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Article Published: 02 Jul 2020

Friends in Need

Artist release funds provide moral and financial support to sorely strained performers.

As the pandemic began disrupting artists’ livelihoods earlier this year, concerned colleagues quickly mobilized to help those who were hardest hit by the sudden loss of income. Hundreds of efforts — local, regional, and national — sprang up. And while individual grants have often been limited to $250 or $500, these relief funds created by artists, for artists, have been deluged with applications. “It’s important to be real about the fact that this is a drop in the bucket,” says flutist and new music advocate Claire Chase, who helped create the New Music Solidarity Fund, “but knowing that a community of artists has your back — that’s the definition of solidarity.”

Lawrence Brownlee has raised money for several funds with his Coffee and a Song YouTube recitals, collaborating with Susanna Phillips, Nicholas Phan, and pianist Myra Huang. “The challenge is great,” notes Brownlee. “But we want to help our colleagues who are really suffering. We may not be able to help you pay your rent, but maybe we can help you with groceries for this week.”

In early March, Andrew Crooks, an opera faculty member at Lawrence University Conservatory, and his friend Morgan Brophy, assistant director of artistic administration at Wolf Trap Opera, created the Artist Relief Tree (ART). The initial plan was to raise $10,000 and offer $250 grants to artists from any discipline who applied. Within four days, they had more than 3,500 requests and had to take down the application form, so they recruited a core team of skilled volunteers who created a website and built a community of ambassadors to spread the word. As of press time, the fund had exceeded $350,000 and helped 1,200 artists, but the waiting list had topped 14,000. ART’s next goal is to raise $1 million and fulfill all the requests. “The money is just a vehicle,” says Brophy. “People are losing a lot more than money. We want to create a meaningful connection, a measure of trust and stability.”

The New Music Solidarity Fund had similar grass roots. Flutist Chase, composer Marcos Balter, and a group of their salaried colleagues asked New Music USA to help administer their effort to support performers and composers. Within the first afternoon, the fund had received 1,500 applications and had to close its portal, but financial supporters encouraged them to be more ambitious. Artists like Jamie Barton, Julia Bullock, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Denyce Graves mobilized their networks and turned online performances into fundraisers. By early May, the Fund had given out 700 grants of $500 each, and was aiming to raise enough money to give 300 more grants, or a total of $500,000.

The online efforts of artists like Brownlee, Joyce DiDonato, and Piotr Beczala are helping to raise money for the AGMA Relief Fund, which has provided emergency funds to AGMA members since 1945. (It is a 501(c)(3) organization distinct from AGMA, administered by The Actors Fund.) This year, the fund has distributed over $800,000 grant dollars to some 800 performers.

The people behind these funds are working not just to provide money, but to meet non-financial needs. ART’s website offers a robust resources page and also disseminates artists’ work. Each AGMA Relief Fund grantee (their names are not known to AGMA to protect their dignity) is assigned a social worker to provide counseling, and the fund also offers support on retooling careers, health insurance, and other non-financial aid.

“This solidary effort across all sectors is such a positive and generous gesture,” says Chase. “But the fact that it is really needed acknowledges how brutally unequal the artistic world is. If we don’t come out from this radically changed, the joke’s on us.” a way to support Orlando Health and the community,” says Gabriel Presser, the company’s general director, “it gave our students the opportunity to show off their hard work.”

This article was published in the Summer 2020 issue of Opera America Magazine.