After Sandy: Post-Disaster Community Engagement

By MK Wegmann

Silver linings can be hard to find, they are unpredictable, and maybe they are not in the place you are looking. When disaster occurs, understanding what it means to be community engaged is one of the most positive opportunities an arts organization can realize in a community-wide crisis. When one is among many thousands of people, businesses and organizations who have been commonly affected by a hugely disruptive event, such as Sandy was, one real way to survive, and then recover, is to use and share the assets that you have left. Organize within your own community and collaborate with others, both those within the larger arts community and across sectors – neighborhood organizations, churches, community centers and schools, just to name some. Share your knowledge, your money, your space and your creativity. Artists have an immediate and tangible opportunity to use their creativity and artistic process to be part of recovery efforts – and not incidentally, recovering themselves.

In the seven years since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the Federal Flood devastated New Orleans, we’ve seen the roles that artists play, how it was artists who were among the first to return to the city, and how many artists eagerly and generously came here to help. There has been an explosion of new galleries, ensemble companies, and individual artists in all disciplines here.  And though every arts organization had to lay off staff, replace or repair their facility and, overall, suffer hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue and funding, most were able to provide support to others as they recovered together. For example, the Contemporary Arts Center was a repository of donations from across the country that were quickly re-granted to artists, and they shared their newly-vacant office space, for free, with other New Orleans arts organizations, including NPN, and Junebug Productions, which still has subsidized office space there.

Reciprocally, many national organizations found ways to join local efforts for recovery. This is from Urban Bush Women’s website:

UBW relocated the SLI [Summer Leadership Institute] to New Orleans for a number of reasons. There was an expressed need for creative, collaborative approaches to the ongoing recovery that involve the artistic and cultural organizing communities. Relocating the SLI was our contribution to the city’s re-building efforts in partnership with local artists and activists including ArtSpot Productions, Junebug Productions, 7th Ward Community Center with Neighborhood Housing Services, The People’s Institute for Survival & Beyond, the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies, Mondo Bizarro, Tulane University, Dillard University and alumni of the Institute. New Orleans has long-served as a creative inspiration for Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, UBW’s founder and artistic director, since the company held its first community engagement project there more 20 years ago. New Orleans is also a uniquely rich cultural community and an important ancestral home of the African diaspora. In addition, UBW seeks to expand the geographical impact of the Institute and has made a multi-year commitment to return the SLI to New Orleans.

Another example of artists working for recovery is Unmoored (Love Letter to New Orleans) by PearsonWidrig Dance Theater, who collaborated with many entities to create the performance project. On their website they have posted this quote from an audience member: “My 9-year old is still very distraught over the experience of the hurricane. Please come back to our schools with your piece — we need it.” — Audience member, New Orleans

Another opportunity is funder-formed consolidated funding pools. Sometimes, though, it is difficult for individual artists to have direct access to these resources. An arts organization that has the capacity to act as a fiscal sponsor can be a simple and effective way to get funds directly into the hands of artists. An arts organization that has the capacity to act as a fiscal sponsor
can be a simple and effective way to get funds directly into the hands
of artists. A good proposal writer or development staff not displaced by the storm can write proposals for individual artists or other organizations who have lost access to their homes, offices and technology.

Additionally, many foundations have set aside special pots of funding for artists and arts organizations. This is a time to tap into all of your networks and professional circles. Both offering what you can for others and accepting the help of your colleagues are on the path to everyone’s recovery. Count your assets, join your neighbors, and dig yourselves out of the sand. And the important lesson for the future is to have a plan for emergency preparedness (there will be a next time). South Arts has prepared an excellent tool, Arts Ready. Use it!

“Recovery is a marathon not a sprint” is an oft-repeated phrase. For many of us in New Orleans, the events of 2005 are yesterday. We still tell our stories to one another, and many are still struggling to recover. Major disruptions in basic infrastructure, from the electrical grid to public schools, still require massive amounts of work and money. Some are still fighting for insurance and FEMA funds. I recount this not to be discouraging, but to reiterate the benefits of collaboration, community connectivity, and creativity — tools that artists and arts organizations already have at hand.

MK Wegmann, president & CEO, National Performance Network, has 30 years experience in organizational development and artists’ services. NPN supports the creation and touring of contemporary performing and visual arts, and in its home in New Orleans, serves as an intermediary and fiscal sponsor through its local network. From 1978-1991 she was associate director for the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans, and from 1993-1999 as managing director of the theatre company Junebug Productions. Wegmann serves on Boards of Directors for National Performance Network, Junebug Productions, Performing Arts Alliance (PAA), and the Cultural Alliance of New Orleans. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Spring Hill College and a Master of Arts degree from Louisiana State University of New Orleans (now UNO).


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