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City opens grant program to assist creatives impacted by Covid-19

Monday, August 17, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Artists and workers involved in the city’s creative economy can apply today for $2,000 awards from Austin’s new Creative Worker Relief Grant program.

The program, which has $3.5 million in total funding, is the latest spun up by the Economic Development Department in response to the job losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the fourth program to use a mix of federal and city funds to assist the local creative ecosystem, with previous aid efforts targeting musicians, creative spaces and nonprofit organizations involved in arts and culture.

The city has launched a second round of $1,000 grants for musicians, who are also eligible for the creative grant program but will only receive $1,000 if they have received a previous grant from the city.

The application process will close on Aug. 28 and Meghan Wells, manager of the city’s Cultural Arts Division, said awards are expected to be sent out by 10 business days from then. Half of the award pool is being set aside for artists from racial or socially focused equity groups, with the other half planned to be awarded via lottery since the applicant pool is expected to be larger than the total funds available.

The new program will ask for financial and other information from applicants to assess need but the documentation requirements are being relaxed to make it easier for artists to apply. Some applicants had criticized the musicians’ grant program, saying the need to submit bank statements and other documentation made the process too difficult during a time of economic hardship.

“We were fortunate with this to benefit from the lessons learned in previous programs so we could streamline and take advantage of some of the ways to improve the process,” Wells said. “We feel like it is very straightforward and broad in terms of who can participate … we wanted to make it very accessible because we want it to reach very deeply in the community.”

Volunteers from Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts are available to help applicants, and Wells said the city has contracted with six community groups targeting assorted demographic groups to increase awareness of the program.

With city leaders hoping for another round of federal aid, Wells said the applications from the new programs can be used to identify new groups or regions that need more assistance.

“Every time you ask for data, from a macro standpoint we get a sense for where the local creative ecosystem is, but it also works on a very individualized level to see what disciplines or professional categories of work or demographics are really participating in the program or not participating in the program and what kind of need there is,” she said. “This will give us a sense for where the need is focused. That does help us make policy decisions and helps Council to see where new or existing needs are.”

John Riedie, president and CEO of Austin Creative Alliance, said his group has similarly learned about the needs of the local creative economy from evaluating roughly 1,200 applications providing $500 to artists in need. Thus far ACA has raised nearly $150,000 and given nearly 250 awards.

“On these applications we’re seeing that people have lost their apartments or are experiencing food insecurity. The next few months are going to be tough. The reality is there’s 1,200 people who make the bulk of their living doing artistic work and then have maybe a side hustle in the service industry, and they’ve lost both of those,” he said. “Teaching artists can’t teach, galleries are closed and performing artists have in some ways shifted to online but it’s not nearly the same.”

Riedie said the city should structure the emergency grant programs in a way that makes them as easy as possible to apply for, especially for those facing high levels of economic uncertainty.

“It’s important to make it as simple as possible. A lot of artists aren’t the best at paperwork and may not have the kind of documentation that an entrepreneur or a person who works freelance in other industries might have,” he said.

With the effects of the pandemic expected to last at least until the end of the year, arts advocates said city, state and federal resources need to be joined by philanthropic assistance for creatives who have lost nearly all of their earning power with no ability for crowds and performers to attend large events.

“The pinch is universal, it just impacts certain artists in different ways. Performing artists who would be typically training, dancing or going to rehearsals with other people now aren’t able to be together in close contact,” said Ann S. Graham, executive director of Texans for the Arts.

“Visual artists, while they’re able to work in a solitary way, galleries are closed and so are museums and exhibition spaces along with special events like E.A.S.T. and West Austin studio tours aren’t possible, so it’s hurting everyone in different ways.”

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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