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Despite rain and chilly weather on Saturday, May 8, a group of about 100 New York-based artists, performers, and art workers gathered at Foley Square in Lower Manhattan to demand immediate city relief for the arts and its workers.
The protest was organized by a wide coalition of New York arts organizations, among them the Cultural Solidarity Fund; New Yorkers for Culture & Arts; Rise and Resist; A4 (Asian American Arts Alliance); Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI); and the League of Independent Theaters.
Clad in raincoats and hooded by umbrellas, the protesters carried posters with slogans like “Without Art Workers There Is No Art” and “Trickle-down Funding Leaves Artists Last.” A large canvas taped over a makeshift structure at the square listed dozens of arts venues that have shuttered since 2020. The list of shuttered organizations was written on a white sheet, along with the word “CLOSED” spray-painted in red.
The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated New York’s arts sector. A report by the state comptroller in February found that two-thirds of arts, entertainment, and recreation jobs in the city were lost in 2020. Some of the affected artists and art organizations came to the square to make their voices heard.
The protest was held two days after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $25 million artist relief program inspired by the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). The program, City Artist Corps, is expected to pay more than 1,500 local artists to beautify and activate public spaces across NYC with murals, public artworks, performances, and pop-up shows.
While welcoming the City’s new program, the artists said that the effort is insufficient. “It will give money to some artists, which is great, but now we have to see how to support artists as a regular part of the city’s budget,” Lucy Sexton from New Yorkers for Culture & Arts told Hyperallergic.
“The devil is in the implementational detail,” added Jerome Harris, a jazz musician, in a conversation with Hyperallergic at the protest. “There’s not a victory until we see that the application process is easy and that the distribution of jobs is equitable.”
On a stage set in front of artist Lorenzo Pace’s sculpture “Triumph of the Human Spirit,” the protesters carried impassioned speeches with musical and dance interludes.
Drag performance artist and educator Davon Chance (also known as Miz Jade), who hosted the event, called for direct grants for independent artists. “Art workers are facing homelessness and food and housing insecurity, and there’s no city or state emergency relief being offered,” the performer said in a speech. “Art workers are essential workers … There’s no justice in public money.”
Many of the participants were leaders of small art nonprofits who reported being excluded from the state’s COVID-19 relief funds for small businesses. Orietta Crispino, who founded the nonprofit Theater Lab 15 years ago, told Hyperallergic that her organization is now in imminent danger of closing because it is facing a five-month rent debt that it won’t be able to pay.
“Small nonprofit arts organizations have been left out,” Crispino said. “We’re considered a small business when signing a lease but not when it comes to receiving state aid.”
Ximena Garnica, a member of the Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary ensemble LEIMAY, said that the city’s exiting funding structure “benefits some artists who have luck or social capital but leaves many without any support.”
“All the plans and proposals that are being circulated at the state and city level ignore that fact were already underfunded before COVID,” Garnica added. “We’re asking for an overhauling of the entire funding system.”
As the rain subsided, the Wide Awakes Dance Corps invited the protesters for a collective dance to upbeat tunes, ending the protest on a lighter, more optimistic note.