by Beverly Aarons
Seattle Black artists will be funded and supported, and LANGSTON, a nonprofit committed to “cultivating Black brilliance,” is building a framework to do just that. But first, they have a question: “What is it that Black artists need to thrive and make meaningful impacts on the city and the world?” And they’re asking Black artists in the Seattle metro area to provide the answers in an online survey by May 24, 2021. But this survey doesn’t narrowly focus on the needs of the artist’s craft — LANGSTON wants to consider the “whole artist.”
“Artists are humans, they’re workers, they have whole lives,” Tim Lennon, the executive director of LANGSTON, said during our video conference interview. “And their art, whatever their art is, is an integral part of that, but it’s not the totality of their existence.”
The LANGSTON Seattle Black Artists Aid survey asks about everything from what kind of funding an artist might need for a project to whether they need assistance to buy food or care for children, elders, or other dependents. And Lennon said that these questions are included because the program they’re designing won’t be just another grant opportunity where you “jump through a bunch of hoops and apply, and then [you] may or may not get a check at some point.” Although, the new program won’t have unlimited funding, Lennon said that he wants it to be responsive to Black artists’ most pressing and holistic needs, a viewpoint informed by witnessing Seattle artists suffer during the pandemic, hardships LANGSTON — in collaboration with Ijeoma Uluo, Ebony Arunga, and Gabriel Teodros — has tried to alleviate with the Seattle Artists Relief Fund.
“The experience we had with the Seattle Artists Relief Fund is that the pandemic just revealed how broken all of our systems are,” Lennon said, “and how interconnected all of those broken systems are, and how, when the bottom falls out, it doesn’t matter if you are working for the opera or are self-employed doing freelance work: When the gigs dry up, the gigs dry up, and there’s no social safety net, there’s nothing in place to catch all of these cultural workers who’ve been contributing greatly to this community forever.”
Trés McMichael, a vocalist and student in Seattle University’s M.F.A. arts leadership program, is doing his practicum at LANGSTON, and he was primarily responsible for developing the survey questions. During our video conference interview, I asked him what influenced his survey design.
McMichael insisted that “time-equity” is one of the biggest barriers Black artists face, and he wanted the survey to address that reality. “Because of systemic oppression, because of racism and gentrification, and all of those things … so many other things are occupying [Black artists’ mind] space other than their artistry. And so, what we can do as an organization by offering not only funding but support in other ways, is get some of that time-equity back to fill in that gap so that they’re having more time to focus on creating their art.”
When LANGSTON decided to build a Seattle Black artist funding and support program, they found the perfect template in the African American Art and Culture Complex (AAACC) in California. The nonprofit had a design similar to what LANGSTON envisioned, McMichael said. “They have many grants for Black artists … but they also do other support in terms of event and space support, artistic development, [and] basic needs …” AAACC was so foundational to the support of Black artists in California that the State deemed them an essential business, McMichael added.
It’s that kind of holistic support structure that in some ways existed organically in Seattle — in the past.
“I moved here in 2001 because Seattle was an affordable place to move to, and it was cheap to live here,” Tim Lennon said. “I think that the biggest professional support that Seattle offered all artists 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago, was the ability to live and work in the middle of the city and have time to create. I had so many friends when I got here in my early 20s that worked at a coffee shop or a bar or a restaurant part-time and could afford an apartment in Capitol Hill or the Central District and could afford to dedicate the time needed to hone their craft and perform on the regular in local venues and to tour nationally.”
But that dynamic has changed due to gentrification, income inequality, and “all the metrics that we see in our Black community, that we’re on the wrong side of,” Lennon said. There were artist support systems that existed 20 years ago but haven’t scaled up to meet the needs of Seattle Black artists today, he added. It is this large scale impact that LANGSTON aims to achieve with the new funding and support program — and they’ve had a bit of practice.
The Seattle Artist Relief Fund was a mutual aid effort led by Black artists to benefit all artists negatively impacted by the pandemic. LANGSTON was the administrator of the fund, which grew so fast and so large that it eventually became the largest funder of individual artists in the state, Lennon said. But despite its Black organizers, Lennon was concerned that the fund did not reach as many Black artists as he had hoped. It performed better than most funders in the state in reaching Black artists, but the extent of that reach didn’t meet LANGSTON’s standards. “We really felt that we had a responsibility to take the lessons that we had learned in the Seattle Artists Relief Fund project and bring it back home,” Lennon said. “… and give local Black artists the support they need, give them a reason to stick around, hopefully the resources and tools to stay in the Seattle area.”
Once LANGSTON collects and analyzes the survey data, they will host some focus groups in June to “hone in on where we can make the greatest impact in the most sustainable way,” Lennon explained. And then LANGSTON will work internally and in partnership with other Black organizations and businesses to build out the initial program model, which has a planned launch date of fall 2021. Any artist identified as Black and who lives in the Seattle metro area may participate in the survey, which closes May 24, 2021.
Beverly Aarons is a writer, artist, and game developer. She works across disciplines, exploring the intersections of history, hidden current realities, and imagined future worlds. She specializes in making unseen perspectives visible and aims to infuse all of her creative work with a deep sense of emotionality.
📸 Featured image: A 2018 event honoring the history of Seattle’s Black Panther Party held at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. (Photo: Susan Fried)
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