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Springboard’s Laura Zabel on COVID-19: ‘It feels like utterly new territory, and we feel like this is our purpose’

Photo by Sean Smuda
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter and Laura Zabel at an open house for Springboard's University Avenue site.

If you’re an artist or an organization that supports artists, you probably know Springboard for the Arts. Maybe you’ve attended a free workshop on contracts, trademarks, grantwriting or another of the many topics they cover. Maybe you’ve checked their job board for opportunities. Or maybe you’ve gone to Springboard for help getting health insurance.

Over its 42 years – first as a program of United Arts, then as an independent nonprofit – Springboard has evolved into a wealth of programs and resources for artists in Minnesota and beyond. Its mission is to cultivate vibrant communities by connecting artists with the skills, information and services they need to make a living and a life. Believing that more is more, it freely shares its work and how-to toolkits with others.

Laura Zabel has been executive director at Springboard since 2005. Like everyone else there, she’s an artist. (Last year around this time, Zabel played the role of attorney Sarah Weddington in Mixed Blood’s production of “Roe.”) A 2014 Bush Foundation Fellow, winner of the Visionary Leader Award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Zabel was named one of the 50 most influential people in the U.S. Nonprofit Arts.

We spoke with Zabel by phone last Friday. This interview has been edited and condensed. NOTE: All facts about Springboard’s Emergency Relief Fund were updated yesterday afternoon (Thursday, March 26).

MinnPost: At the end of February, Springboard moved from your longtime home in Lowertown to your own space on University Avenue. Have you even unpacked your boxes?

Laura Zabel: Some of them. The space is very much in progress still, and of course the construction crew is not there right now. I feel lucky we were able to move before this [COVID-19] happened. But we’re in the middle of this big project we can’t work on, and that’s sad. I’m excited about the space and what it has the potential to be in the neighborhood and the broader community.

MP: Springboard serves artists. Artists are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus crisis. Were you at all prepared for anything like this?

LZ: On the one hand, no. I’ve been at Springboard for 15 years, and I never could have imagined a situation where pretty much in a single day, artists would lose everything they had in terms of opportunities for their work and income. We plan for a lot of challenges and a lot of crises for artists, but never at this scale, where it’s all at once and so total.

Laura Zabel
Laura Zabel
On the other hand, a lot of the systems we built that artists needed in other times, we were able to put into practice. We had some infrastructure and systems to work from that a lot of other cities and states don’t have for their creative community. We’ve been working super hard to support artists here in Minnesota, and we’re sharing ideas and systems with other states and regions.

So it feels like utterly new territory, and we feel like this is our purpose.

MP: Can you give us some examples?

LZ: We always run an Emergency Relief Fund. Typically, artists use it when they’ve had a health care emergency, or there’s been some kind of natural disaster, or fire, or theft. On that Thursday, March 12, when everything here in Minnesota started crashing down, we were able to say “OK, let’s find another $10,000 from our budget, put it in there and tell artists they can apply to the Emergency Relief Fund to cover some portion of their income loss because of pandemic-related cancellations.” We had that system already, we didn’t have to build it, and we were able to move really quickly.

Of course, the scale is very different. We typically handle maybe one or two emergency relief fund applications a week. Right now, we have over 640 requests. That’s just artists in Minnesota. It continues to grow and grow.

We started getting calls from people all over the country, and because we have this practice of sharing what we know, we were able to put together a quick guide for how to start and run an emergency relief fund and put it out there. Three or four funds across the country are already up and running because of that. We’re happy we could provide them with a little bit of a head start.

MP: You have a staff of 17. Are you equipped to handle the number of requests you’re getting?

LZ: A phrase I’ve been using lately is, “Our values were built for this moment. Our accounting system is not.” At this point, more than half the staff is working on the Emergency Response Fund. Everyone at Springboard is a practicing artist, so we’re really motivated to help our creative community.

Our biggest need in terms of that program right now is money. You can do the math on 640 people who can each request $500. That’s $320,000 in requests. We’re raising money through our GiveMN page. We’ve already raised about $64,000 from individuals and organizations, which is incredible. And we’re talking to a number of foundations about helping this urgent emergency need.

We’ve been able to get to more than 320 of those requests and get money out the door for people. We’re working our way through the list while we’re trying to raise money at the same time. It’s very much a building-the-plane-while-we’re-flying-it situation. 

MP: What else is Springboard doing at this moment?

LZ: We’re trying to build out the list of resources on our website. We know that a lot of folks outside Minnesota look at Springboard for resources. We’re working on career and business support for artists that we can deliver virtually. We have a roster of more than 20 artists who are available to provide one-on-one coaching and other kinds of technical assistance.

We’re also building out some online Q&As and workshops. We just did a Q&A on Friday with some lawyers so people could ask questions around unemployment and other legal issues related to their business in this moment.

So we’re trying to first get people the emergency stopgap help they need so they can pay rent in April and put food on their table. Then we’re trying to help artists think about what comes next for their business, handle this moment for their business, protect themselves and think about any kind of planning or backup plans they can put in place.

And then we’re going to start to focus on what comes next, and what artists need going forward. This [crisis] has illuminated just how fragile the ecosystem for individual artists and the livelihood for individual artists is in this country. This is a moment when we need to reckon with that.

It’s also exacerbating existing systemic marginalization, so we know that artists of color, indigenous and native artists, artists in rural places, artists with disabilities, artists from the LBGTQIA+ population are going to be hit harder. They already have fewer safety nets, and they already deal with systemic discrimination that is baked into our systems. So we need to reckon with that in this moment, and reckon with how we value the people that produce our culture and help us make meaning, and who we’re going to need after this to help us repair and rebuild.

We’re working in this kind of emergency place right now, and that’s our priority, but we’re also already trying to think about what we can propose that will help support this community in a more robust way and rises to the level of value that I think we’re all learning we have for artists and culture makers.

MP: What is your biggest concern right now about artists in Minnesota? What gnaws at you most?

LZ: I spent the weekend reading all the [Emergency Relief Fund] applications. Not because I’m evaluating them, I just wanted to see what data was in them. I felt compelled to bear witness to these stories. They’re heartbreaking. The sheer number of artists who in a day went essentially to income zero for the foreseeable future is pretty terrifying. People are genuinely worried about how to pay rent and how to feed their families.

Work of Art: Pricing workshop with Adia Morris Swanger.
Photo by Bruce Silcox
Work of Art: Pricing workshop with Adia Morris Swanger.
There’s a second layer of heartbreak in those stories, about the amount of work and creativity that was lost, and opportunities that were lost. People were set up to play roles they’ve dreamed about their whole lives. Or they were going on tour for the first time, or releasing their first album, or they lost huge public art commissions. I have this strong desire to make sure that artists know we see them in that way, too.

MP: What are some things we as individuals can do to support artists in Minnesota?

LZ: Keep your radar out. Stay connected to the artists you love. I’m not surprised, but I am in awe of how creative artists can be. It doesn’t take very long for artists to move from heartbreak into “How do I put my creativity to this moment?”

Artists are already figuring out how to be in your home and how to share their work in new ways. So pay attention and support those artists. Watch them, witness their work, let that be a balm and a thing that connects us. Then pay them. Figure out how to Venmo them, how to PayPal them, how to buy work from artists who are frantically setting up online shops through Etsy or other places.

If there’s one thing everyone is doing right now, it’s consuming culture. People are watching Netflix, they’re streaming content, they’re watching people sing on Facebook. If there ever was a moment that illustrated how much we need creative makers and culture producers, it’s now, and I think we need to reckon with how we value them. We don’t have a system in this country that values them, so we’re going to need to do it individually. Open our wallets and put some money in their pockets right now.

MP: What can artists do to help themselves?

LZ: Artists are made for challenge. The skills we have as artists are useful in moments like this. They help us see the opportunity in the challenge, find new ways of working and persist through a lot of adversity. I have every confidence that artists will figure out how to make this moment different and more useful and more creative. But I also want artists to feel permission to grieve this moment, to not feel they have to immediately move to what’s next. There’s been a tremendous loss, and that deserves some grief.

MP: Do you see foundations shifting to address this crisis? Can artists expect some help from that quarter?

LZ: I sure hope so. I think maybe this will be a kind of wakeup call for a lot of folks, just about how important individual artists are in this landscape. I think we can expect really great support and creative thinking from our foundations here in Minnesota. They are definitely paying attention and working really hard and trying to be more flexible, useful and responsive. I feel optimistic that the philanthropic community here is strong and will show up for us again.

***

Resources mentioned in this interview:

Personal Emergency Relief Fund

Emergency Relief Fund GiveMN page

Coronavirus Resources page

Quick Guide to Starting an Emergency Relief Fund

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