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OPINION: Artists Matter

They will need our support through these troubled times.

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In the last few coronavirus-dominated weeks, several memes have popped up that fall along this theme: “If you think artists are useless, try to spend your quarantine without music, books, poems, movies, paintings and games.” As folks have sheltered in place, they have turned to artists for entertainment and comfort.

That’s because artists matter and they matter a lot. They make our communities more vital, more relevant, more empathetic and more connected. And like many among us, the pandemic has sent them reeling as exhibitions have been postponed, commissions have been canceled and opportunities have dried up. An entire class of graduating artists will never fully realize their thesis projects, the pinnacle of their studies and often launchpads for their careers.

While many arts organizations are scrambling to understand how we will operate moving forward, we are also deeply concerned with what will happen to our artists — those who sit on our boards, who exhibit with us, who perform for our audiences, who teach our classes, who serve as our interns, who grace our doorsteps every day, and who make our world a better, more meaningful place.

As a nonprofit, 1708 Gallery was founded by artists and 41 years later, we are still artist-led and artist-focused. Every day we are honored, grateful and humbled to serve artists and we work hard to support them — from providing financial resources to connections to our community. With our doors closed to the public, how do we serve artists now?

One of our biggest assets is our amazing space on Broad Street and on April 7, we launched Space Grant 1708. In May and June, we will offer three space grants to Richmond-based artists to utilize the gallery as a private studio and use our storefront window. For this opportunity, we will prioritize visual artists who have lost access to studios or exhibition spaces because of the pandemic.

Even broader is the COVID-19 Arts and Culture Relief Fund, a collaborative effort organized by Afrikana Film Festival, Art 180, the Black American Artists Alliance of Richmond, CultureWorks, the Iridian Gallery at Diversity Thrift, Oakwood Arts, Studio Two Three, the Visual Arts Center and 1708 Gallery.

Open now and administered by CultureWorks, the fund will provide $500 to professional artists of all disciplines, among them visual arts, performance and writing, throughout the region who have lost paid creative opportunities due to the coronavirus. All artists in need are invited to apply, with priority given to individuals who have been historically underrepresented based on race, ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or socio-economic status.

In the last three-and-a-half weeks, artists have offered their time and talent in countless ways to support those in the community who are experiencing significant and immediate need. To call attention to a few and at the risk of forgetting many, Ed Trask, Hamilton Glass, Matt Lively, Nico Cathcart, Austin Miles and many others have auctioned artworks and designed T-shirts to support RVA Together and Artists For Hope, raising funds in support of organizations like Communities in Schools and Feed More. Others have joined the robust mask-making efforts coordinated by Virginia Commonwealth University, Studio Two Three, Visual Arts Center and 1708 supplying masks to community partners across the Richmond area.

On April 7, VCU published an article about these efforts. Its headline was “Look for the helpers — you’ll find the artists.”

Here’s how you can help these helpers. Please share information about 1708’s Space Grants and the Arts and Culture Relief Fund. Contribute to the Relief Fund through CultureWorks. Support your favorite arts organization — rest assured that they’re also supporting artists. Support galleries. Support artists directly. Support small businesses and restaurants too — many of them employ working artists.

Our community is coming together in remarkable and heartening ways and at some point, in the hopefully not-too-distant future, we will be able to experience art together. Until then, I ask that you consider this: One of the many incredible things about artists is their profound capacity to sit with ambiguity and uncertainty, to forge ahead and to solve problems, to empathize and to envision. They will help us imagine life after the pandemic. Let’s support them now.

Please keep safe and well until we meet again.

For information about Space Grants 1708, please visit 1708gallery.org.

For information about the COVID-19 Arts and Culture Relief Fund, please visit richmondcultureworks.org.

Emily Smith is the executive director of 1708 Gallery, a nonprofit contemporary art space in downtown Richmond. She can be reached at esmith@1708gallery.org. 

Opinions on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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