Why Arts Organizations Need to Prepare for Disasters Before They Happen

Jennifer Cole, Metro Nashville Arts Commission
a hurricane-devastated construction site

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina hit in late August 2005. Photo by Susan Dodds.

On Friday, April 30, 2010, it started raining. Most Nashvillians rented a movie, grabbed a pizza and stayed in for the night. The next day, I remarked to my husband that the rain was “getting a little Biblical.” Within two hours I received a call that changed my life. The Deputy Mayor summoned me to the Emergency Command Center to help manage the city’s coordination and flood response. There, I managed the coordination of all non-emergency human services from sheltering to food distribution to donations to volunteers.

I did not leave that post for nearly six months.

I had been on the job at Metro Arts for just four months. Luckily, my previous non-arts career had included disaster coordination—just enough to be helpful in a city overwhelmed by water. By May 2, the region had absorbed more than 17 inches of water, one of the largest rain events ever recorded in America. More than 11 individuals lost their lives and more than 10,000 properties were damaged. 

We sustained millions in damage to the Nashville Symphony, the Country Music Hall of Fame & Museum, and dozens of smaller artist studios, galleries, and community arts organizations. Hundreds of musicians and touring acts lost their equipment and costumes when SoundCheck Nashville was completely flooded. 

Within a matter of moments, I went from arts administrator to co-managing the Office of Disaster Recovery. Years later, I still get twitchy when it rains for more than a few hours.

What I learned on the ground during the response and working with the community after the flood changed my perspective on not only preparedness, but the vital role of community connections and resilience that lives past the crisis. The role of arts organizations and artists in the overall ecology of communities is changing and disaster planning gives us a good opportunity to explore readiness, recovery, and most importantly long-range social dynamics that strengthen communities regardless of the momentary challenge.

Artists and Cultural Organizations Must Be Proactive in Readiness

Disasters come in all shapes and sizes—fires, hurricanes, economic downturns, droughts, virus outbreaks, terrorism. We can’t predict how long the impact will be felt but we can do much to be ready.

Study Up!

Artists don’t bat an eye at a Meisner master class or a glass-blowing workshop. Why then, do we run fast from anything with emergency or disaster in the title? Both FEMA and Red Cross offers a variety of online tools and workshops for citizens  from active shooter to natural disaster readiness.

Protect Your Assets.

The most important thing arts organizations have is their people and the most important thing artists have is their body of work. When was the last time your organization documented its archives, photographed what is in storage, or simply reviewed your insurance? If you don’t have adequate documentation of your assets, you will be unable to file any federal or local disaster assistance claims.

Craft Artist Emergency Response Fund offers a low-cost Studio Protector program that walks artists through step-by-step how to prepare themselves and protect their assets. Although it is geared toward artists the activities can be scaled for nonprofit arts organizations. 

Don’t forget business interruption insurance. If you are a larger organization and payment of your workforce depends on your ability to perform, this is critical. The Nashville Symphony retained $42 million dollars in damage to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center and was unable to fulfill many of its contracts for the venue for more than nine months. Had they not been properly insured, the impact to the agency would have been more catastrophic than the flood damage.

Get a Plan!

This seems like a no brainer, but we creatives like to create. As a sector, we would be well-served to make disaster and continuity of operations planning a standard practice just like planning a season or fundraiser. Luckily South Arts has designed a customizable web platform that leads arts organizations through a step-by-step process on creating and finalizing a COOP (Continuity of Operations) plan. 

These are all vital steps that creative individuals and agencies should undertake so that they are better able to “weather the storm” of an disaster, but I have come to believe that the most important action artists and cultural leaders can do is to be a connected and visible part of their larger communities.

Artists and Cultural Organizations Must Be Part of Community Resiliency

Disasters stretch the limits of community systems. Communities that recover best are not necessarily those that have the most post-disaster funding, but those that have invested in social fabric, inter-connectedness, physical and emotional infrastructure, and those that have woven bonds between sectors and between citizens. The Rockefeller Foundation has led cutting-edge investments through its 100 Resilient Cities project to help explore and define the characteristics of communities that are resilient to urban tumult.

Rockefeller has found that collaboration across neighborhoods and networks that address Leadership and Strategy, Health and Wellbeing, Economy and Society and Infrastructure and Environment result in communities that are simply able to bounce back faster, stronger, and better.

Artists and cultural leaders have a tendency to hover in their own universe, disconnected from congregations, social service providers, even government agencies (beyond funders). Our challenge as a sector is not to wait for a crisis but to reimagine arts organizations, artists, public art, and civic artistic practices as part of the resiliency system of a larger community.

In other words, our challenge isn’t to think, what will we do in a disaster, but how are we part of community sustainability right now?

How can my organization be leveraged not only as a performance venue but as as a shelter, a dispensary, a greenhouse?

How can our work on cultural equity or arts policy support larger community discussions that give agency and voice to those left out not only of the arts but out of many areas of community power?

How can our public art program facilitate the development of sustainable food, water, or shelter systems?

How can my artistic practice connect residents across age and culture so we can surface our community assets and gaps?

A FEMA official told me, during our flood response, that they use an algorithm to predict how long a community will be “down” after a disaster. One year for every day noted on the federal declaration document. This notion frames communities as broken and dependent. I reject this notion of community.  That is not how I see my city. I believe that communities are dynamic and interwoven and I believe that artists and cultural organizations have the power to forge new social bonds, community collaborations, and civic cultural practices that reimagine resilience and elasticity for any future challenge.  

Here are some additional resources to consider:

Public Art and Preparedness: Lessons from Katrina (Springboard for the Arts) 

Public Art (National League of Cities Sustainable Cities Institute)