“We can’t eat art, but it feeds us.
Art is the glue that ties us together.
Art is what makes us feel real.
Art is not an excessive luxury.
ART IS A MUST.
IN ART WE TRUST.”
This poem can be found on the Art Is Alive website, www.artliveson.com, which is a collaborative effort by three prominent artists and a creative director looking to unite and help struggling artists during this unprecedented health crisis. Art Is Alive was spearheaded by Greensboro native and queen of Americana Rhiannon Giddens in collaboration with her friend and fellow singer-songwriter/musician Amanda Palmer, Palmer’s husband, critically-acclaimed author Neil Gaiman, and Giddens’s tour manager/creative director Noelle Panepento.
Giddens was at her home in Limerick, Ireland, watching her children play with Legos on her living room floor while she spoke with YES! Weekly over the phone on April 16. Before the pandemic canceled everything, Giddens said she was at the tail-end of her international tour in Australia.
“I was in the middle of [a tour] in Australia when things started hitting the fan,” Giddens said. “I had to cancel the last five dates of my tour— it was one more Sydney date and then four concerts in Japan—and fly everyone home.”
Luckily, she said she was able to make it back home before the borders closed. The pandemic didn’t just cut her tour short, it had canceled 10 of her upcoming gigs in Europe and postponed some of her upcoming projects such as Omar, an opera about an enslaved African-Muslim man, that she wrote and composed last year. Omar was supposed to debut on May 22 at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, South Carolina.
“I am like everyone else,” she said. “I am on the luckier side because I was on tour for my record, and there were no others, so I was kind of on the winding-down side. It was not like I was just [starting the tour]. You know, all of the investment you put into releasing a record is really skewed heavy on the front part of it, so I was really lucky to be able to do that last year. I know a lot of others who were starting their tour this spring and just releasing a record, so you know that money doesn’t come back—the money you put into the promo and all of that. So yeah, it is tough times.”
Giddens conceived the idea behind Art Is Alive when she was still in Australia, witnessing how the virus was affecting everyone simultaneously.
“I am in a fairly good position; I have some money saved up, I’m on a grant (hopefully that continues to pay) but I know a lot of people aren’t and a lot of people who are just starting out or close to the margin, and I was just like, what’s going to happen to all those folks? Are they going to get evicted? So, I started seeing that people were starting to put up lists of resources all over the place. It seemed like we should consolidate them, and try to create a space for fans and artists.”
“We are only as great as the sum of our parts,” Panepento said in a phone interview on April 15. “What if we all worked together, picked a couple of organizations or created an organization where we are all pooling our resources and efforts to have something bigger?”
Giddens said that she, Panepento, Palmer and Gaiman, started discussing the ways in which they could help and be “a good force during this time.” They compiled their resources and put together Art Is Alive. According to the website, Art Is Alive “connects fans to artists in a stay-at-home climate” by listing various organizations with funding designed to help artists in need. The site also serves as a place for fans to contribute. Art Is Alive has partnered with Artists Relief Tree (ART), which, according to the press release, has already raised $240,000. Giddens, Palmer, Gaiman, authors George R. R. Martin, Brené Brown, and musicians Brian Eno and Mike Posner are ambassadors of the fund. ART is “an online fundraiser created by artists, for artists, supporting those affected financially by COVID-19. Backed by a myriad of artist superstars, ART has received over 6,500 requests for assistance from artists all over the world, representing opera, theater, music, dance, the visual arts, and more since its initial launch.”
There are two support options on the website: Artist To Artist and Patron To Artist, and both lists various online communities for networking, financial relief as well as organizations accepting donations, or philanthropic organizations that are directly supporting artists during this time. The site also acts as a networking hub for freelancers and a site where fans can keep track of and access a variety of digital shows.
“People have been sending us stuff for weeks now, and we’ve been trying to keep it up to date,” Giddens said. “Now, I guess the question is, what’s next?”
Giddens said the site is still finding its identity.
“I am not sure where it is going to go, but it has been something that a lot of people have said that they are really glad it exists— and it is just trying to create some order amid the chaos of people wanting to help people, which is great!”
Panepento said that she designed the website and its branding, and she is the one maintaining it.
“Art Is Alive is a solidarity effort,” Panepento said. “It is an online directory of resources in an advocacy, solidarity effort aimed at artists and creatives across all disciplines.”
“We are hoping that this website can act as a kind of general Yellow Pages for the current money emergency in the art and music world,” the website states. “We like to call it our COVID-19 directory of give and take.”
Art Is Alive’s intent is to be approachable and user-friendly, Panepento said. “It is not meant to be a political statement,” she continued. “It’s a sign of hope and unification. We are in a shared humanity and existence right now, and [Art Is Alive] is a resource you can use. There is a community of people out there trying to support you—because that sign of hope is not something that we are seeing from the political side of things right now.”
Giddens said that there are actually a lot of financial aid and other resources for artists; however, it can be difficult to find because it is not all in one central location.
“That is what I am kind of hoping for, just to make things easier,” Giddens said. “It is nothing beyond trying to add to the conversation in a positive way to create something that can be used...I don’t have to worry about keeping the lights on, so I want to use this energy to try to reach out and help.”
Giddens expressed that working in the entertainment industry is difficult because of how the economy is set up.
“A lot of people are independent contractors, so it is hard to apply for unemployment,” she said. “There are a lot of resources on the website for that kind of thing as well, because it is just so confusing. Some things have different guidelines, and it feels like things are changing every day.”
Panepento said Art Is Alive is also another way to connect with other artists in isolation. In an effort to unite these creatives, Panepento said, Art Is Alive accepts writing submissions for its weekly newsletter from artists detailing what they are experiencing, how they are living and adjusting to this new socially distant world. Panepento thinks that sharing these experiences might help someone else cope as well as give them ideas on how they can adjust and survive this collective rough patch.
“I have had a lot of great resources submitted, but I have also gotten some letters from people going through challenging times right now,” Panepento said. “That wasn’t necessarily what the site was intended for, but I am not going to let them write their heart out and not respond to it.”
Panepento said she wants Art Is Alive to be a “beacon of unity within the artistic community.”
“It was important because I feel that there is an oversaturation of this stuff in the market right now, and we needed a way to clean it up,” she said about the website. “I saw touring artists struggling because they didn’t know what grants to apply for, and I was able to refer them to this site.”
Panepento said it’s important to support artists now more than ever because art is one thing that connects all humans.
“In a time where we are isolated and apart, and feeling hopeless and helpless, we can still create, collaborate, cultivate and connect with people from afar by continuing to do something that is built in all of us,” she said. “Even when we are feeling depressed and not actively involved in life, we can still have art as a sign of hope, connectedness and shared humanity. Art helps to break things down, and it helps to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Panepento said it’s important to keep hoping and to keep a sense of togetherness during this dark time in history.
“We are all going to get through it together,” she said. “It is important to keep that in mind and take a step back from all the things hanging over our heads and the uncertainty of these times.”
When asked what she thinks needs to be done to combat the pandemic, or what should be done to support one another after the pandemic, Giddens reacted cynically.
“There are lots of things we can do, will we do any of them? Probably not. To be honest, I think, as a species, we have all forgotten that there is still [climate change] to deal with and our environmental issues that we have inflicted upon the earth and ourselves. The way we have set up to live with unfettered capitalism—being the underlying tenet to all of the major economies of the world, there is just no way to sustain that— it is unsustainable. It’s illogical and unscientific to have capitalism with no end because it is based on never-ending growth, and nothing is never-ending. Everything has an end, and we are reaching it already, and then you add this pandemic, and it just shows, A) how interconnected we all are and B) how fragile and how messed up a lot of our systems are—especially in the United States.”
Just like other innovative musicians, Giddens has spent this unrequested downtime performing digitally. Recently, she performed via livestream on April 22 with the Americana folk group, Our Native Daughters, composed of Giddens, Amythyst Kiah, Allison Russell and Leyla McCalla.
On May 6, Giddens and her partner, Francesco Turrisi, performed together from separate locations on Episode 3 of the Whiskey Sour Happy Hour, a weekly YouTube series hosted by The Bluegrass Situation and actor/ comedian/banjo fanatic Ed Helms. According to The Bluegrass Situation website, Whiskey Sour Happy Hour is an online variety show presented in collaboration with the Americana Music Association that benefits the MusiCares COVID-19 Music Relief Fund and Direct Relief.
(Even though the show concluded on May 13, each episode is still available for viewing until May 25 because the organization has raised over $47,000 and wants to give fans a chance to rewatch and contribute.)
“Let’s be honest, I am probably here until September, if not later, so I am not rushing into anything,” Giddens said when asked if she was going to take advantage of her newfound free time to write or produce any new music. “I am just focusing on the kids, in a big way, and what I can do any other time that I have.”
“She has planned and done activities with us this whole week!” her child said, cheerfully chiming in.
Giddens admitted that being on lockdown an ocean away from her family has been tough, as she had originally planned to visit her family in the United States for Easter. She said canceling her trip across the pond was a bummer, and she admitted that she doesn’t even know when the next time she’ll be able to go visit them will be.
“It’s tough, but not any different from anyone else,” Giddens said. “My sister works in education, and she is still working—which is amazing, so we have a lot to be grateful for, and we are trying to focus on that. I am looking forward to at least having a shape of what it is going to look like when we can travel again, even if it is not for a while. It will just be nice to know when we can see our family again.”
Giddens said she is taking each day at a time and aiming for a good end to the story, whether it happens or not.
“I don’t complain at all of the lockdown because I am very privileged. I have money—not a ton of money—but enough to not worry about me and my kids,” she explained. “There are a lot of people out there not in that situation because of how we set up our society and because of the way we have destroyed the social nets we had in place. It is really tough because it is really showing those weaknesses— those cracks in the foundations. We have an opportunity to address them now and go, ‘hey, this is showing us something needs to change.’ It is showing us that we actually don’t need all the crap that we have been buying—I mean, look at everyone cooking, and making do with what they have— we can do this. This is what environmentalists have been saying for years. Can we shut down the emissions? Can we stop traveling so much? Look, we did it, and all it took was a pandemic! When we were afraid for our lives, we did it. We just have to equate our environment with our lives, and if we can do that, then we can continue and use this as a springboard. Will we do it? No, but we could. I am not going to stop doing what I can to be a force of good for that cause because I believe in it.”
After the pandemic, Giddens hopes that Art Is Alive lives on, and continues to be a beacon for artists looking for support.
“I think that there is no going back to business as usual. I think this was a wake-up call for a lot of people. I think as artists, we have to look closely at how we make our art and how the system is set up and what the resources are out there,” she said. “I think keeping it up and up-to-date is definitely part of my M.O. for sure.”
“I work with artists that have really strong missions behind what they do—Rhiannon Giddens, Abigail Washburn, Leyla McCalla, they have a sense of self and a sense of purpose,” Panepento said. “I think that every creative goes through a period of hopelessness when they are first starting their careers, too. [Art Is Alive] can be that support and hope during those times as well. I hope it keeps growing and that people keep sharing it.”
As far as parting words of wisdom go, Giddens said that everyone just needs to be kinder to each other.
“The main thing is we have to stay inside; it is the only thing that is proven to be helping with the numbers,” she added. “But everyone has to do it—if even 30% of people don’t do it, it is as if no one is doing it. And if the economy is going to take a hit, we might as well be ready to do it for as long as we can—it is a harder shock, but it’s over quicker. Also, take some time to think about what matters to you. How valuable art is, how valuable food is, and how valuable all these workers who are still working— still putting themselves in harm’s way are. Nurses, doctors, grocery store workers, sanitation workers, all these people that are keeping things going don’t have the choice to stay home and wait until it blows over.”
Wanna get involved?
Art Is Alive can be found at www.artliveson.com. Giddens and Turrisi will be playing digitally for the Gather New Haven Digital Benefit Show on May 22 at 4 p.m. via StageIt.com. Giddens’s next in-person gig (for now) is with Our Native Daughters on Sept. 26 at the Monterey Folk Festival in Monterey, California. She also plans to be a part of the show “Porgy & Bess” with the Greensboro Opera at the Tanger Center on Nov. 13.