A Light in the Dark - The Atlanta Artist Relief Fund Brings Hope to Out of Work Artists
The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed life as we know it - upending norms, shutting down industries, and leaving many of us lonely, confused, and agitated. Of those most affected by the new normal are the artists.
Our craft, especially those of us in the theatre world, often depends on large gatherings, close quarters, and long stretches of time without proper bathroom breaks. Most of us have lost jobs, gigs, future shows, and are staring down the barrel of months of unemployment.
It is hard to see closed doors and lonely ghost lights in so many of our favorite Atlanta theatres when we're used to grand spectacles, buzzing audiences, and the general hum of live theatre.
But, there is hope - and help - to be found!
The Atlanta Artist Relief Fund shines like a beacon to all literally starving artists. I had the pleasure of sitting down (over Facebook Messenger) and talking with the Chief Optimist/Founder Rob Brooksher of the organization about who they are, what they do, and how you can get involved.
EMBRY:_ What made you decide to start this group?
BROOKSHER:_ I was out on a national tour a month ago and we played cities like Seattle and New York who by all estimates are about two weeks ahead of us in the outbreak. I saw firsthand how worried people were in these cities and I wanted to be sure that we wouldn't be caught off guard.
After seeing Broadway and touring companies close and personally losing months of Cruise line work, I recognized that it was only a matter of time before this outbreak extended to our Atlanta arts community and I decided to help out in whatever way I could.
EMBRY:_ How did you get the word out about this group?
BROOKSHER:_ We started with a GoFundMe page that had a $2000 goal and a Facebook Group for artists to communicate with each other. We reached our $2000 goal within 3 days. A little over a month later, we have raised over $16,500 and have 2600 members in our Facebook group.
EMBRY:_ What sort of reaction were you expecting?
BROOKSHER:_ I never expected this kind of response from the community, but it goes to show that the arts community will always step up to help each other out. If there is any good in this, I think it has reminded folks that their community will have their back and come together to pick up the pieces, together.
Our primary mission is cooking and delivering free, home-cooked meals to artists in need. As of this morning, our volunteers have delivered over 300 meals and spent hundreds of man-hours organizing the efforts.
EMBRY:_ In the Facebook Group, I've seen some members offer additional services - how has your group grown?
BROOKSHER:_ In addition to this primary mission, we have also created a volunteer team for community support and isolation relief that does everything from one-on-one Zoom calls for folks who need someone to talk to, to helping others navigate new unemployment benefits.
We like to think of our organization as offering people physical support via nutritious food to help stretch their budget and emotional and spiritual support through community interaction. Lots of folks are stuck home alone right now, and I can't imagine how lonely that must feel. We reach out to say, we're here to talk, discuss art with, and generally be our empathetic, creative selves with no shame or stigma attached.
I think artists are uniquely suited to fight this crisis as we have to stay emotionally checked in for our livelihood; this kind of empathy, love, and light has been amazing to see radiate out from our volunteers, and I love to see people get the help they need from people who earnestly care about how their life is going, instead of another online form to fill out and a robocall.
EMBRY:_ How do you keep it all organized?
BROOKSHER:_ We keep things organized with a whole lot of tools our volunteer leadership team has utilized! Jennifer Alice Acker and Savannah Cathers have created amazing online organizational tools using Airtable, which tracks the aid process from first contact all the way through final delivery.
We have separate team leads for food relief, helping hands (errands), community support, and strategy. We have multiple all-team meetings once a week via Google Hangouts to discuss bigger picture and cross-team strategy, and each "pod" handles their own individual day to day, be it volunteer organization or food cooking and freezer storage.
We are in a really beautiful place right now where the machine has gotten really well-oiled and efficient at meeting the demand but still feels very heart-led and empathetic.
EMBRY:_ How long do you think you and your volunteers can keep up this group?
BROOKSHER:_ We have a lot of donations left in the bank, and being 100% volunteer-run we have very low overhead costs, so we are planning on the group existing in perpetuity. We are operating on the CDC's estimates that this disease will have waves of outbreaks for the next 12-18 months.
This will leave artists potentially out of work due to social distancing guidelines for months, so it will remain important to have an extended social safety net so folks don't slip through the cracks.
EMBRY:_ What plans do you have for this group after the immediate threat of COVID-19 subsides and things return to a relative normal?
BROOKSHER:_ I honestly think we will be headed toward a new "normal" that will look quite different than the life we were used to before the crisis. This group will continue to evolve to meet the arts community's needs but my hope is that we can work together as a society to create a new normal rooted in compassion, equity, and stronger community bonds.
EMBRY:_ So when we do get back to live shows, how will your organization continue to support artists?
BROOKSHER:_ At the moment, we're focused on providing relief to any artists who need it, or simply could stretch their household budget a little farther with some food help. There are a lot of avenues we are excited to explore post-crisis, including potentially pivoting to create nutritious meals at a low cost that artists could purchase during a stressful tech week that also sponsors free meals for artists in need. But that, of course, will come after we meet this crisis head-on!
EMBRY:_ How do you think maintaining this organization will mesh with your own career as an artist?
BROOKSHER:_ I've had a lot of time in this period unemployment to think about the parts of my career I want to leave on the cutting room table moving forward. As a Sound Designer/Composer pre-crisis, I stacked multiple tech weeks on top of each other as a matter of practice to make a living.
I think other designers and artists can agree that these 12 hour days for weeks at a time can be an unsustainable lifestyle and lead us to routinely taking breaks for our mental/physical health and to focus on our relationships.
I hope to continue to help lead this organization to meet the demands of Atlanta artists as well as being an advocate for a healthy work/life balance in which all members of a production feel valued in a sustainable, equitable manner.
We will continue to be artists helping artists, and meet people where they are at and help in any way we can.
EMBRY:_ What is the best way for new members to get involved if they need help/if they can help?
BROOKSHER:_ The best way to get involved is to fill out our volunteer form on our website at atlartsrelief.org! This will allow our volunteer coordinators to get in touch with you ASAP. Our website is also where folks can sign up to get a meal. These meals are for any artists/patrons affected by this crisis. We have a lot of food to give out, so please reach out so we can get you some tasty food!
EMBRY:_ What are some of the ways you like to practice self-care right now as an artist? I know National Theatre Live has released free recordings of their shows and lots of celebrities/industry professionals are hosting online courses/chats - have you seen any of these? And if so, what should we be watching?
BROOKSHER:_ For self-care, I've been working a lot on my vegetable and herb garden and trying to get as much sunshine as possible in this spring weather; we are also building a chicken coop to get some chicks for eggs!
In addition to getting back to a healthier sleep schedule (no getting home late after a performance), we've been cooking family meals every night with the roommates; it helps fight boredom to have some healthy competition on who can cook the best meal.
I've watched some of the National's recordings as well as the Globe's shows online; very fun to watch in addition to my usual TV diet! These self-care routines and the good I'm privileged to see radiate from our amazing volunteer team every day have made my heart fuller than it's been in a long, long time, even in these scary and uncertain times.
Whether you're in a position of need or in a position to give, the Atlanta Artist Relief Fund is a much-needed source of hope in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic. To sum up part of their mission statement, "And when my time is up, have I done enough? - Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda