When writer, artist and arts advocate fayemi shakur (who does not capitalize her first or last name) was hired as Arts and Cultural Affairs Director for the city of Newark, the city made a commitment to its broader artist community: the creation of its first arts grant program and an art space initiative to fill up to five city-owned properties.
The announcement of shakur’s hiring alongside those two initiatives happened this January. Three months later, the art space initiative was put on hold as shakur worked overtime with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, city officials and the nonprofit Newark Arts to retool the grant, known as the Creative Catalyst Fund, to respond to needs of the local arts community in light of COVID-19.
“We had to pivot a little — a lot — when the pandemic happened,” explains shakur. “We have focused on the arts fund to respond to the emergency of artist needs, starting when art organizations began shutting down around the second week in March.”
The city’s prioritization of, and investment in, artists reflects a broader shift that’s taken place in the city. For one, the arts have increasingly supported Newark’s economy. According to a 2017 study, Newark’s nonprofit arts and culture industry generated over $178 million in annual economic activity, supported 4,963 full-time equivalent jobs and created an additional $15.5 million in local and state government revenues.
Secondly, Mayor Baraka — who is an artist himself — has made it a priority of his administration. The Creative Catalyst Fund was announced as part of a broader vision for the city’s cultural sector to encourage equitable arts funding. That vision was a result of the Newark Creates Cultural Plan, an 18-month collaborative planning process researched and developed by Newark Arts.
“I want to be very clear that the Creative Catalyst Fund was not created as a response to the COVID-19 crisis, it was already in the works,” says Jeremy Johnson, executive director of Newark Arts. “There’s already been a big divide between [artists and art organizations] who get funded and those who do not, and we were already at work addressing this through Newark Creates.”
Newark Creates launched in 2017 at the request of the city, with Newark Arts conducting more than 30 meetings and forums over 18 months with community members, artists, organizations and government stakeholders. Preliminary findings were released in the summer of 2018 and finalized in December 2019.
The 10-year plan outlined goals across three areas: funding of a cultural trust to support arts and cultural activities, small and mid-sized groups, galleries, artists and creative entrepreneurs; affordable space for artists and organizations; and finally coordination for equitable policies, partnerships, investments and development.
Early efforts following the report included the city’s $200,000 commitment to stimulate cultural growth around the neighborhood of Lincoln Park. Newark Arts, as an independent nonprofit, also made grants of $100,000 through its ArtStart program to support marginalized local artists.
The Creative Catalyst Fund was the latest iteration of the plan. “Thank God we had this already in the works, or we couldn’t have responded [to COVID-19] so quickly,” says Johnson. “The mayor just sped it up.”
To pivot, shakur worked with Deputy Mayor Allison Ladd to identify enough funding to quickly deploy $750,000. Newark Arts was brought on to administer and deploy funding. Shakur also spearheaded the creation of an online application portal and set a deadline of May 1st.
To address the needs of both individual artists and arts organizations, the fund was split into two streams. The first is for general operating support, with grants up to $50,000 for Newark-based arts and cultural nonprofits with annual operating budgets up to $2 million. The second is for artist fellowships, with grants up to $10,000 for Newark-based individual artists or unincorporated artist collectives working in any artistic discipline.
Outreach also happened quickly on social media channels from the city and local arts organizations. An informational webinar that took place on Monday, April 6th drew over 100 participants, according to shakur. She expects over 200 applications by May.
“Newark is the only city in the state that has launched an arts fund like this to support the sustainability of its arts community and local organizations which will be important as we think about what recovery and revitalization will look like over the coming 18 months,” shakur says. Looking beyond COVID-19, she adds, “we hope to keep the fund going at least for the next three years up to $1 million.”
The goal was not to let COVID-19 interrupt or delay the city’s commitment to its local art economy, according to Deputy Mayor Ladd. “We’ve spent so much time talking about the health and welfare of our city, and at the same time the mayor wanted to be sure we talked about creating interventions that did not slow down programs we were already considering,” she says. “He challenged us to say, what else can we do to help ensure our residents can stay strong through this?”
“We’re learning how important flexibility in funding is for arts groups and artists — a lot of time funding is available for nonprofits but not incorporated or unincorporated collectives,” says shakur. “The crisis made us think about the type of flexibility we needed to consider, to make sure folks had access and limited barriers to apply.”