Sustaining the Work of Artists With a Living Wage and Benefits In Western Massachusetts

Successful pilot pairs artists with local groups to address critical topics in marginalized communities.

Filmmaker Joe Aidonidis partnered with multiple organizations through Artists at Work on a new film project, An Epidemic in a Pandemic - The Opiate Crisis in North Adams.

Filmmaker Joe Aidonidis partnered with multiple organizations through Artists at Work on a new documentary film project, An Epidemic in a Pandemic - The Opiate Crisis in North Adams. (Photo by Shaun Laframboise, courtesy Artists at Work)

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When COVID-19 lockdowns effectively ended the income of many performance artists, emergency relief funds popped up in cities around the country. For Rachel Chanoff, the founder and director of THE OFFICE performing arts + film, it was an opportunity to think longer term.

“I was thinking, thank god for the emergency funds, but what gets artists to the next month’s rent?” she recalls. “Also, in this scorched earth moment, is there an opportunity to build something that is more sustainable, more just, and [that] recognizes artists as workers with a work product crucial to the fabric of any healthy society?”

The result is Artists at Work, a pilot that launched last summer in Western Massachusetts to pay artists a living wage — including healthcare — to collaborate with cultural organizations and local initiatives in creating work that responds to issues such as youth mental health, food justice and COVID awareness campaigns in marginalized communities. After a successful six-month pilot, Artists at Work is fundraising to expand to seven regions across the U.S.

The idea was tested in Western Massachusetts as THE OFFICE works closely with artists and arts organizations there and knew it could quickly fund seed money. Collaborating with Massachusetts-based FreshGrass Foundation resulted in the vision of a 21st century WPA program that combined government, corporate and foundation support. “We wanted to program to hit the whole ecosystem of the community,” notes Chanoff, “The artists, the cultural institutions and the social services that are part of that community.”

The pilot, which launched in July of 2020, paired six artists with a cultural hub and a community partner. Each artist was paid a full-time wage with health benefits to create work in collaboration with those partners. Performance artist Dante Brown worked with the dance organization Jacob’s Pillow and the nonprofit Roots Rising, which empowers youth and builds community through food and farming. The team explored connections between food sustainability to “sustainability” of mind, body, and spirit for marginalized communities; Brown collaborated with Roots Rising’s virtual farmers market and began researching and workshopping a solo work to be performed in the Berkshires.

Writer Lia Russell-Self worked with The Mount, Edith Warton’s home, and the educational organization The Rusty Anvil to engage with young, queer people of color in the Berkshires to create poetry. The team then led a series of workshops focused on creative expression, reflection on identities and connection to nature. Russel-Self also worked on their own collection of poetry.

THE OFFICE also reached out to the Institute for the Musical Arts about participating in the pilot and recruiting an artist. “I thought it was a brilliant response and it was impressive how quickly they moved,” the institute’s co-founder Ann Hackler says. “Every musician was scrambling at that moment … one day they’re heading out to tour, the next day it’s over indefinitely.”

One such musician was Los Angeles-based Naia Kete, who was visiting family in Western Massachusetts prior to the COVID-19 shutdown and decided to stay. Hackler asked her to join the pilot and together they invited The Alianza Project, a youth-led nonprofit that treats trauma through therapeutic, artistic and spiritual experiences. “It was all very organic — Naia was here in the community, she had community ties, she knew the woman who started Alianza Project,” Hackler says. “There were all these community connections, which is what Artists at Work is trying to foster.”

Kete connected with young people participating in The Alianza Project, which is based in Holyoke, to hear about their traumas and healing processes. She then wrote seven songs inspired by seven youth’s stories. “I wanted to understand why it is, and how it is, that music facilitates such a powerful physical environment within your body for healing,” she says.

Kete played music to the young people and asked for their feedback — a few, musicians themselves, contributed their own lyrics. She also invited them into the Institute for the Musical Art’s recording studio to record their songs. “To see somebody take up a sense of mastery over their experience, as a person who experienced something and overcame it, that’s just so cathartic,” says Jessica Prodis, a social worker who helped found The Alianza Project.

The creative collaboration between Kete and the young people “is not something that could have happened in a therapeutic relationship,” Prodis notes. Music, she believes, served as a unique and powerful healing tool for young people to open up, some of whom “had never shared their stories outside a therapeutic setting.”

Kete was so moved she continued the work after the pilot wrapped in December. THE OFFICE secured enough funding for three of the six artists in the pilot to continue their work — the next phase, for Kete, will be to share the completed songs as independently released singles available for streaming.

“This time around, I’m in the position that the earnings can go toward promotion of these songs,” Kete says. The music release will be done in deep collaboration with all the young people, who share writing credits and will receive royalties if the music generates money.

Given the success working across the region of Western Massachusetts, THE OFFICE identified partners in seven more regions to expand: The Mississippi Delta, Central Appalachia, Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Baltimore and borderland states like Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California. “We’re very actively raising funds to launch,” according to Chanoff.

There are some new goals moving forward. “We want to prioritize cultural organizations run by people of color,” says Chanoff. There will be a year-long fellowship program, salaried with benefits, plus a paid internship program that both prioritize emerging producers, curators and arts workers of color. “AAW interns would be deployed to each regional iteration to help administrate and give support to the project,” according to Chanoff.

While the pilot was funded by private donors, THE OFFICE has reached out to elected officials and is pushing for government support from the local to federal level. “Can this be a federal program, as it was with the WPA?” asks Chanoff. “Can we work with the [National Endowment for the Arts], the Labor Department and elected officials on a program that can really strengthen the fabric of local communities?”

Guaranteed livable wages for that work is a no-brainer to Chanoff. “Artists are workers, artists have a work product, and that product,” she says, “is crucial to society.”

This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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