by Kamna Shastri
Matthew Lang, a parkour, acrobatics, dance, and theater artist, went from teaching 13 classes a week to just one, via streaming services, all in the blink of a week. In less than a month, Lang suddenly found himself worried about being able to afford rent, with his business failing.
Ash Leon, a rapper and hip-hop artist who recently moved to Seattle from New York, has a new single that just released, and an EP scheduled to drop in April. Leon had performances and promotional events lined up, but now — “all I can do is hope that people will stream my music enough that I will be able to receive a significant royalty check,” Leon said.
After social distancing and public health measures shut down schools, businesses, and the routine humdrum of society, creatives around the country are stomaching the fallout in the form of thousands of dollars of lost income, canceled tours, performances, and classes.
“Everyone and everything I love and rely on to exist is under threat,” wrote local hip-hop artist and organizer Julie-C in an email to the Emerald. She’s just released an album herself and has had multiple shows canceled. As cultural and arts workers, Julie-C said, “we have long known we cannot count on existing systems and institutions to ‘save us.’” This knowledge inspired some Seattle-area independent artists and cultural workers to create a horizontal coalition. About three weeks ago, when Governor Jay Inslee had capped group meetings at 250 people but not yet banned them all together, the Seattle Independent Artists Sustainability Effort (SIASE) convened their first meeting at Vermillion, a bar and art gallery on Capitol Hill.
The first order of business for SIASE was to document exactly how much revenue was being lost by independent artists, venues, and groups. Currently, their website cites a staggering loss of $1,405,772.52 for local artists — a figure that’s self-reported using a Google form. “By documenting this info we are showing the scale of need,” said Lang, who serves as the press relations contact for SIASE, “especially when we are comparing it to funds coming in from [philanthropic organizations].” This very tangible number helps hold larger societal systems accountable in recuperating that cost and creating a safety net for artists.
The coalition will use this crowdsourced data to document actual losses, advocate for independent artists who are now struggling for rent, and support and mobilize relief and mutual aid efforts.
Julie-C says that in times of crisis, “there is a tendency to replicate habits of siloing kindred efforts rather than centering coordination across them. SIASE is here to hold space for that critical work of building connection and solidarity from that intention. As well as to lend capacity, support, and advocacy for the many cultural workers in our community who are already giving their all to stop the bleeding.”
SIASE is a wholly grassroots, community-led and sustained effort to not only document losses, but also advocate for and distribute resources for the artistic community. “This is the only anonymous, accessible, and entirely community-led rapid release resource available to the most vulnerable in our ecosystem,” says Julie-C. This intersection makes SIASE’s work all the more urgent.
The top priority for the organization right now is to help artists afford the essentials — rent, groceries, and vital medicine. The pandemic — and its economic shutdown — is revealing the brittleness of our social fabric and the social nets available to workers in all industries. Artists are especially vulnerable. Ijeoma Oluo, local author and community organizer, is part of Seattle Artists Relief Fund (SARF). The four-person team is crowdsourcing funds using GoFundMe and is one of SIASE’s trusted partners in taking donations. SARF is working with SIASE to make sure the money raised goes directly to artists who need the support.
When all her speaking engagements were canceled one by one to adhere to physical distancing guidelines, Oluo knew the fund was going to be imperative. It didn’t take long for her to see the impact of COVID-19 reverberate through the creative community. “I recognized that none of my peers in Seattle would be doing well,” she says. “We need to get money directly to people who are being impacted. It’s going to be very hard for a long time for our artists, and they’ve been keeping the city running.”
Artists are at the mercy of others for shows, events and engagements, and many supplement their income by working in the food service industry or other gig industries to make ends meet. As restaurants have been required to end in-house dining, and Lyft and Uber has seen a sharp decline in ridership, the stability of supplemental income for many artists is also gone.
Oluo says there needs to be more systemic support for the arts. She points to Germany’s public investment in the arts as an example. “We need to recognize the value culturally of our artists, what they bring to our schools, how they shape the city,” she says.
In a city like Seattle, touted for its tech genius and innovation, the mask of a wealthy city obscures a struggle in the shadows. Right now, artists are hurting more than ever. But the hard work of organizing and advocating is nothing new for a lot of those in the artistic community“Because we exist at so many intersections,” said Julie-C, “we are connectors. So we are organizing and connecting and creating!” Organizing for relief and fundraising is a call to action that recognizes the value of the work that artists pour their hearts and souls into.
Fighting to Value Art
Artists have always had to struggle to make a living through creative work. Booking gigs, spending their own money for marketing materials — it’s no surprise that many artists feel that their work isn’t valued to begin with. The current crisis only adds salt to that wound. “I don’t feel like artists are really valued in society,” says Leon. “People who consume art, they might appreciate it. But I don’t think there is value like there is for other things.”
Leon says they hope SIASE’s efforts and the air of camaraderie that people are tapping into will inspire an empathy for artists. They hope people will look beyond themselves to connect with their community and extend a hand to artists as well. “Maybe they will say ‘I should go stream this,’” Leon said, “or ‘I should support this artist because they depend on people.’”
SIASE can help create stronger infrastructure for artists who are part of a dynamic and organic industry, according to Leon. “[It’s about] self-advocacy, self-determination, making sure if we have another crisis like this, this doesn’t happen to the arts community.” As COVID-19 continues to affect everyone in all walks of life and parts of the world, each industry and community finds itself acknowledging shortfalls and challenges. SIASE is working to fill the gaps right now, in order to create a blueprint of support for artists and creative people in the future.
Kamna Shastri is a Seattle based journalist.
Featured image by Hannah Letinich