Don’t Go Back to “Normal”: Thoughts for Our Field

March 24, 2020  •  4 minute read

Remarks from NPN’s president and CEO Caitlin Strokosch for the March 19 webinar “Emergency Preparedness and Response: COVID19 and the Arts Ecosystem” hosted by Grantmakers in the Arts. The full webinar is available here, and Caitlin’s comments begin at 58:28.

Celebrate artists in a time of physical distancing
Graphic: Big Tada Inc.

The National Performance Network (NPN) is a hybrid grantmaker, association, and movement-builder focused on advancing racial and cultural justice in the nonprofit performing arts field. Our work supports artists directly in partnerships with the organizations in our Network, particularly in the creation and touring of new original work. We also work to build capacity, particularly for organizations of color, and advocate for more artist- and community-centered practices in our field. While we are a national funder, providing resources in almost every state in the country, we are based in New Orleans, a community that is no stranger to crisis.

Short term: What is our organization poised to do well?

In thinking about our short-term actions right now and setting priorities, one question that has helped us guide our response is, what is our organization poised to do particularly well? In a time like this, we all want to do everything for everyone, and it’s been important for us to take a moment to pause and remember what it is that each of us does well. Here are three salient ways in which we feel we are poised and committed to respond in this time.

(1) Offer stability and certainty

NPN has long-term relationships with organizations who count on us for annual support. Those relationships are at the core of everything we do. Ensuring that our funding deadlines and mechanisms are moving forward for next year is particularly important for us.

For example, the commissioning fund deadline that we had already planned for May is moving forward, so organizations and artists who have plans underway for 2021 can feel like not everything is up in the air, with the caveat that we will adapt and be flexible to what those programs actually look like. Another way we are focusing on stability that we can offer is by making sure that artists get paid for projects we were expecting to fund, even if those projects are canceled or postponed.

(2) Leverage our intermediary relationship

NPN was founded to foster greater reciprocity and artist- and community-centered practices in performing arts presenting, so we are accustomed to serving as an intermediary in the relationships between artists and arts organizations—whether that means assisting with contract negotiations, setting equitable fee structures, or offering expectations around community-engagement guidelines.

Most of the grants we provide to organizations are specifically allocated for artists’ fees, so the fact that we are we are encouraging the organizations we work with to continue to pay those artists, regardless of whether those projects are canceled or postponed right now, is a position that we’re used to being in. Recognizing when we as funders can leverage that relationship is important. We can also encourage those organizations to find other ways to get money into the hands of artists. For example, can you reimburse artists now for travel expenses they have already incurred for performances that may not happen, so artists aren’t carrying that debt, even for things that are going to be rescheduled? 

(3) Cut down on bureaucracy

NPN is relatively small and nimble, and we are doing what we can to mobilize resources quickly. It is a good time to ask what processes really matter—what processes really matter now, and also what processes really matter after a crisis? Do we need to be as bureaucratic as we are? For example, we awarded 40+ new grants last month before this crisis and we are accelerating the contract process for those so we can get money out the door as quickly as possible.

Long term: Don’t go back to “normal”

In the longer term, I’m thinking about how we do not just go back to “normal.” NPN works towards systems change in arts and philanthropy, and these kinds of moments are when systems of inequity can either become more entrenched or they can be disrupted for positive change. Here are three long-term notions we’re thinking about in this moment.

(1) Center racial and cultural justice every day

One notion that really underscores all of our work is to center racial and cultural justice, not just in a crisis but every day. Inequities are amplified in a crisis, even when they sometimes become less visible because everybody is struggling. Whether racial justice is at the core of an organization’s everyday work or not, we can start from where we stand right now in this moment. For example, in a crisis, we are often better as a field at trust-based philanthropy. How can we make trust-based practices part of our work all the time and trust the lived experiences of individuals and communities who experience oppression and trauma daily?

(2) Support artistic programming and capacity, all the time

This moment is a perfect example of why general operating support is so important. As NPN support is primarily for artistic programming, we are thinking through how we can change some of our funding structures that support the overall resiliency of our constituents, not just now but all the time.

(3) How do we challenge the performing arts presenting model overall?

What does it mean that our work focuses on a model of travel and in-person performances—not only in the face of a pandemic, but also what does this mean in light of other forces like climate change, nationalistic and racist travel bans, detention and deportation, and limited accessibility for people with disabilities or for remote, rural, and tribal communities? How do we deeply invest in real engagement and exchange that is not just about face-to-face interaction, not only through the amazing virtual events that are happening in this crisis, but all the time? Artists shouldn’t be limited to only sharing their work on a stage, nor should any communities’ access to the live arts and artists be limited by access to a performance in person.

I’m grateful to my many colleagues who are showing leadership in this moment. I encourage you to read the United Philanthropy Forum’s joint statement “Keep Equity at the Forefront in Philanthropy’s Response to the Coronavirus,” as well as “Four Criteria for More Justice in COVID-19 Response Funds” from Justin Laing, principal consultant of Hillombo Consulting and friend of NPN.