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Jazz Artists Raise Concerns Over Coronavirus Cancellations

A public letter that urges institutions to “develop an ethical and humane policy” is circulating online

Amirtha Kidambi (far left) and Elder Ones at the October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music, Philadelphia, Oct. 7, 2018
Amirtha Kidambi (far left) and Elder Ones at the October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music, Philadelphia, Oct. 7, 2018 (photo: Ken Weiss)

Faced with the devastating impact of venue closures and booking cancellations, a group of performing artists led by vocalist, composer, and improviser Amirtha Kidambi has collaborated to write a letter titled “Public Letter of Concern by Working Artists for Ethical Cancellations.” The letter calls for arts and cultural institutions to “work in partnership with artists to develop an ethical and humane policy for COVID-19 cancellations.”

The letter was published online on April 2.

“This is about artists and presenters working together to disburse percentages on artist fees to help artists immediately, in this dire time,” Kidambi said in a short statement. “[It] was created by a community for our community. An enormous amount of thought and care was put into this by several musicians, artists, representatives of venues and nonprofits, educators, lawyers, writers, editors, activists, organizers and many wonderful human beings.”

Signers of the letter as of April 7 included artists across multiple locations and disciplines. Stephen Haynes, Ryan Keberle, Darius Jones, Regina Carter, and Vijay Iyer were just a few of many jazz musicians who had endorsed the document.

The text of the letter is below. It can also be viewed, with footnotes and supporting documentation, and signed here. (A valid email address is required.)

Public Letter of Concern by Working Artists for Ethical Cancellations

In this coronavirus crisis, performing artists have effectively been rendered unemployed. The indefinite closure of public venues, arts institutions, galleries, theaters, clubs, and concert halls is a terrible blow to the performing arts industry, generally, but artists are the most vulnerable of all. This income is all we have — it is a matter of survival. Artists who depend on this money are hurting right now. In this time of crisis, artists cannot survive solely on limited emergency grants, crowdfunding, merchandise sales, and government funds, which may take months to receive, and many are ineligible for. And if artists do not survive, the institutions that support them will collapse, so we must work together to find solutions. Cultural institutions whose mission it is to support and promote artists can provide immediate assistance.

We, the undersigned, are calling upon cultural institutions to work in partnership with artists to develop an ethical and humane policy for COVID-19 cancellations, which could include the following:

  1. Pay a percentage of artist fees for previously contracted commitments, and work to postpone events.
  2. Renegotiate new contracts for postponed events, as they are rescheduled.
  3. Develop alternative performance models (live-streams, commissions etc.) to ensure that artists can continue to work in the interim.

We are addressing institutions with the ability to pay artists now — for example, those with independent revenue sources: endowments, boards, government funding, foundation support, donors, patrons, and fiscal and corporate sponsorships. These include festivals, museums, universities, nonprofits and some theaters, clubs, performing arts centers and concert halls. These institutions have the means to offer fees for artists, which is squarely in line with their mission of supporting the arts. Nonprofits and organizations, which have previously secured funding for programming and artist fees could release funds to artists now, appeal to their boards and funders, or apply for grants on the artists’ behalf. Some of these nonprofits will receive government assistance, which can support the payment of these fees. We do not expect independent promoters and small nonprofits and venues to accommodate without assistance; in these cases, funds should be made available for presenters to cover artist fees.

This proposal requests advances or deposits on artist fees for previously contracted events. Artists should be paid a fair percentage of the original fee, which would be determined by both parties on a case-by-case basis. This fee is a good faith commitment by both parties to postpone the event. Advance compensation is fair and reasonable, considering that artists will need to hold future dates, displacing other offers. A future date hold has inherent value. Artists and presenters will need to work together to renegotiate the contract, once the rescheduled date is determined. Upon rescheduling, the renegotiation should consider that touring or production budgets will have changed. This arrangement shows a commitment to rescheduling events, while protecting artists’ income in the interim. In situations where a postponement will not be possible, a percentage is a meaningful way to support artists in the short term. In lieu of, or in addition to postponement, institutions can create alternative performance models such as live-streams, commissions, remote collaborations, masterclasses and workshops by teaching artists etc., both to ensure artists can continue to work in the interim and to further their mission as presenting institutions.

This is not the only solution, and specifics will need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. It is a show of community solidarity in the absence of adequate union representation or other forms of leverage. It is a call for all of us to work together with compassion to address these issues. This is not only a matter of livelihood for working artists — presenting and sharing artistic work is of deep personal, emotional, mental, spiritual, and intellectual concern for everyone. It is essential for the public to be able to experience art and for cultural institutions to survive this crisis, so that we can continue to inspire each other in such difficult times. We hope that arts institutions will work collaboratively during this time, when artists and the culture industry are in dire straits.