When I left New Zealand to work in the United States, I never imagined I would end up helping to guide a community arts organisation through the impacts of a global pandemic. Thanks to Arts Access Aotearoa for giving me the opportunity to share what I learned on that unexpected journey.
Before leaving New Zealand, I worked as both a curator and public programmes manager at Puke Ariki in New Plymouth. During that time, I went on a research trip to the States and fell in love with AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island – an organisation founded on the principle that freedom of expression is crucial for the development of strong communities and individual spirits.
Five years later, in 2015, I moved to Providence, where I worked at AS220 in fundraising and then in deeply collaborative leadership, along with my extraordinary co-leaders (and now Co-Directors) Anjel Newmann and Shauna Duffy.
AS220 owns three buildings that offer Rhode Island artists affordable access to six rotating gallery spaces; a performance stage; a black box theatre; a print shop; a darkroom and media arts lab; a fabrication and electronics lab; a dance studio; a large youth programme with a focus on young people in the care of the state; 47 residential spaces and seven work studios for artists; and a restaurant and bar.
Pre-pandemic we had more than 50 staff, served more than 6000 artists a year, and raised nearly 70% of our budget through earned income.
Programming closures and the subsequent loss of earned income
Like arts organisations across the world, AS220 was hit hard by the pandemic. With programming closures and the subsequent loss of earned income, we lost more than 40% of our budget overnight and some staff had to be laid off.
Remaining staff grieved for the ways they used to work with their artists and audiences, not knowing when they could work that way again.
How did AS220 navigate those impacts? What did we learn?
It’s a sector that often demands too much work for not enough pay, with a blurring of lines between our professional and private lives. The pandemic helped us put a greater emphasis on the wellbeing of AS220’s staff.
Rethinking fulltime work
We started to rethink what constituted fulltime work, holding conversations with staff and the board about redefining fulltime as 32 or 36 hours. We wanted to give staff more time for their own artistic practice, their families, or simply to rest. Healthcare insurance coverage was extended to more part-time staff, and all staff gained access to free telehealth services.
And as part of AS220’s Racial Justice Initiative, a group of staff started to tackle how to turn AS220’s equal pay policy (all staff are paid the same) into an equitable pay policy.
Being part of such a connected, collaborative creative community was more important than ever. We leaned on friends in the sector who could empathise with our struggles and help us strategise ways forward.
And early on in the pandemic, the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts began offering virtual peer support calls for organisations. I “met” people I’d never had the opportunity to meet before, who worked in organisations I wasn’t familiar with. That was priceless.
As the writer adrienne maree brown says, “ ... the stronger the bond between the people or groups in collaboration, the more possibility you can hold.” Visioning together for a hopeful future was good for our battered hearts.
Empowering staff to experiment and/or reopen their programmes while balancing the health risks was a tricky – and scary – line to walk. Everything was changing every day and we couldn’t keep up.
"Sometimes we just had to get out of the way"
At times, leadership took longer than necessary to get staff the resources they needed to do great work. I learned that sometimes we just had to get out of the way.
Staff also found unanticipated value in their experimentations. Our Live Arts programme set up streaming sessions for musicians, and discovered they had tapped into an unexpected need: high-quality documentation of performances.
AS220 Youth staff recognised how vital it was for their young artists to be together in person, so they partnered with friends Haus of Glitter to present safe outdoor art classes in the Haus’ large garden. The Haus of Glitter has since become a close collaborator and partner of AS220.
The pandemic has reinforced to me that justifying arts and culture in economic terms does the sector a disservice. I believe we now have a unique advocacy opportunity before us. When the world was locked down, it was art and culture that people turned to: they read books, listened to music, watched films, cooked food, wrote, drew, danced. These things make us human, and we need them as much as the air we breathe. So we need to support them.
As for me personally? I learned that change is inevitable. One of my lowest days early on was when I realised AS220 had changed forever, no matter how hard I fought to keep it the same. But in change comes opportunity – for greater equity, more collaboration, new expression.
As I settle back into life in my hometown of Dunedin after returning in January, I’m excited to help grow these possibilities.
Most importantly, I learned to embrace what I always knew to be true: that staff need leaders who feel, are vulnerable, who cry, and are honest about how hard it is to navigate a pandemic.