Craig Nutt, director of programs for CERF+ (Craft Emergency Relief Fund + Artists’ Emergency Resources), recently staffed a booth at an arts fair, hoping to activate artists’ awareness in the importance of disaster preparation. Despite his compelling photos and helpful information, however, Nutt actually saw someone cover his hands with his eyes while walking by so he didn’t have to see.

“That pretty much sums up the barriers we face,” says the Tennessee-based Nutt, a sculptor and furniture maker himself. “It’s something nobody wants to acknowledge or deal with. To acknowledge that you could be affected by a disaster does make you feel more vulnerable at first. But when you do something about it, you end up feeling more empowered.”

Granted, disaster preparation can be a tough sell in any community. But craft artists—and artists of all types—are a unique population. It’s not just that they tend to work for themselves or for very small businesses. It’s also that they cut across all segments of society, so they’re difficult to group. And recent disasters such as Hurricane Sandy have proven that in many cases, artists are not so good about admitting their own needs and losses in the wake of a catastrophe, perhaps feeling the need to focus on more “important” recovery first. (Though rather ironically, they’re often the first called on to provide benefit concerts, items for auction or free admission as impacted communities attempt to rebuild.)

“Despite generally not having a lot of disposable income, artists are usually very quick to step forward and find ways to contribute to recovery,” Nutt says. And in disaster-affected communities, he says, cultural activity is seen as a sign of recovery. “When you see the arts bounce back, when you see the symphony concerts start again and the exhibitions, it’s an indication that the community will be able to pull through. Things that happen within the arts can raise the optimism of a community. But at the same time, these artists are very vulnerable to disaster. We deal with emergencies of all kinds. It could be a fire or an illness that has as much of an impact on an artist as a major disaster…. Often artists’ livelihoods are closely entwined with their home lives, and if they lose both their homes and their livelihoods, it can be very difficult to recover.”

Artists, Income and Preparedness

In early November 2013, CERF+ released “Sustaining Careers: A Study of the Status of U.S. Craft Artists.” The study tackled subjects such as income, insurance, legacy planning, and emergency preparedness and recovery among the community. Research showed that 72 percent of full-time craft artists net less than $25,000 per year from their art-related income; 45 percent net less than $10,000 annually. In addition:

  • 60 percent of craft artists remain uninsured for business-related losses;
  • There’s still a commonly held misconception that homeowner’s insurance covers art-related losses; and
  • 47 percent of respondents do not have sufficient cash reserves to meet one month of household expenses in the event of an emergency.

To be fair, CERF+, through development of new information resources and training opportunities, has been making significant impact: artists familiar with the organization are about 10 percent more likely to have taken safety and preparedness precautions, and since the organization’s last national survey in 2007, there’s been an improvement in the number of properly insured artists by almost nine percent. But as Nutt’s experience at the arts fair shows, there’s still a long way to go.

“The data confirms that we’re dealing with a highly vulnerable, at-risk population,” says Cornelia Carey, CERF+ executive director. “When a disaster strikes, there’s no amount of money we could ever raise to help enough. It would only be a drop in the bucket, especially after a huge storm.” The challenges are magnified by the fact that donor funding often dries up by the point many needs are just beginning to be expressed. Some are already weary of recovery efforts for Hurricane Sandy, which struck the East Coast in late 2012. But CERF+ just made a loan to an artist affected by Hurricane Katrina, which shattered the Gulf Coast in 2005.

“A five- or 10-year lens on recovery is a reasonable thing,” Carey says. “Too often organizations like the American Red Cross are criticized for still having funds. But to us, that’s a good and healthy sign that they’re thinking about the needs that will evolve in six months or a year. It’s so important.”

Following Hurricane Sandy, Staten Island Arts, the arts council for that N.Y. borough, worked with more than 100 artists who had been affected in some way by the storm. Of those, about a third endured “major” impact with losses of more than $100,000, generally to their homes.

And Melanie Franklin Cohn, Staten Island Arts executive director, admits that the council was just as unprepared to deal with the situation as anyone else. She had met with representatives from CERF+ just a couple of weeks prior on another matter, and the subject of disaster preparedness came up.

“I sat there thinking, ‘This is really good information, and I see how it could be helpful. But nothing like that ever happens here. We never have major disasters.’ I was that person.”

Sure, the East Coast had seen hurricanes before, but not on the scale of Sandy. The storm “came with a lot of lessons,” she says, especially in terms of the efficient management of donations and resources. But then there was just the overwhelming process of helping people through the shock and loss—and the need to be present. Cohn and her organization also have discovered the importance of accurate post-disaster assessments; all too often, she says, it’s been a challenge to get artists to talk about their losses. Sound equipment for musicians or cutting instruments for woodworkers, for example, are more than just niceties; they’re required tools of the trade. (Nutt also notes the disastrous loss of cataloguing materials, photographs of work, client lists, and other “uninsurables” that must be kept in a safe offsite location.)

Networks of Arts Responders

The good news is that those involved in recovery efforts for artists are becoming increasingly more organized. There is, for example, the National Coalition for Arts’ Preparedness and Emergency Response, a multi-disciplinary, voluntary task force that involves more than 20 groups that serve arts organizations and individual artists. It’s co-chaired by CERF+ and South Arts, an Atlanta-based organization that nurtures and strengthens the arts in Southern states, and manages ArtsReady, a readiness planning program and tools for arts organizations.

Mary Margaret Schoenfeld, an independent arts management consultant based in Arlington, Va., serves as the coalition’s coordinator. In the case of Sandy, she says, a number of relationships already had been established between various organizations assisting the arts sector, due to their proximity and because of their experience responding to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001—in addition to the arts sector’s organizing efforts after Hurricane Katrina. That’s not often the case when emergencies happen, but it certainly makes things easier. Doors opened more quickly in Sandy’s wake, she says, leading to faster avenues of relief.

Even so, it’s still “kind of a wild west out there” in terms of overall coordination, and the coalition has its work cut out in terms of establishing relationships and awareness before the next disaster strikes.

“The goal of the coalition now, in part, is to develop these networks of arts responders,” Schoenfeld says. “And quite honestly, we have a good challenge ahead of us.”

Funders interested in assisting the arts community in preparedness and recovery could:

  • Build capacity of arts organizations that work in preparedness and recovery. Not only will this help them better serve their own constituents; it also will assist in outreach to others.
  • Fund needs assessments in the arts community with regard to preparedness and recovery. In addition, support the spread of relevant information and guides.
  • Support programs that offer assistance to artists that have been affected by disasters, whether on an individual or larger scale. Some organizations, for example, offer loans and grants to individuals to help them continue and/or restore operations post-disaster.
  • Fund convenings and coordination among organizations with wide reach in the artistic community to share the need for greater disaster preparedness. Protocols should be established to help avoid duplication of services and needs not being met.

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(Photo: Amer Kobaslija, who was born in Bosnia and fled his war-torn homeland for the United States in the 1990s, is married to a Japanese woman and has close ties to Japan through her family. He responded to the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami through his art. Source: Arts and Antiques Magazine)