Relief fund aims to turn artists' plights into possibilities

Courtesy photoEssex County Community Foundation funded a host of projects through its Creative County Initiative in 2018-19, including the annual Intertribal Native American Pow-wow in Haverhill.

Two weeks ago, a coronavirus relief fund for beleaguered artists was a notion.

Then Monday morning, Essex County Community Foundation officials and staffers put in place $20,000 in funds for artists who have lost income to COVID-19 pressures.

The foundation has established the Essex County Artist Fund. By midday Monday, the first completed application was filed online — by a photographer, said Karen Ristuben, who directs the regional foundation’s arts assistance programs.

The foundation will give $400 each to at least 50 artists starting April 13 and continuing through May 30, she said. The artists will also have their skills spotlighted and works and services showcased on the foundation’s website,, and social media platforms.

The dollars and marketing boost are the first in a series of help measures intended to cushion the economic blows to Essex County artists due to the viral outbreak.

“We couldn’t sit back and do nothing,” Ristuben said. “The majority of Essex County’s individual creative talents are freelancers without a safety net, and they are facing unprecedented challenges right now.”

Theaters and music halls have shuttered, classrooms have gone black, and dance studios have fallen silent. And for who knows how long?

Massachusetts cultural organizations have already reported revenue losses exceeding $55.7 million, and Bay State artists have reported $2.89 million in lost income to date.

Restriction on creative endeavors will remain at least through the month’s end.

“The artists are feeling the fear,” Ristuben said.

She recognizes the funds are but a drop in the bucket for most artists, “but it does send the message that we do care.”

Among those affected by the economic shock is Mariana Martins, 24, of Haverhill.

For two years, she has taught animation and illustration to children and adults at Essex Art Center in Lawrence, and for six years, she has worked at Casey’s Diner in Plaistow, New Hampshire.

The 2018 graduate of Montserrat College of Art in Beverly was let go from her waitressing job after coronavirus restrictions took effect, and classes at the art center are being transitioned online.

She remains calm, but concerned for friends and family and over how she’ll pay her student debt and car and insurance payments.

It’s not just individuals facing uncertain futures. So are established organizations, such as Essex Art Center, started more than 25 years ago in Lawrence.

The center employs some 30 part-time teachers who instruct 3,000 adults and children a year in painting, drawing, sculpture, multimedia and other disciplines.

Director Cathy McLaurin and her lone full-time employee along with two part-time staffers are scrambling to put in place alternative online programming.

Ristuben said that the community foundation is designing another fund to help arts and cultural nonprofits. She expects to unveil that program in two weeks.

Essex County Community Foundation started in Lawrence 20 years ago as a social service organization feeding the hungry and helping women in crises. It then broadened countywide, serving 34 communities.

Three years ago, the foundation started helping nonprofits related to the arts and culture when the Barr Foundation provided $500,000 in funding.

The foundation raised another $250,000 and awarded $25,000 to $30,000 for programs that integrate the nonprofits with the community at large, including a pop-up children’s museum in Peabody, artist shanties along the Newburyport boardwalk and a multimedia mural on the exterior of the Lawrence Public Library.

The Barr Foundation has awarded $1 million over three years, through 2022, to the foundation, allowing it to continue its work.

What the funded projects share is a desire to engage the public, enhance the arts, and make the county a healthier and more inviting place to live.

The same is true of the newest initiatives geared to individual artists. Eligible applicants include actors, dancers, drummers, singers, writers, animators, painters, sound engineers and a host of others with means of artistic expression.

An ECCF selection panel from across the county will choose the recipients.

The foundation has established a gofundme campaign ( to increase the number of artists it is able to support. There is also a mechanism for artists to apply for funds via that link.

Rising above

Artists all across North of Boston are facing unprecedented hardships brought on by the COVID-19 outbreak.

We’re seeking to highlight local visual artists, musicians, performers and others in the region’s arts community and the creative solutions they are undertaking to continue showcasing and honing their crafts.

For consideration, please email a brief statement about you and your art, as well as your hometown, phone number and email, to Sonya Vartabedian, managing editor for features, at

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