How the Art World Is Helping During the U.S. Coronavirus Shutdown

On both coasts, a collection of creative insiders is working to offer some relief to those hardest hit by the COVID-19 lockdown

There are as many different kinds of patrons as there are artists—and sometimes they are one and the same. For an art world in the midst of coronavirus shutdowns from East Coast to West, the I have to do something moment hit when people saw their communities, and the lives of their friends and peers, being dismantled.

“I know them very well over at Sunset Tower,” says Donald “Drawbertson” Robertson, the beloved fashion illustrator whose drawings paper large swaths of wall space at Jeff Klein’s West Hollywood hotel. “From the piano player to the kitchen staff to Gabé [Doppelt, the former magazine editor and well-known maître d’ at the Tower Bar], these are our people.” His buddy, fine art photographer and director Tony Kelly, agrees. “The dinners Donnie and I have there are legendary. It’s like TMZ meets Art Weekly.”

In particular, it bothered Kelly to see his friends at the venerable Chateau Marmont and the Standard Hotel lose their jobs with no pay and no backup support. “The spirit of the community is not Oscar winners,” he says. “The sparkle of this town, the cogs that move it, are the hardworking people who were sent packing.” When a crisis as widespread as a global pandemic strikes, the massive cry for aid becomes a fog of confusion. Wallet-weary benefactors are overwhelmed by the stream of worthy crowdfunding links, and with in-person volunteerism largely off the table, creatives are getting, well, creative. And for Kelly and Robertson, it’s personal.

“Coming from Ireland,” Kelly says, “we’re pretty grounded; it leaves a sour taste in my mouth to leave people without a safety net.” So he put his own collection of framed photographs up for sale on Instagram. His coveted Technicolor, pop-culture-saturated images promptly sold, raising nearly $40,000 in a few days, every penny of which went directly into the hands of the staff at Chateau, the Tower, and the Standard—as Kelly calls it, “my WeHo triangle.”

Robertson did something similar with his work, collaborating with Sunset Tower to sell rights to his exclusive wallpaper, the favored gold-plated backdrop for A-list selfies. “When they renovated, they asked me to do the powder rooms,” he says from his home in Santa Monica, “and then it just went…everywhere.” Normally $5,000, the digital prints are sold directly through the hotel’s site for $1,000, with all proceeds going to the Tower Restaurant staff. If I’m buying the file, I wondered, can I print it myself on whatever I want? Linen, for example? Robertson thinks for a moment. “Yes! Go to town, do your whole house. We’ll call it karmic interior design.”

In New York, Ali Sahmel of Pegasus Prints and Emily McElwreath of art consultancy Sidel & McElwreath, also considered the benefits of collaboration. “It’s the art community supporting itself,” says McElwreath from their Brooklyn apartment above Sahmel’s silkscreen studio. “What could we do here immediately? We have paper, we have ink.” PRINT AID is the resulting effort, a series of prints sold through online gallery Exhibition A, with funds distributed among the producers, the artists and The Artists’ Fellowship, Inc.

The first round was from artists Caris Reid, Jennifer Caviola, and Kim Dorland, who worked with Sahmel via FaceTime for the ultimate result. “As consultants, a lot of what we do is blue-chip names,” says Evan Pepper, the other half of Sidel & McElwreath. “But we want you to look at these young artists trying to make a living—virtual museum tours right now are great, but shout-out to David Zwirner for going to the Lower East Side and showing us the windows of small galleries.”

The Artists Rights Society is well aware that many artists they represent support themselves through jobs in the service industry or as freelancers. Their immediate concern was to start relief efforts on the ground, by offering webinars translating new legislation, such as Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation and the Paycheck Protection Program, into digestible, usable information.

“We’re petitioning for a federal bailout, not to a cultural foundation, but money directly into the hands of artists,” says Katarina Feder, whose father, Theodore Feder, founded ARS in 1987. “Currently we have over 3,000 names.” Janet Hicks, VP and director of licensing for ARS, understands that the goal of $20,000 per artist may sound quixotic to some, but knows it’s important to bring attention to where money is being funneled.

“One of the reasons large artist-endowed foundations are able to give grants to other artists or museums is that we ensure that they are getting fair compensation for licensing rights,” Hicks notes. “Lobbying efforts can bring in more revenue, [which] then gets cycled back into the arts. It’s a circular economy.”

Back in Los Angeles, Stefan Ashkenazy, the owner of art-centric boutique hotel Petit Ermitage, worried about how to support his 100-plus furloughed workers. “If each of my kitchen employees has a few kids, that’s potentially hundreds of mouths to feed.” For the uninitiated, the hotel, a melange of the Beatrice Inn and Moulin Rouge in its heyday, is run by a community of zany, Burning Man–loving creatives who’ve built their own family and feel intense responsibility for each other.

Ashkenazy, a collector who lines the walls of his hotel with Dalí and De Kooning, reached out to his network of artists and launched an Instagram auction, including works from painter Greg Haberny and photographers Daniella Midenge and James Ostrer, with all proceeds to the staff. He turned the kitchen into a food distribution service for his furloughed team, sending out nonperishable boxes to their households, delivered by otherteam volunteers.

“Hospitality is my largest-scale art project yet,” Ashkenazy says. “For us, the hotel is a functioning stage and the stars are the staff.” Among the works for sale are his favorite and most prominent pieces, including his own personal Dalí he’s pledged to sell should the right buyer come along. “Anything less felt wrong,” he says. “When we get out of this, the only thing we’ll remember is how we handled it.”

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