What LANGSTON's Pandemic Experience Can Teach Funders About Supporting Arts Organizations

Jan 18 2022

Case studies in the ArtsFund COVID Cultural Impact Study reveal how organizations adapted to protect artists and how funders can learn from their efforts.

LANGSTON, a six-year-old arts organization based in Seattle's historically Black Central District, was one of the organizations included in the ArtsFund CCIS case studies. Image: Africa Remix, photo courtesy of LANGSTON.  

The ArtsFund COVID Cultural Impact Study (CCIS), funded in part by the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, revealed the severe impacts of the pandemic on Washington arts and culture organizations in 2020.

In addition to revealing the biggest challenges arts organizations face, the ArtsFund CCIS offered some unique insights from case studies, including how to support arts organizations now and in the future. One case study, LANGSTON, is a steward of 50 years of Black arts and culture based in the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute in the Seattle’s Central District. In the face of growing inequity, they work to build a new model to serve and strengthen Black artists, and Black audiences through film, theater, performance art, and community events. Prior to the pandemic, LANGSTON refreshed the Seattle Black Film Festival, co-produced the world premiere of Darren Canady's Reparations, and created new programming for aspiring young Black filmmakers with the Seattle International Film Festival. 

When the pandemic hit, LANGSTON had to dramatically shift how their organization supported the arts. Their case study in the ArtsFund CCIS mirrors many of the experiences of arts organizations during the pandemic, but with a unique twist. LANGSTON, a six-year-old organization with a pre-pandemic operating budget under $350,000 found itself an unexpected funder keeping artists afloat through an uncertain time. Sparked from a coalition of artists, LANGSTON helped raise and distribute over $1.1 million dollars to more than 2,100 Washington artists, becoming the state's largest funder of individual artists during the pandemic. 

Our Q&A with LANGSTON executive director Tim Lennon digs into the partnership that initiated this effort, the inequities artists experienced long before COVID entered our daily lexicon, and what LANGSTON’S experience can teach funders about how to support arts organizations through the pandemic and beyond.  

LANGSTON became an unexpected funder in 2020 with the Seattle Artists Relief Fund (SARF). Could you speak more to the SARF’s evolution from an artist-driven GoFundMe to a major support system distributing over $1 million in relief funding? 

Lennon: In mid-March 2020 LANGSTON joined forces with cultural leaders; writer Ijeoma Oluo, arts advocate Ebony Arunga, and musician Gabriel Teodros on Seattle Artists Relief Fund. As the staggering scale of the impact of COVID-related closures and cancelations on local artists began to reveal itself, these three local Black artists did what Black artists have always done--creatively made a way out of no way. We at LANGSTON recognized the brilliance and urgent need for their creation and stepped up to support these Black artists in any way we could.

What followed was a powerful creative collaboration that touched the lives of thousands of local artists and the community that loves them and set us off on a transformational journey none of us could have imagined when they launched their initial GoFundMe. In all, we were able to raise and distribute over $1.1 million dollars to almost 2,200 Washington artists from March 2020 through April of 2021. This was a community effort: a state-wide mutual aid project that channeled the love for our cultural workers held by thousands of community members, small businesses, public and private funders, and fellow artists. 

At the beginning of the pandemic, without the ability to bring people together in person, we were unsure how we could best live our mission of strengthening and advancing our community through Black arts and culture. Working with Ijeoma, Ebony, and Gabriel on SARF we were able to show up for our community--and so many others--in a new and profoundly impactful way. By year’s end, LANGSTON became the state’s single largest funder of individual artists in 2020. No other funder or large arts organization can say that, and we are very proud that it was our Black arts institution that was able to show up for the community. We hope our example will inspire larger, more resourced organizations to take this kind of leap to show up in service to our communities in the future.
Can you elaborate on the existing inequities for artists, especially Black artists, that made scaling a grassroots fund like this a necessity? What do you believe are the system changes required to improve this in the future?

Lennon: When LANGSTON stepped up to support Ijeoma, Ebony and Gabriel’s effort we all thought this would be a temporary, stop-gap measure to help a few artists with their immediate needs until a larger support program was launched for artists by public funders or large-scale private philanthropy. Unfortunately, the kind of coordinated and equity-minded major relief operation never materialized. I was relieved to see a lot of public and private funders set up recovery funds and new relief funds in mid-late 2021, but at the time we were operating SARF we just didn’t see funders adapt to the new realities of this crisis fast enough. As a result, inequities in funding to artists of color, queer and trans artists, and artists with disabilities that pre-existed COVID were exacerbated. 

With SARF we did our best to reach those underserved communities and we definitely saw that they were far better represented in our beneficiaries than they were in most pre-COVID formal grant programs. But even with our effort being Black-founded and administered, and with us doing our level best to connect with underserved artists, we still saw that white beneficiaries outnumbered BIPOC artists. 

Black artists and culture workers are among the most under-resourced folks in an already under-resourced field. There are limited opportunities for Black creatives in the best of times, and COVID-related shutdowns have drastically increased economic vulnerability. Black people, as the result of numerous systemic racial inequities that contribute to determinants of physical health, have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. Artists, given their often-atypical employment status as well as the nature of their work, have been disproportionately economically destabilized. The impact on the intersection of those two communities – Black creatives – has been immense.

Going forward we at LANGSTON will leverage our recent experience with  SARF to build a sustainable funding and social infrastructure support program specifically for Black artists and culture workers in the Seattle metro area. In early 2022, we hope this new program will 1) provide much needed direct financial support to our culture bearers, 2) create new opportunities for folks to connect and artistically collaborate, and 3) serve as an easily replicable model that other organizations serving diverse BIPOC communities can adopt and adapt to support culture bearers in their spheres. Long term, we envision the success of this project shifting existing norms of private philanthropic and public sector funders, encouraging them to better invest in community-created solutions. 

What do funders and foundations who support organizations like LANGSTON need to understand about the specific needs and challenges for arts organizations in our region, especially during the pandemic? 

Lennon: I think a lot of funders don’t understand how fragile the cultural ecosystem was before the pandemic and how large the current crisis is. Many cultural organizations were able to survive the first two years of the pandemic by cutting back on their important work and relying on a variety of federal, state, and local recovery funds. Rent moratoriums, layoffs and furloughs of staff, temporary shifts to online-only programs, and other cost-cutting measures enabled a lot of organizations to stagger into 2022. The renewed uncertainty of new variants, staff shortages, etc., is making it almost impossible to do the medium- to long-term planning arts organizations need to get back to some kind of normalcy. Recovery funds seem to be petering out but the costs of COVID safety measures, reduced capacities, and incurred debts coming due are all going to catch up to us. Some of us are prepared to weather another storm but many are not. 

Funders need to take a longer view and invest big in our organizations, over several years, if they want to see us (or the thousands of artists and culture workers we support) in this city on the other side of this pandemic. 

See the full ArtsFund COVID Cultural Impact Study here