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Emergency Relief Funds Help Artists in Dire Need

Posted: 09/20/11 11:47 AM ET

A lot may happen to an artist or artisan in a career: Important sales, prestigious awards, museum exhibitions, write-ups in major magazines. They may also lose much of their work in a studio fire or fall off a ladder while creating a mural. The glamour part of the arts and crafts world is much better documented than the catastrophes that may place an artist's life or career in jeopardy. A high percentage of artists and craftspeople have no health or studio insurance, creating a small margin for any type of sickness or accident that may occur.

"Injury and illness top the list" as reasons that craftspeople regularly apply to the Craft Emergency Relief Fund, according to Dorothy Bocian, assistant director. The fund, which has been in existence since 1985, provides both loans (a no-interest "quick loan" up to $3,500 and a low-interest "Phoenix loan" up to $8,000) to help craftspeople get back on their feet and a $1,000 grant for people with chronic or terminal illnesses and who are unlikely to be rehabilitated.

One recipient of a CERF loan, Jeffrey Sigler, a decorative lamp maker in Chicago, applied to the organization for help after a slipped disk in his back and some resulting pinched nerves "laid me up for weeks at a time. I couldn't work, which made it harder for me to pay my doctors and other bills." A $2,500 no-interest loan in 2001, with a five-year repayment schedule, permitted Sigler to hire a chiropractor, pay down some of his bills and generally get back to work. CERF also arranged for his $1,000 booth fee at the American Crafts Council show in Chicago to be waived, allowing him to attend. "They gave me money, and support," Sigler said. "It's great that there are people out there who care."

At Change, Inc., a foundation that Robert Rauschenberg set up in 1971 to aid needy artists facing substantial medical expenses (and later expanded to include damage to a studio, potential eviction, high utility charges and other other emergencies), there are no loans but only awards to qualifying artists, up to $1,000. Additionally, whereas Craft Emergency Relief Fund has an application form, Change, Inc. only requires applicants to submit a letter detailing the nature of their emergency. Still, the basic procedure is the same. An individual describes a major problem in his or her life, offering some form of proof of both the catastrophe (such as bills or estimates and accident reports) and an inability to pay (the previous year's tax return), as well as some indication of the professional's standing as an artist or artisan (resume, reviews, announcement of a performance, perhaps a letter or two of reference) -- students are not eligible.

There are a number of emergency funds and loan programs for artists and craftspeople, all with their own procedures and limited grantmaking budgets. Uniting almost all of them is the fact that they were created and funded primarily by artists wanting to help others in distress. Change, Inc. was established by Rauschenberg and his accountant, Rubin Gorewitz, to systematize the artist's habitual generosity, which consisted largely of simply handing out cash to people who needed it. "I was doing his taxes one year," Rubin Gorewitz said, "and I told him, based on what he had earned, what he owed the government. He said that was impossible; he said that he didn't have any money left, because he had been giving away so much. He expected a big deduction, not to owe anything to the government."

For artists as for everyone else, donations need to be given with some method. Setting up a foundation to support either the arts or individual artists during their lifetimes or, more commonly, posthumously, provides living artists with a tax benefit. For artists' heirs, a charitable foundation establishes a mechanism by which works in the estate are sold gradually, in order to maximize prices, and it does not burden the survivors with shortages of cash. A number of artists have set up foundations that provide grants to individual artists in their wills -- including Richard A. Florsheim, Jacob Lawrence, Joan Mitchell, Judith Rothschild, George Segal and W. Eugene Smith -- but only Rauschenberg in his lifetime and Lee Krasner and Adolph Gottlieb in their wills have created mechanisms for artists in dire need to receive financial assistance.

Others artists in the fine arts and crafts, performing and literary arts have also contributed to emergency funds for their peers through unions, membership organizations, such as New York Artists Equity and the Actor's Fund, doing so without the notoriety of a foundation bearing their name. To a large degree, the generosity of visual artists rarely has drawn much attention. When comedian Bill Cosby donated $20 million to Spelman College in Atlanta in 1988, he also spent thousands of additional dollars for his publicist -- the Brokaw Agency in Los Angeles -- to trumpet the news. Visual artists are far less likely to use public relations agencies and, when they do, it is usually to announce a new exhibition or the completion of a major commission.

No two emergency funding organizations operate the same. Some have specific application deadlines, while others accept requests for help throughout the year. The process by which a foundation or organization evaluates applications, and their rates of approval, also differ from one to the next. The Craft Emergency Relief Fund receives an average of 50 applications per year and funds 35 or so, based on a review by first the administrative staff and then a committee formed of some of the Fund's board members. The Adolph and Esther Gottlieb Foundation also has a two-tiered process, in which staff winnow through the pile of approximately 100-150 applications that arrive annually to eliminate the requests that do not reflect a recent emergency or that aren't describing a problem that is truly catastrophic ("my car broke down, and you really need a car in Los Angeles"). Some requests are rejected because the applicant has the financial means to meet the emergency. "Only 15 percent of the people who write to us for help are asking for something that is really within our guidelines to fund," said Alden Smith, director of Aid to Artisans, an organization that assists some individual craftspeople but mostly crafts groups outside the United States. "Some of the things they say they need money for are truly heart-breaking, but it's not what we're set up to do."

As with any other grant, fellowship or award that artists may receive, the money received as an emergency grant is part of ordinary income and taxable. Paperwork may also attend the receipt of the funds, such as a midterm or final report, perhaps some proof that the money was actually used for the purpose described in the application. The Gottlieb Foundation and Artists Fellowships, Inc., another private nonprofit organization that provide emergency assistance to artists in financial need, have very different ideas about reporting. The Gottlieb Foundation demands that recipients describe by letter how money was used within six months of receiving their grants. The letter accompanying the Foundation's check states, "You should be advised that the Foundation may request copies of receipts, which document your expenditures." Artists Fellowships, Inc., on the other hand, requires no reporting whatsoever, believing that the essential documentation took place as part of the application process.