By Lucy Haggard
As the coronavirus pandemic began to wreck the U.S., the arts was one of the first industries to feel the effects. Concerts and art shows were canceled or postponed; venues were closed. By and large, the industry ground to a halt.
Tariana Navas-Nieves, cultural affairs director for Denver Arts & Venues, said it quickly became clear that the impact on artists themselves would be “dramatic.”
“From one day to another, these artists lost all of their sources of income,” Navas-Nieves said. “Supporting them seemed like a natural way to repurpose funds.”
In a 24-hour period in mid-March, the Denver Arts & Venues created the Imagine 2020 Artist Assistance Fund, reallocating $130,000 that was part of the city’s Imagine 2020 cultural plan. The program has since grown and evolved, and as of April 1 became the Colorado Artist Relief Fund. Contributors to the fund, which is $366,000 and growing, include Denver Arts & Venues, as well as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Colorado Creative Industries and RedLine Contemporary Art Center.
Colorado artists can apply for up to $1,000 each, depending on how much lost income they need to make up in order to still pay bills and get food on the table. Applicants have to supply some sort of documentation to show that their art is part of their career, but that doesn’t have to be a formal website. For Navas-Nieves, that ask goes back to the whole reason for creating the fund in the first place: to help artists and do so equitably.
“I’ve seen many applications where I’ve never heard of the artist, but they’ve been creating for years, and I trust that,” Navas-Nieves said. “The goal is not to limit funding spaces, but to move dollars as quickly as possible to support the cultural sector in this time of need.”
Applicants represent a variety of creative industries, from tattoo artists to performers, musicians to mural painters. As of April 6, Navas-Nieves said that the first cycle of applications awarded $118,000 across 145 artists. The second review cycle will now consider 168 applications.
One of the grant’s recipients is Casey Kawaguchi, a Denver-based muralist. Much of his work explores his inner self and his Japanese-American heritage through a central character, which Denverites can see on walls around RiNo, the Arts District on Santa Fe and all around downtown. Given the large physical scale of his art, he relies heavily on festivals and gallery shows for income.
When the pandemic hit, galleries and street fairs shut down, along with much of the rest of the economy. Though the grant won’t cover all of his expenses, he says it’s still a “major help.” He credits his arts network for directing him to the fund, as he’s never received a grant for his art before and wouldn’t have heard about the program otherwise.
“That’s the beautiful part of this,” Kawaguchi said. “It makes us take action with everyone’s interests in mind, and I hope that lesson sticks.”
Artistically, the pandemic has brought him full circle. He grew up creating primarily pencil drawings before transitioning to larger formats. He’s returned to pencils and a smaller size, by doodling his meals. He’ll return to the mural format when it’s time, and hopes to have more ideas too.
“There’s something exciting about that, knowing there’s inspiration brewing,” Kawaguchi said.
Aisha Renee is another artist who received funding through the grant program. She began creating art full time a few years ago, when her son was born and she transitioned to stay-at-home parenting. She primarily does graphic design, though she also paints and draws. Like Kawaguchi, most of her projects have been canceled because clients aren’t making the money they need to pay her.
Renee’s boyfriend, who’s also an artist, also lost work due to the pandemic, so receiving the grant funding was a “huge relief” for them, both financially and emotionally. She says she’s trying to keep an optimistic attitude, for the sake of both herself and her son.
“There are a lot of us who aren’t certain what will happen going forward,” Renee said. “I keep going as best as I can, without worrying too much. We’re living on hope.”
The kicker for Renee and Kawaguchi, as well as so many other artists? Before the pandemic hit, their careers were just starting to gain ground. Renee’s graphic design work was beginning to turn her a profit. Kawaguchi committed to art full time five years ago, after resisting the urge for years. Both of them have had to struggle to get to this point. Kawaguchi is hesitant to make any predictions on what the future holds, though he knows it probably won’t be easy.
“The uncertainty of it all, that’s consistent with being an artist,” Kawaguchi said. “But things aren’t going back to normal, and it’s about how to mine the golden nuggets of lessons and make it last.”
Despite the difficulties of her profession, Renee says she’s finding the silver lining by thinking about how art functions in her life and how she wants to direct it.
“One of the best things to be right now is an artist,” Renee said. “Even if you’re not actively creating, that’s fine, because you need space to process. Refocusing on the root of who you are allows you to create in a new sense because then it all comes from within.”
Artists who receive grants through the Colorado Artist Relief Fund aren’t locked out of applying to other sources of aid, which range from hyper local to nationwide programs. In the Denver area, there’s also the RiNo Support Fund, a donation-based livestream hosted by Black Actors Guild, and GoFundMe campaigns like Denver Metro Area Artist COVID-19 Relief Fund. Denver Arts & Venues is helping to share these resources to the arts community, and Navas-Nieves hopes that more groups can step up to fill the financial-need gap.
“Collective leadership leads to collective solidarity, with other partners as much as with the community,” Navas-Nieves said. “We must lead with empathy and hope, and look not just to the urgent crisis but also to what comes afterwards, in the near future and beyond.”