’t have to “deal with the day to days of adult life” during this time, he’s taken time to study music like he used to in college, when he attended James Madison University on a scholarship for jazz studies.
The fund has been able to raise over $60,000, which is more than they expected to raise, and has given 131 grants so far. However, this still hasn’t been enough to provide for all those in need.
“We’ve run out of money. Just to be frank, that’s where we are,” Frye said. “We’re excited, because we’re able to meet the needs of those 131 [grant recipients], but then we’re reading the stories of all of the others, and we don’t have the funding to support them all. So that’s challenging.”
For more info on the COVID-19 Arts and Culture Relief Fund, including how to apply and how to donate in support of artists in need, visit richmondcultureworks.org/relief-fund.
Top Photo via CultureWorks Richmond/Facebook