NORTH ADAMS — The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art's Assets for Artists is a professional development program based at the museum that helps artists in all disciplines — art, theater, dance, music, writing — grow their creative work through financial and business coaching, capacity-building grants and other entrepreneurial tools.
Assets for Artists, otherwise known as A4A, also runs The Studios at Mass MoCA, an artist-in-residence program on the museum campus.
Since joining Mass MoCA in 2000, Assets for Artists Program Director Blair Benjamin has worked in fundraising, real estate development, economic-impact research and alternative-energy project management, as well as supporting artists with financial, business and artist residency services through Assets for Artists.
He founded the Assets for Artists program in 2008 and The Studios at Mass MoCA residency program in 2015, and serves as director of both.
Benjamin graduated from Williams College with an English degree. Before joining Mass MoCA, he worked in New York in nonprofit management and fundraising for Flatbush Development Corp. and served as a Peace Corps volunteer focused on business development in rural areas of Ivory Coast in West Africa.
Q: We live in a cultural hub that draws thousands of visitors annually to live events in close quarters. COVID-19 put a stop to that this year. Attention has since focused largely on the economic costs to organizations and county tourism. What are you hearing about costs to individual local artists trying to survive financially?
A: I'm seeing every day how severe COVID's impact has been on artists. So many of them survive, in full or in part, on event-based work that has been wiped out since March with no sign of returning soon.
Performers have been unable to put on shows. Makers have been unable to sell their work at craft fairs and retail galleries. Artists who make a living teaching private or school-based workshops have lost that income stream. Many adjunct faculty in the arts have been getting let go.
We are not aware of a county breakdown, but Americans for the Arts found that, as of May, 62 percent of 15,000 artists surveyed nationally were fully unemployed. It's fair to say that artists have been among the earliest economic victims of the pandemic and will be among the longest-impacted as well.
Q: What kinds of public and private financial assistance can local artists tap, and how does Assets for Artists supplement that?
A: Due to their losses of income, many artists have qualified for either regular unemployment insurance or the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. That's by far the biggest support for self-employed workers without a payroll.
Some artists have also qualified for the federal [Paycheck] Protection Program and the [Small Business Administration's] disaster loan programs funded by the CARES Act. A few lucky artists have qualified for special artist relief grants from a variety of sources, but they tend to be very limited and small, one-time amounts.
We provided our own version of this with Rapid Response grants for 20 North Adams-based artists. And through our programming, we've been making sure artists across the region know what they qualify for and how to apply for it.
Q: Some people consider making art to be more a sideline than a "real job" and that artists should not be entitled to unemployment insurance. What do you say to that?
A: To qualify for unemployment, artists — just like anyone else — have to demonstrate that they were laid off from a job or experienced a major and sustained disruption in self-employment business income. Nationally, by early May, the average artist had already reported $24,000 of lost income. That's hardly a side gig.
Q: You've said artists have an advantage in hard times because they're used to working part time in a gig economy? What's the advantage?
A: I'd put it this way: Artists live with uncertainty all the time. Every day, they have to try to make something from nothing and bring it into the world in a way that other people will value.
There's never any sense of economic certainty or a stable path in the life of an artist. They always have to draw on deep reservoirs of determination and self-confidence to make a career of it. This crisis requires them to use those skills now more than ever.
Q: What kinds of financial mistakes do artists most commonly make?
A: While artists are at risk of all the same kinds of financial challenges that many other workers might face — not enough savings for emergencies or retirement; difficult student debt and credit card debt burdens; a lack of confidence about the dizzying array of financial products and services, which can make you feel paralyzed when faced with financial decisions — one trap that I think artists are particularly prone to fall into is not valuing their work highly enough.
If they hear enough talk about what artists do as not being "real work," they sometimes don't ask to be paid enough for their services or they give things away too readily.
Q: How and why did you come up with a program combining business skills with art practice? Are there similar models elsewhere?
A: During the last recession, in 2008, I saw a lot of artists struggling in much the same way they are now. Mass MoCA's mission has always combined art-making with economic development, and I wanted to find ways that I could bring that mission down to the individual level for artists. Fortunately, Mass MoCA was willing to get behind me for that kind of experimentation.
There's no one perfect model for delivering support to artists, but we've learned from other great innovators around the country, like Springboard for the Arts in Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Artist INC in Kansas City. A lot of borrowing good ideas and trial and error has led to the mix of services and strategies we now employ.
It's rare for these kinds of services to be offered in a rural community like the Berkshires, so, I feel we're really fortunate to be able to do that work here.
Q: Who qualifies to enroll in Assets for Artists, and what does it cost?
A: The workshops and coaching we provide to artists are free of charge [made possible by generous funding partners such as the Barr Foundation, the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp., Berkshire Bank, MountainOne Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture]. We enroll artists in any creative discipline.
At the moment, we don't have any upcoming workshops for Berkshire County artists. Since March, we've held 30 online workshops serving nearly 400 artists in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, including about 35 from Berkshire County, but more will be coming in the fall, so, artists should sign up for our newsletter at assetsforartists.org.
Q: How do you track the results of your programming?
A: We collect a lot of data from the artists we serve so we can track how they're doing in terms of income, financial and business skills and other key measures. We see significant improvements over time.
And the sheer volume of work says a lot about our impact: In the past three years alone, we've provided more than $270,000 in working capital grant funds to artists — $80,000 in Berkshire County, enrolled over 800 artists in workshops — 80 in Berkshire County, and provided one-on-one financial and business coaching support to more than 400 artists.
Q: What do you take most pride in, and what has been most difficult?
A: Being an artist in any discipline is extremely hard work. When I hear from artists that they might have given up if not for the help they got from Assets for Artists, which is something I've heard more than a few times, I feel like the challenge and hustle of this work is all worth it.
It's difficult that our programming is dependent on grants that we need to go out and raise year after year. There's never any break from the fundraising, and no endowment we can draw on. But, we've built up a lot of trust with our funders and participating artists over the years, so, some of the fundraising has gotten easier with time.
Q: The arts have been criticized for their historical dominance by white men? How are you addressing gender, racial and ethnic diversity?
A: Most of the artists we work with are emerging and midcareer artists — over 70 percent are women, trans or gender nonbinary, about 50 percent are artists of color, and about 45 percent live in rural areas — so, they're not the historically dominant class in the art world.
The arts have been rapidly diversifying in the last decade or two, although institutional racism remains stubborn and some parts of the art world have been slower to create more equity. We're committed to helping under-represented groups advance in their art careers with the resources that we offer, including working with trainers who come from diverse perspectives.
Q: You started The North Adams Project in 2014 that's open to artists who live, maintain a studio, or have plans to move to North Adams. Why, and what has it achieved?
A: As a program of Mass MoCA, we're particularly committed to strengthening the North Adams arts community that we're a part of.
North Adams remains one of the poorest towns in the state and was particularly slow to emerge from the 2008-2009 recession, so, we've been able to make the case to our funders that we should devote special attention to building and sustaining the artist community here.
Since 2014, we've served over 85 North Adams-based artists in our programming, and over the last two years, we led the formation of the North Adams Artist Impact Coalition, which is continuing to build on all of this good work, including a current call for proposals for grants up to $5,000 in support of projects and resources that will further strengthen our local artist community.
Q: Where does your funding come from, and is it in jeopardy with the financial crisis?
A: Our funding comes from a mix of private foundations and state and federal agencies. State budgets for FY21 are very uncertain, and we've recently lost some of our federal funding, but we've gained some new private grants in recent months. So, overall, we've been able to maintain and expand our programming thus far during the pandemic.
We're hoping that the crisis won't force us to pull way back in the year ahead, but that could happen if state cutbacks are severe and if foundation endowments take a big drop.
Q: How do you envision the Berkshire cultural economy will look this time next year?
A: I sure wish I had a crystal ball. What I know is that the cultural economy is being hit harder than most other sectors, so, I expect the recovery for creative workers could be somewhat slow.
The local real estate market and some other parts of the economy have been buoyed a bit by urbanites wanting to be in a rural area that feels somewhat protected from the worst aspects of the virus. That's certainly helpful for the overall economy, but so much depends on how long it takes for normal social and economic life to resume.
Our sector is resilient, so, I'm optimistic for summer 2021. Fingers crossed.