Creative Conversions: Grants help artists pivot to new reality

By Bridgette Redman

Since arts organizations shut down due to COVID-19, funders have been stepping up to try to help these nonprofits and artists survive until the curtains can open again.

The Arts Foundation of Tucson and Southern Arizona (AFTSA) designated $25,000 to go toward a state fund that would do just that. It didn’t stop there. They went a step further and came up with additional money for artists to thrive.

The Pivot Grants, whose winners were announced the last week of May, were established to inspire artists to create art in the time of coronavirus; art that can be done safely while its participants are socially distant.

Shortly after AFTSA opened applications for those grants, the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona announced it would match that grant. It created a fund of $50,000 that was given to 24 grants of $500 to $1,000 to individual artists and 15 grants of $1,000 to $2,500 for nonprofit arts organizations.

“Being able to double the impact of the Pivot Grant through such generosity from the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona is a much-welcome bright spot at a time when the need for direct financial relief is immense,” says Adriana Gallego, AFTSA’s executive director.

Gallego started her job as executive director on April 7, literally days after the board decided to create this grant. The Pivot Grants further fueled the artists’ creative thinking during the pandemic.

“It is a showcase of the resiliency embedded in our community values and community practices,” Gallego says. “Our board and staff were intimately familiar with the way artists were already starting to think differently about their programs, about their offerings, that would still give the community access to the work they were producing in response to the community needs. They were rethinking the ways the arts could still be accessible to the public at a time when they were being asked to self-isolate.”

The Pivot Grant honored those efforts, and artists responded. Gallegos says in a typical grant cycle, they receive 40 to 50 applications. For the Pivot Grant, they received more than 100.

Organizations winning grants ranged from museums to radio stations to theater companies to cultural centers to studios. Individuals winning awards submitted such projects as cultural meals, barrio stories, art instruction, a writing workshop, photography masterclasses, online music series, troubadour theater, project puppet and a violin studio.

“The beauty of it is that everyone was so open to the possibilities because we were walking into an unknown,” Gallego says. “Just as this is an unprecedented pandemic for our generation, this was an opportunity for the arts foundation to understand how people are thinking differently and pivoting and creating and finding ways in which we can invest in and incentivize those efforts. This was a way for us to learn about all those different practices.”

Being open minded

From the beginning, Gallego says they planned to be open minded about the projects they would fund. They wanted to see new and creative arts experiences that aligned with social distancing, but they didn’t want to limit it to online programming only.

“That is the go-to right now, to produce experiences online,” Gallego says. “We also wanted to leave it open to alternate ways for them to provide their services and products.”

One of the grantees, the Scoundrels and Scamps Theatre Company, is online and offline with its project, “Storytelling in the Virtual Realm: Stories for Scoundrels and Scamps.”

Each week, they produce two stories—one for scoundrels (older audience); and one for scamps (all ages).

The stories are presented as radio plays, interviews or storytelling. The scoundrels are enjoying engaging content. The scamps’ stories are based in folktales, like Russian stories featuring Baba Yaga. The offline content is related educational and parents can share with it with their kids.

For example, says Bryan Falcon, the artistic director, the first folk tale was about a soldier who outwits death and the consequences of that. For kids, they provided a recipe, artwork, map-making activities and new definitions.

“Depending on what your child is interested in, there are a lot of different hooks to engage them in new ways,” Falcon says.

The theater company has undergone the pivot that the grant is recognizing and supporting. He says the first few weeks were spent shutting down and contacting their audiences and artists. They also secured their space.

Then there was a week of quiet, wondering what would happen next, how long the pandemic would last and what it would mean for them.

“Is there a possibility of normal for us in the future?” Falcon says. “We realized this is not a sprint, but a marathon. How do we connect with our audiences at a time in which we all need each other? We started talking about adopting new platforms and engaging our artist community in new ways. It’s been exciting.”

They asked their artists if they could tell a story that they could record and produce. When they put it on their website, their traffic quadrupled.

“People came back because they are hungry for stories,” Falcon says. “It was fun to watch that grow.”

Variety of groups

The organizations that applied for the grants were matched by the variety of the projects they submitted, according to Gallego. In a few weeks, artists were finding new ways of doing things and creating the necessary infrastructure on the fly.

“Everyone was really adapting to their own art forms and offerings,” Gallego says. “The impact was real and deep with every application. The breadth and actual execution were exquisitely unique to that artist and organization. They were all so inspiring.”

Groups like Southwest Folklife Alliance adapted programs they already had in motion. The TMY Culture Kitchen is a tradition at Tucson’s Meet Yourself Festival, which showcases food and culture through tastings, talks, demonstrations and recipe-sharing. This year, they’re inviting chefs to cook together with the community through an online interface. They hope it will bring the festival to people’s kitchens.

Sadie Shaw received an award. She’s collecting oral histories from people in Sugar Hill, a historically black neighborhood that has been threatened by encroaching gentrification. She’s been recording stories, songs and capturing pictures, many of which are available online.

The diversity of the projects recognize how integral arts are to the community and the need for them to be accessible to all and not just to a niche population. It was part of what drew the community foundation to match the funds in the first place.

“The Community Foundation for Southern Arizona is proud to partner with the Arts Foundation to support local artists and nonprofit arts organizations affected by COVID-19,” says Kelly Huber, director of Community Investments at CFSA.

“The arts play a critical role in sustaining the health and vibrancy of our diverse southern Arizona communities by offering both inspiration and insight.”

Even as Arizona reopened, the programs that these Pivot Grants fund will continue.

“We’re going to see a lot of shifts based on the art forms,” Gallego says.

“There are some artforms that lend themselves more easily to social distancing and there are others that require a little more proximity, like say, in a theater experiencing a full production. We’re going to see some organizations able to open up earlier than others. Others may have to take some time to think how it is they pivot their practices into the future.”

Falcon says audience members have spoken to him about different ways they can experience the Scoundrels and Scamps offerings. They are not eager to be back in crowds where they have to risk exposure to disease. He says he wants their organization to be resilient and innovative, but also one that looks out for the audience’s and staff’s health.

“For the foreseeable future, the work we are doing now does serve a purpose for our larger vision of creating accessible art,” Falcon says.

“We now have the tools set up in-house to produce these works even as we reopen. We anticipate we will continue to release content. I don’t know if it will be every week, but it will be on a regular basis.”

Gallegos praised the creative work forces found in the Southern Arizona communities and their ability to improvise. They are confident they will produce a different kind of experience while holding on to the same value that has always driven their work.

When the pandemic ends, she hopes artists will be “valued and recognized for the way in which they enrich our lives and our quality of life. Those 10,000 hours they’ve clocked in in fine tuning their task and the craft of thinking outside the box, that will be valued. That Southern Arizona saw and embraced artists and that’s why we were able to come out a better and different version of ourselves as a community.”