In an Unpredictable World, Rigidity Holds Us Back

Miss Rona began shaking the world before we even knew what she was up to.

Scientists apparently knew about COVID-19 well before this pandemic hit, but the virus seemed to descend upon us with unprecedented suddenness. I didn’t understand the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic until my flight home from Chicago in the first week of March. I’d planned to go to a conference in San Antonio, but because of the outbreak there I redirected to visit some friends. As I boarded the plane back to Philly, I looked around and realized each passenger had an entire row to themselves on a Friday afternoon flight. 

At BAFF, I’d spend February updating the application to reflect lessons learned in previous years. We had just finished collecting this year’s applications and were working to assemble volunteer readers, who would also facilitate between BAFF and applicants during the second stage of the application process. 

By mid-March, though, we realized that the application process was not appropriate for the moment at hand. Art organizations of all sizes were suddenly forced to reevaluate finances and operations in unprecedented ways; small Black art organizations were among the most severely impacted. BAFF’s mission to support Black art workers is incompatible with a traditionally bureaucratic grant process during times of extreme change and strain on all Black art community members, and especially art administrators who invest in Black art. 

For this reason, the decision was made to pivot and create an emergency/relief grant in place of BAFF’s third cycle of grants. The new application aimed simply to get money into the hands of Black art administrators as efficiently and fairly as possible.. We prioritized previous finalists, who would have been awarded a grant in previous years if BAFF had the financial means. We also prioritized Black art organizations with less regional access to philanthropic resources, such as rural organizations. And all organizations received the requested amount, except in cases when other foundations were able to support, so that more organizations could receive emergency funding overall.

By remaining practical and flexible in the face of the pandemic, we were able to respond to the immediate needs of the Black art community in a completely new situation, helping Black art organizations sustain themselves and put their people first (starting with administrators and other key staff.) In this rapidly changing socio-economic climate, it’s become clear that no one can prepare for tomorrow. We must remain responsive to circumstances while also grounded in our values. In doing so, we are facilitating mutual cultural investment in the Black art world in order to ensure its sustainability.

 —Noor Ibn Najam, BAFF Spring 2020 Grant Cycle Coordinator