Two Local Organizations Help Artists Stay Afloat During the Pandemic

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A.yoni Jeffries received an artists relief fund
Photo by Beth Mann

James Gray was teaching an acting class at Hillside High School when Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency on March 10. “I thought it was only going to be two weeks,” James says, “and then the world went into uproar.” 

The months that followed generated fear and anxiety for James, an actor and writer, and for thousands of other local artists unemployed today. A.yoni Jeffries, a musician and songwriter, also remembers that first week clearly. “All my gigs had been canceled,” she says, “and when I say all, I mean everything.” 

To counteract the lost gigs, exhibits and concerts, including events scheduled months in advance, Heather Cook of NorthStar Church of the Arts launched the Durham Artist Relief Fund on March 12 with the help of arts advocacy group Art Ain’t Innocent and Kym Register, owner of The Pinhook, a Readers’ Favorite venue for live music. The GoFundMe was designed to raise money for local creators and arts presenters impacted by cancellations due to COVID-19 to somewhat offset the massive revenue loss for hundreds of artists.

“When the late Phil Freelon and his wife, Nnenna Freelon, first envisioned the idea of what NorthStar could be, they were clear that they wanted it to be a space that ensured that Durham’s vibrant, creative energies would be sustained well into the future,” Heather says. “… as the waves of cancellations began, and we prepared to close the doors to NorthStar’s physical space on Geer Street, it became clear to me that we could continue [that vision] by creating a support system for Durham artists …”

On March 20, the Durham Arts Council also set up its own Arts Recovery Fund and began accepting applications for cash grants on April 6. “It’s important for people to think about the arts and think about the environment and spaces that the arts operate in,” says Sherry DeVries, DAC’s executive director. “Those are going to be some of the last to reopen. Even when it may seem like the economy is reopening to some extent, these artists and performance venues’ recovery is going to be further down the road.”

A.yoni Jeffries received an artists relief fund
All of A.yoni Jeffries’ upcoming gigs were canceled in early March. The musician and songwriter, who releases a new album this month, was one of dozens of artists and arts organizations supported by the Durham Arts Council’s Arts Recovery Fund. Photo by Beth Mann

Durham’s arts scene is like no other, contributing significantly to the spirit of our city and also to our economy. According to a 2015 study by Americans for the Arts, the nearly 6,000 artists in Durham generate roughly $154 million in annual revenue for the city. “Those numbers have gone up (since 2015),” Sherry says. “But obviously with the pandemic, those numbers are going to take a dip for a while. That’s something most people don’t realize: What an important economic sector the arts are for Durham and across the state.”

In the four-and-a-half months since NorthStar launched its fund, it exceeded its initial $100,000 goal. As of June 26, $80,450 was distributed to 247 local artists, with priority given to BIPOC artists, transgender and nonbinary artists, and disabled artists. The Durham Arts Council raised $74,157 as of Aug. 18. While local donors have made an impact, DAC also saw strong support from its corporate partners, including PNC Foundation, NC Arts Council, Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, Triangle Community Foundation, Manbites Dog Theater Fund, Fox Family Foundation and Duke University.

“We distribute 100% of the funds as fast as the money comes in,” Sherry says. As of Aug. 13, $64,700 in arts recovery grants aided 65 individual artists and 32 arts organizations and businesses, including Empower Dance Studio (one of our 2020 Readers’ Favorite dance studios), Liberty Arts and Sonic Pie Productions. (DAC will issue the next wave of grants in August and will continue fundraising and making additional grants this fall.)

A.yoni and James are two recipients of DAC’s fund, and both emphasized that the work they produce is their livelihood – they can’t see themselves in any other industry.

“When you’re so into one field for almost a decade or more, and when you’re trying to apply for another job, people look at you crazy,” James says. “The fund definitely helps. That’s pretty much all you have, besides your savings and the support of other people.”

“There [are] no other spaces that I rely on to support myself other than my artistry and Handewa Farms, [my family’s Afro-Indigenous-led farming co-op operating in Rougemont],” A.yoni, who releases a new album, “Potential Gon Pay,” on Aug. 1, adds. “I remember being very stressed out. I wasn’t sad, because there were so many of us who were going through the same thing. … I did feel like, ‘OK, there’s more than just me right now being affected by this.’

“But when [DAC] reached out, I felt like a weight had been lifted because I knew I could pay my bills,” she continues. “And I knew that I was able to take care of myself, at least for a couple of days.” 


  • The DAC Arts Recovery Fund will raise money through the end of 2020. Donate at
  • Applications for Durham Artists Relief Fund remain open to Durham-based artists; available funds will continue to be distributed on a rolling basis for as long as resources last. Contributions can be made directly at
  • “Like us on Facebook,” James says. “Like us on social media. That’s a really big one.” And simply, “Reach out to artists … and ask them what they might need.”

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Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is the assistant editor at Durham Magazine. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, she attended UNC-Chapel Hill and double majored in broadcast journalism and German.

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