At the start of COVID-19 lockdowns, thousands of Chicago theater artists lost immediate income. In the weeks to come, even more lost future gigs. And now, with no reopening date in sight, many of those artists are still without work. Before the state went into lockdown on March 22, the organizers behind the Chicago Artists Relief Fund were already set to help their community.
“Following in the footsteps of the Seattle Artist Relief Fund Amid COVID-19 founded by Ijeoma Oluo [author of So You Want to Talk About Race], Jessica Kadish-Hernandez put out a call to the Chicago art world and folks from different walks and administrative talents joined the team,” co-organizer Claire Stone, the company manager for First Floor Theater, said via e-mail. “We all have different disciplines, some of us with day jobs outside of the arts entirely, and we all care very deeply about our creative community.”
Kadish-Hernandez, a director and actor, posted a Facebook status about creating a relief fund in Chicago on March 13. By that afternoon there was a group discussion and two days later the GoFundMe went live.
“When I saw Jess’s post on Facebook sharing the Seattle Fund and saying ‘Who is going to do this with me?!’ I immediately replied, ‘I’m in,'” co-organizer Ellenor Riley-Condit (theatermaker and one of the creators of the kid-oriented Unspookable podcast) said via e-mail. “Everyone on the administrative team came together [similarly.]”
The relief fund is providing microgrants up to $300 to Chicago-area artists who lost work due to COVID-19. Priority is given to artists who are BIPOC, trans+, nonbinary, queer, or disabled, though the administrators want to fund as many artists as possible.
As of July 6, the GoFundMe raised just over $96,000 of their $150,000 goal. That’s enough to fund 313 artists the full amount. The current goal would allow them to fund 500 artists in full.
“We’ve also all signed a confidentiality agreement that we take extremely seriously,” Kadish-Hernandez said via e-mail. “Disclosing need is a vulnerable act, particularly when you’re disclosing to fellow artists who you may know from other contexts. From day one, we made sure we were clear about putting privacy and confidentiality standards in writing.”
When originally interviewed early on in lockdown, the three organizers were blown away by how quickly Chicago came together to support the fundraising efforts. Donations were coming in more quickly than anticipated and fellow artists were quick to step in.
“We had local musicians, led by Fiona McMahon, plan a Quarantine Concert where 20 different people streamed sets from their homes on Facebook Live,” Riley-Condit said. “We had a reading of Steel Magnolias, planned by Chicago theater company the New Colony, that took place over Zoom. We’ve had tons of artists and press shout us out and that has helped donations continue to come in.”
“Angel Idowu at WTTW covered us in our first week, which was huge for us, and social media word-of-mouth spread worldwide within days of launching–by the end of that first week we’d raised $31,000,” Kadish-Hernandez added. “(Donations have slowed down a bit since then, but we’re getting ready for another big push.) We’re seeing support from current Chicagoans and former Chicagoans and people from all over the world who happen to know and love Chicago.”
Like the Seattle artist fund and other crowdsourced funds, the goal for the Chicago Artists Relief Fund will continue to rise. As each goal is met, the administrators will raise the bar a little higher. The original goal was $50,000 and now it is $150,000.
“We meet on Zoom every day to discuss and delegate and check in with each other,” Stone said in an e-mail. “Administratively this project has a lot of challenges, especially navigating GoFundMe and PayPal at a time when both are functionally overloaded. Emotionally, we’re connecting the dots day by day. But we have folks on the team who are parents calling in between teaching their kids and making dinner, we have folks with telecommute day jobs–I work ‘at’ a hospital!–some of us are full-time artists biding time. I think we’re all discovering what it is that individually we need to get through, and the growing pains are real.”
With the recent news that Broadway won’t reopen until 2021, it’s possible Chicago theater won’t be live again until the new year. Bearing that in mind is difficult for artists who thrive on live performance. And yet, the team behind the fund is focused on the positive.
“We have to be optimistic at this point: Chicago theater will come out of this stronger, invigorated, inspired, brought emotionally closer by time apart,” Stone said. “It will take time to recover, and we’ll have to grow and change with it. There will be some permanent scarring. Maybe the scene will look a lot different, and we’ll be ready for whatever forms it takes. But we’re looking forward to a family reunion like no other, sharing space and sharing work, and we’ll hold each other up until then as best as we can.”
Chicago theater, when it does come back, could have a much different landscape. Mercury Theater and iO Theater have already announced they are closing permanently, and there may be more closures down the line. But there is hope in the changes that Chicago theaters can become a more equitable and workable environment.
“There’s been a lot of wonderful equity work done across arts industries in the last few years,” Riley-Condit said. “People are recognizing the need to educate themselves and their organizations, and increase their support of work by artists of color, queer and trans+ artists, disabled artists, and so many more. Chicago theater is no exception there; from our largest institutions to our smallest, many have committed to these equity efforts. My biggest hope coming out of this, and even during it, is that the Chicago theater community puts their money where their mouth is, so to speak. All of the equity efforts mean little if we don’t act on them when the people we claim to want to support are in need.” v
For more information on the fund or to donate go to gofundme.com/f/chicago-artists-relief-fund.