Mr. John W. Haworth

CERF+ — The Artist’s Safety Net: Providing Emergency Relief for the Cultural Sector

Posted by Mr. John W. Haworth, Feb 24, 2022 0 comments

Mr. John W. Haworth

The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have been tough on all of us, though arguably the cultural sector—including both organizations and working artists—has dealt with some of the most demanding challenges over the last two years. Responding to this global health crisis, along with finding effective ways to meet the demands of severe weather and security threats, are day-to-day realities in managing cultural facilities. 

Arts organizations are generally well informed about cultural policy issues, and quite familiar with the cultural funding landscape of working with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and other funders including individual donors. Over the last two decades, however, arts organizations have necessarily had to allocate much time and effort to developing disaster management plans and putting emergency procedures in place. Cultural organizations across the country have forged new alliances for more coordinated and collective actions, including advocating with emergency response agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). In terms of effective emergency response work, one of the major leaders in the cultural sector is CERF+, known for its work serving individual working artists. CERF+ is known as “The Artist’s Safety Net.” 

Person with a beard wearing glasses and a fedora in an artist's studio.
“I am and will be forever grateful for the help received. It was fundamental in the process of repairing my workshop after the earthquakes in Puerto Rico. Without your help, I would not have made it.”— Franklin Graulau, Ceramic Artist, 2020 Earthquakes, Ponce, Puerto Rico. Photo courtesy of CERF+.

The work of CERF+ is vital within the larger context of the complex challenges cultural organizations and individual artists have managing—and surviving—disasters and emergencies. Certainly, emergency planning has become an ever-higher priority for cultural facilities throughout the country. CERF+’s work is driven by their commitment to providing a “safety net of resources and support [for artists] to protect and sustain their livelihood, studio, and art.” CERF+ puts key strategic questions on the table: How do local cultural communities prepare for the enormous challenges of floods, fires, earthquakes, and storms? How do we meet the economic and human costs of such life-changing circumstances? 

In response to the multiple challenges of major climate events and other emergencies in the 21st century, Americans for the Arts has provided crucial information and training for local and regional arts agencies throughout the country. And over many years, CERF+ been a stalwart partner with Americans for the Arts, providing significant leadership and expertise in our field by organizing key sessions at Americans for the Arts conferences on emergency planning and as an advocate with federal and other agencies who provide disaster relief. 

A recent in-depth online seminar on ArtsU (Americans for the Arts’ learning platform) featuring speakers from Houston Arts Alliance draws upon the lessons learned from the destruction to Houston and the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Harvey in 2017. A two-year research project, “Disaster Resiliency and the Arts,” concluded that the arts, cultural, and historic preservation communities are unprepared for the next disruption. This important report focused attention on the gap between the cultural community and the emergency response ecosystems in that region. The findings have widespread implications on a national level that need to be adapted locally. It is imperative that the cultural community become far more strategic in responding to disasters. Advocating for financial resources to cover losses is critical, but in anticipation of future emergencies, cultural communities throughout the country must develop effective emergency management strategies, including building strong community-based partnerships with emergency response experts. CERF+ brings a solid track record and informed voice to the table in this important, timely discourse. 

Photo of a storefront bearing a sign that reads "Sorry, we're closed, but still awesome"
Artist Brenda Barnett’s store, Potters on Cotter, in Port Aransas, TX, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Photo courtesy of CERF+.

CERF+ was started in 1985 by artists, for artists in the craft community as a grassroots mutual aid effort. Over the last three decades CERF+ has become the leading national arts service organizations focusing on support for artists by providing that “safety net” to support sustainable careers through education programs, advocacy, and emergency relief. Serving for six years on the CERF+ board gave me a deeper understanding of the issues, as well as an up-close look at their programs and services. Executive Director Cornelia Carey and her team provided inspired, informed, and responsive leadership to every major climate emergency of our era. CERF+ has also provided best-practices training for artists and arts administrators. CERF+ brings its expertise to the table on a variety of key topics, from studio safety and insurance coverage to safe storage and how artists can protect themselves and their work. 

Given my role directing the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in lower Manhattan, early on my main interest in CERF+ was advocating on behalf of Native American artists and organizations. Having to deal with major emergencies at the museum, however, gave me a far deeper understanding about the value of CERF+. 

During my tenure at NMAI from 1995 to 2017, there were several major emergencies and disaster with enormous impacts for lower Manhattan and beyond that were especially challenging. In the aftermath of 9/11 (the museum was located a few blocks away from the World Trade Center), the challenges of reopening the museum to the public, re-thinking all emergency response procedures—especially collection care and climate-control procedures—and managing a multitude of staff concerns was labor intensive and emotionally draining. 

Likewise, in the aftermath of unprecedented weather events like Superstorm Sandy in 2012 (which left millions without power on the East Coast) cultural organizations in the greater NYC region and beyond necessarily had to put better, more explicit policies in place that were responsive to bigger and more frequent major weather events. Dramatic increases in social disruption and gun violence have similarly put these issues in sharp focus, requiring improved security measures at public cultural facilities such as Active Shooter Training for staff. And during the coronavirus pandemic, cultural organizations have a responsibility for the public’s safety by following professional practices of social distancing, requiring masks in public places, and vaccination verifications. Dealing with such issues requires thoughtful planning and focused time, skill, and effort. 

Individual artists were particularly hard hit throughout the pandemic. On January 19, 2022, CERF+ and other national arts organizations (including Americans for the Arts) provided testimony on “The Power, Peril and Promise of the Creative Economy” to the U.S. House Committee on Small Business, making the argument that support for the arts and artists also supports other businesses—and in fact, the cultural sector itself is comprised of many small businesses including independent or self-employed arts workers.

With major support from foundations and other funders, local arts agencies across the country have developed programs to provide grants to individual artists. Though much of this support is earmarked for creative work, there is a growing recognition of what is required to sustain creative careers over many years or a lifetime. CERF+ is committed to helping artists sustain their careers and develop the tools and support to protect and preserve their livelihoods, studios, and creative output. 

Please login to post comments.