Dodge Q&A: Sharnita Johnson on New Jersey’s arts community through the pandemic

Posted on by Dodge
Art from the DearFrontline.com project on the side of a building.
Photo Courtesy of DearFrontline.org

The Dodge Q&A series is designed to share what Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation staff are learning and thinking about as they engage with social sector leaders from throughout the state. They’ll also reveal a few things about themselves you might not have known. 

Today we talk to Sharnita Johnson, Arts program director, about the impact of the pandemic on the arts in New Jersey.

Sharnita Johnson is arts program director.

Before we jump into the conversation, how are you navigating the multiple crises we’re experiencing, namely the COVID-19 pandemic and community uprisings demanding justice?

It depends on the day and time. I think we are all experiencing a broad spectrum of emotions these days. As a Black woman, I vacillate between feelings of deep sadness, anger, and sometimes helplessness as I watch my community ravished by COVID19, systemic racism, and oppression. But then I remember I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, and I get up to do what I can to contribute to the change. 

What is your perspective on how the coronavirus is affecting the arts in New Jersey?  

The magnitude of financial loss experienced by individual artists and arts organizations continue to grow and are becoming economically unsustainable. The financial devastation is likely to cause irreversible damage to many artists and arts organizations.  

A March 2020 survey of New Jersey artists and arts organizations by the New Jersey Council on the Arts (NJSCA) to assess the need for funding support over a 30, 60, 90-day period, revealed individual artists estimated losses of between $2 to $5 million if shutdown lasted 90 days. And arts organizations estimate losses between $12 to $25 million in 90 days. Organizations’ earned income capacity has been devastated with upwards of 50-90 percent of their revenue-generating programming decimated. The pandemic has more than underscored the vulnerabilities of the sector and society. Some organizations will close as a result of the pandemic, and what goes away will not come back. 

How are arts organizations you are speaking with through your virtual travels, meetings, conversations adapting? 

Despite the challenges, New Jersey arts and culture organizations remain resilient and innovative. Our grantees are moving content online, communicating with constituents and donors differently, getting noticed by people they have never reached before, using technology in new ways and providing education programs for youth and adults. 

Many organizations are prioritizing people over institutions by delaying layoffs, paying out contracts, and in some cases, management at the highest-level are taking pay cuts. 

What’s important to keep in mind right now? 

We need to inspire people’s generosity and community spirit. Even during the devastation of the pandemic, the thousands of lives lost, the majority of whom are Black and Brown people, our creative community serves as the documentarians, witnesses, storytellers, and futurists.  

We know people are consuming the arts at an increased rate during stay-at-home orders. If you have binge-watched anything, danced in your living room at one of  DJ D-Nice’s Club Quarantine regular dance parties or logged onto your favorite national or local dance, theater or music organization’s website to watch a production on the internet, you will know people are deeply engaged with the arts.  

Throughout the state, COVID-19 is requiring arts organizations to get out of their institutions and to become more relevant and accessible to communities. Now is our opportunity to stop thinking about the arts in a narrow frame as we rethink broken systems. This is an opportunity for artists to help us reimagine how we rebuild. They should be at the table to help us engage community, inform how we think about the environment, education and economic recovery.

What are some of the questions you’re asking yourself or talking about with others? 

Some of the questions that keep coming up again and again and for which the field continues to grapple:

  • How can technology be maximized to reach new audiences, and how can organizations monetize its offerings? 
  • How do we support organizations to merge or close gracefully, preserve their legacy, and make their work available to the public? 
  • Where can we turn for additional legal support and consulting?
  • What innovative solutions or partnerships can we forge, perhaps with colleges and universities or libraries, to digitize and/or archive materials and ephemera, video, etc. for continued engagement and for posterity? 
  • How do we center equity in the sector recovery?
  • How do we rebuild a system that is better able to support the sector in times of deep crisis and beyond? 

What are opportunities are you excited by right now? 

Several successful funder convenings by the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers Culture Funders Affinity Group, which I co-chair, resulted in the establishment of the New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund to support artists and arts organizations impacted by COVID-19.

The Fund was developed  by a steering committee that includes representatives from the Grunin Foundation, NJSCA, The Prudential Foundation, and Dodge. The Grunin Foundation made a lead gift of $250,000. I am proud the Dodge Foundation is making a $200,000 investment.  

We hope the New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund will provide resources to the arts community now and in the future, as we aspire for it to eventually become an enduring fund that will grow over time.  

What are you reading right now?  

In this episode of Grantmakers in the Arts podcast series Coronavirus Response: Into the Weeds Ruby Lopez Harper, Senior Director, Local Arts Advancement, Americans for the Arts; Brian McGuigan, Program Director, Artist Trust; and Trella Walker, Director, Advisory Services, Head of Social Innovation and Equity Council, Nonprofit Finance Fund, discuss funding practices that center equity and reframe the recovery. 

In a conversation Linda Harrison, president of the Newark Museum, hosted for funders in April, she said the museum that closed as a result of the pandemic won’t be the museum that opens after. That resonated with me, the profound realization that arts organizations, particularly large, mainstream institutions will have to change at an even more rapid pace to remain relevant. She is interviewed in this Christie’s Magazine article with three other museum leaders about the future of museums post pandemic. 

I was honored to be part of the Grantmakers in the Arts 2020 Webinar Series as a panelist on this webinar Coronavirus Response: Building a Future that Reimagines Systems for Justice with colleagues Randy Engstrom, Director, Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, Dana Kawaoka-Chen, Executive Director, Justice Funders and Justin Laing, Principal Consultant, Hillombo, LLC. We discussed funders flexibility and trust in response to the pandemic. Funders are more nimble with limited to no requirements for applications, repurposing current grant project awards to general operating support, increasing payouts above the 5% minimum, and centering the experiences of their grantees. This webinar explored what is necessary to re-imagine systems, power and practice as a result of the pandemic and the ongoing crisis of racial inequality. 

What can we do as individuals to support the arts and artists? 

Buy art. Tune into your favorite arts organization’s website and pay for the offerings you want to view. 

If you can, make tax-deductible donations.

Check on your artists friends. Ask them what they are working on, how the pandemic has influenced their work, what do they think they might do differently in their practice? If you know they have lost income, send a gift card to a grocery store or Zelle them some cash if you can.  

Don’t stop engaging, the art is to be engaged with in real-time. So much art has resulted from the pandemic and the protests. Take it in, interrogate it, get inspired by it. 

Do you have a question for Dodge staff? Leave it in the comments or send us an email at listening@grdodge.org.

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