Artists as Longtime First Responders

By May 17, 2020May 22nd, 2020Field News

UrbanTheater Company


When Field Fellow Tatiana Cortes and I met with Field Foundation grantee-partner UrbanTheater Company in early March, we spent only a short time talking about theater. As we stood in the middle of its empty storefront space in the heart of Humboldt Park, surrounded by remnants from its last production, directors Ivan Vega and Miranda Gonzalez shared recent successes like the world premiere of Back in the Day, an homage to Chicago House music. Vega and Gonzalez spoke about the transformative experience of coming to the end of a grant that was paired with one year of expert consulting through the Arts Work Fund to strengthen its operations. They shared details about the Quinceañera fundraiser they were organizing to celebrate the company’s 15th anniversary.

But also, without prompting, the conversation often lingered on the theater-adjacent work they were doing. They spoke about the way their lobby turns into a sliding-scale mental health facility in the months between productions, helping neighborhood mental health professionals build their practices without office overhead while remaining financially accessible. They talked about how their space is often donated to community members and officials for meetings and gatherings. They pointed out the voter ballot box tucked in the corner because they were serving as a polling site.

Ellie Lee / Circles and Ciphers

Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Chicago, community-based arts organizations like UrbanTheater Company were already familiar with what it looked like to expand their work to respond to urgent needs. They have been responding to crises for quite some time. Addressing these needs while being cultural anchors was their pre-pandemic agenda, and although it’s not easy under current circumstances, they are pulling from those experiences and tools as this crisis unfolds and will continue to do so as Chicago’s communities continue to weather the storm.

They’re also demonstrating how art isn’t just essential to how recovery happens and how we collectively heal, but is essential to how communities survive today, two months, and two years from now.

Brave Space Alliance

Many artists, arts organizations, collectives, and artist-run businesses do expansive work that spills into and pulls from so many other sectors and issue areas. We are fortunate to live in a city with a cultural sector that knows how multifaceted our cultural institutions are, but there is still a lot of work within and outside of the sector that must be done to have this hybridized way of working understood more widely. As we settle into the relief and recovery period of the pandemic, the call for an expanded view that has community and racial equity at its core has hit a fever pitch. Many are searching for a path forward that interrogates, deconstructs, and rethinks the systems and policies within and surrounding the cultural sector and the common causes that impact everyone, including cultural workers. What the pandemic and relief efforts have made clear is that artists and cultural workers are very much in need of basic relief of all kinds in order to support their families, health, creative practices, businesses, community spaces, organizations, and staff.

Candice Washington / Real Men Charities Inc.

At the same time, cultural workers aren’t just in need of relief, they are also powerful providers of relief. They are creating mutual aid support systems, artist-to-artist and artist-centered emergency grants, relief funds for cultural producers, and artist stimulus packages. Cultural workers are establishing youth-elder check-in networks, art-infused peace circles, and mental health support networks for black communities. They have launched no-contact food distribution networks, food pantries for black and brown transgender South Siders, food and PPE distribution hubs, and senior safety kits in some of the hardest-hit areas of Chicago. Artists are mobilizing around calls for decarceration at Cook County Jail and advocating for the safety of temp workers who are working in risky environments. They are making shifts in their fashion production work and employing refugees, immigrants, and working-class women to mass-produce PPE.

There’s a unique kind of relief that only artists can provide that arguably everyone in Chicago and the country have been benefiting from. It’s a relief that has been key to helping us get through each day: the albums, films, web series, books, recipes, poems, and musician battles via Instagram that have provided a soundtrack to this quarantine experience. All of these things are brought to you by artists, the arts, and culture—whether or not we define it or identify it as such.

Echoing the recent message of the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund (AIRF), take a moment to imagine your life without art—during a pandemic or otherwise. With that in mind, remember that artists and cultural workers are standing alongside all of us who are hurting and working to find and provide relief and healing. Artists and the venues, museums, libraries, and cultural hubs that care for and present their work are essential to our city’s infrastructure and are part of the DNA of what makes Chicago, and our entire state, great. Our artists and cultural institutions absolutely must be a part of whatever future is ahead of us.

Whether you’re donating to the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund while spending time with Illinois artists, showing support for Chicago’s theater community, dreaming up more equitable visions for the cultural sector’s future, or simply making culture part of your daily routine, know this: an investment in the arts is an investment in your own well-being and that of everyone around you. Without the arts, we lose the glue that ultimately holds us all together and paves the path to healing.


Explore the COVID-19 responses and projects of the Art portfolio below.

Tempestt Hazel
Program Officer, Art
Field Foundation

Author Field Foundation

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