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How One Non-Profit Uplifts Queer Artists

From bars and dance communities to digital connections, creating space to celebrate queer identity has been a defining part of LGBTQIA+ history. In a pandemic that changed what it means to gather, queer entrepreneurs and creatives rose to the challenge and innovated new ways — and new spaces — to build community.

Founded in 2009 to support queer artists who lost mentors to the AIDS crisis, non-profit Queer | Art has grown into a broad support network for queer creatives. Executive Director Travis Chamberlain recently talked with Squarespace about how the pandemic pivoted both the approach and outcomes of Queer | Art’s work, how digital connection has actually created wider access to their services, and why mentorship and activism are foundational to uplifting queer people across generations.

Squarespace: How has your mission evolved over time?

Travis Chamberlain: The founding principal still holds true: we still live with the loss of Mentors who would be with us were it not for the years of governmental neglect and shame that impacted those who would be revered elders in our community were they still alive today. Our mission also seeks to address the broad lack of institutional support for LGBTQ+ artists that continues to keep our voices marginalized and our capacity for greater success a rarefied pursuit. Furthermore, due in part to the AIDS crisis and the internalized shame and fear that it has borne out, there remains a generational divide that has kept us isolated from one another within our age groups, and has produced insidious stigmatization around aging as queer people. One way we can work against that divide is by bringing generations of artists together through a model of mentorship.

SQSP: What role does community play in your work? Has that role shifted in the pandemic?

TC: In the last year, our mission as an explicitly community-centered organization has taken on a deeper focus. It now reaches beyond frameworks of creative and professional development to include holistic support for artists that takes into account their full lives and well-being. This has resulted in the development of a Mutual Aid initiative, which includes, among other things, the Queer|Art|Mentorship Giving Circle, a funding program that distributes grants of $200 in biweekly allotments to artists in our community who express a need for additional support to ensure their basic needs (such as food, medicine, and rent) are covered. We have so far distributed more than $10,000 through this program since the start of the pandemic, and have every intention of continuing it indefinitely. It has been very moving to see some artists who benefited from this program when they were in need come back once they landed on their feet to pay it forward to the Giving Circle with donations of their own.

We have also worked in collaboration with our Mentorship community to develop programs, and to consider how we can respond effectively to events that affect our community on a national and international level. Through Town Hall events, we bring artists together to offer feedback on our ideas for how we can more effectively support them. Last year, following the murder of George Floyd, we convened a Town Hall to workshop a draft of a public statement, which resulted in our Call to Action and Accountability covering various commitments that will further center Black artists within our mission and ongoing program development. This approach has built a deeper trust among our constituents and helped us become a more valued support for them.

SQSP: You offer a range of resources through your website — from mentorship opportunities and grants for artists to your donation-based Giving Circle. How have you scaled your offerings as your platform has grown?

TC: We are ambitious, no doubt about it! To manage scaling up or down, we have developed an administrative structure with two branches: Programs & Operations and Development. In addition to our staff, we have a team of consultants who help us manage seasonal programs like grants and awards, and development associates who work remotely as consultants and provide additional temporary and ongoing support as needed. 

Recently, we have facilitating professional development workshops for artists, and invited many who were recommended by our panelists to participate in our Queer|Art|Pride Book & Print Fair, where 100% of the proceeds directly benefit participating artists.

SQSP: What role has your online presence played in the growth of your giveback work? 

TC: We love our website. It’s bold, colorful, versatile, and easy to navigate and update. Our landing page uses a carousel to spotlight recent news items and upcoming deadlines. We work with artists, so we are fortunate to have a bounty of vibrant visuals to populate our pages. Our banner images catch your attention, and our headlines draw you in for the click through. Squarespace has been a fantastic platform for making it possible for us to continue scaling up while keeping the core thrust of our work and the unifying structure of our programs legible. 

We also have a very active social media presence, especially on Instagram. We take great care to make our posts both celebratory (for the many achievements of the artists we support), thoughtful (recognizing losses in our wider LGBTQ+ community, including the overlooked histories and legacies of queer cultural production), and critical (taking a bold stance to amplify the sentiments of artists and activists whose work aligns with our values and commitments). We also place a premium on good design, and are blessed to be working with very talented and passionate queer folks in this regard. All of these things work together to keep our constituents engaged and our artists excited about their participation in our community. 

SQSP: In the years ahead, how do you see Queer Art continuing to support LGBTQ+ artists?

TC: Our goal with Queer|Art has always been to be a national organization, connecting artists and allies from coast to coast and everywhere in between. We have been careful to grow into our national ambitions in tandem with being able to provide better support for our current community of artists. We are just now at the very beginning of taking our first steps towards making all of our programs truly national in scope, and this is, in part, the result of how our work changed due to Covid.

During the pandemic, our work, like everyone else's, had to transition online, which we took to quickly and have found to be very effective for us. Running our Mentorship program virtually has improved access for many and helped increase attendance at our monthly Fellows’ meetings. It has allowed people to tune in from out of town when traveling for work without missing a beat. This has inspired us to expand our Mentorship program for the first time in its 12-year history to include Mentors from around the country and open up applications beyond New York City to artists throughout the United States. We are excited to see how this next Mentorship cycle goes and hope that we will be able to leverage this expansion to find additional support in other cities that will help continue to bolster our capacities to support artists locally and facilitate further community exchange among artists across the country. We’ve learned a lot in the last year — about how to be present with each other and hold each other in good care, even when separated by vast physical distances.  

Please visit us at www.queer-art.org and learn more about how you can get involved with our work to connect and empower generations of LGBTQ+ artists.

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