One used the money for groceries. Another invested in canvas — a luxury after months of painting on Home Depot plywood. A magician invested in better illusions. For one artist, the money was just enough to help bury a family member, a victim of the coronavirus.

All were recipients of the Emergency Gap Fund, a grant program launched by the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia to help black working artists in Philadelphia who were disproportionately impacted by shutdowns related to the coronavirus pandemic and, on average, have fewer resources and less generational wealth to fall back on.

The idea is simple: Strip away the complexities and bureaucracies of standard grant applications, and get $500 directly into the hands of those who need it most. And, in the face of the dire economic realities that are still unfolding, encourage Philadelphia’s black artists to stick to their dreams.

For YaYa Horne, 42, the pandemic swept away all plans for the year in one devastating blow. The arts festival Horne planned, Tiny Room for Elephants, was supposed to sprawl across the Delaware River waterfront venues in May, bringing together 150 visual artists and musicians. Earlier this month, Horne began drafting an email letting everyone know the festival was canceled, but couldn’t physically bring herself to send it. She had to get a friend to help.

“I’ve been driving Instacart, because I’m a single mom and I have to have something coming in,” Horne said. “I worked in corporate for years and years, kind of took this leap to do my own thing. And all that work and years of experience and I’m delivering groceries. It’s really humbling.”

In between, Horne has been applying for grants. But those mostly demand detailed information, financial statements, personal mission statements. “It can take weeks to do this,” she said. The Village gap fund grant application was just five questions.

The Village’s executive director, Aviva Kapust, is well aware that arts organizations of all sizes are feeling deep pain from canceled spring, summer and, potentially, fall seasons. She was concerned that individual artists would be left behind in the relief efforts.

“The inequities that existed before the crisis exist now still, and they are also exacerbated,” she said. “That means people — specifically black people in Philadelphia who have already historically had less access to resources — will continue to have less access.”

So, the Village raised an initial round of $40,000 to fund 80 artists, and received that many applications within five hours. Now it has close to 300 applicants — and still hopes to find funding to support everyone who qualifies.

The fund is a way to try to stop the bleeding for artists whose gigs were canceled, whose clients backed out, whose teaching jobs were called off. For those early in their careers, with little savings, the funds are keeping phone service alive, filling prescriptions, and covering rent.

For Shavon Norris, the fund is providing breathing room as she figures out her next steps.

Norris, 43, spent years working for a charter school before she “finally built up the spirit and muscle to walk away” from that security to pursue art full time in 2018. She had received an Independence Foundation Fellowship to complete her solo performance piece, inspired by her youth, Me and Jesus and Prince and Captain Jean-Luc Picard in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx.

Shavon Norris' "Me and Jesus and Prince and Captain Jean-Luc Picard in a one bedroom apartment in the Bronx," performed as a work in progress in the Leah Stein Studio Series in May 2018.
Courtesy of Shavon Norris
Shavon Norris' "Me and Jesus and Prince and Captain Jean-Luc Picard in a one bedroom apartment in the Bronx," performed as a work in progress in the Leah Stein Studio Series in May 2018.

Now, that performance won’t happen — at least not on schedule. The foundation allowed her to keep her fellowship, though. That and the $500 gift from the Village mean that she’ll at least be able to make it through the summer. Instead of retreating, she hopes she’ll be able to continue making courageous, strategic decisions.

Another grantee, Jacquan Fields, 25, spoke by phone while dyeing a dog (his flamboyant dog-grooming and styling services are keeping him afloat in the pandemic), his only remaining source of income. The coronavirus pandemic swept away his primary job, Quany the Clown — a North Philadelphia-bred performer who is clown, magician, face painter, balloon artist, and mentor to an ensemble of teenagers who have few opportunities but a zest for show business.

Though his financial outlook is grim, Fields said his biggest concern is the kids he’s been working with.

“For some of them, this is their only platform of expression," he said. “With that outlet taken away, we’re bottled up.”

So, his plan for the $500 is to give them something to look forward to. “We’re trying to save the money to get bigger illusions,” he said, for whenever it’s safe to perform again.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.