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Sonoma County artists struggle to get by amid coronavirus pandemic

For Gloria Rubio-Verduzco, a jewelry maker from Santa Rosa, spring is supposed to mark the start of her busiest season as a working artist. It’s when she can count on selling her wares at the many craft fairs and festivals that normally pop up in the Bay Area through the summer.

But now that the coronavirus pandemic has wiped out those events, Rubio-Verduzco, like many artists in Sonoma County, is scrambling to pay bills and help support her family.

“It’s really hard to be a working artist during regular times, much less when a pandemic hits,” she said.

Before the countywide shutdown of all but essential businesses went into effect in mid-March, Rubio-Verduzco, 34, also relied on a rotation of side gigs, such as her part-time job as a social media and event manager for Santa Rosa Salsa, a company that puts on Latin dances. With most of that work dried up, she’s filed for unemployment benefits.

“A lot of artists I know survive off of many jobs ... and there is no way of knowing when and if those avenues will return,” she said.

According to a survey of 10,000 artists from across the country by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts, nearly two-thirds of those surveyed said they are now unemployed. Kristen Madsen, director of the nonprofit Creative Sonoma, said the situation is equally dire in Sonoma County, where it has become increasingly difficult to make a living as a working artist, performer or musician.

“The housing and affordability issues that existed pre-COVID-19 will be now even greater for individual artists and arts organizations,” she said.

Event cancellations and shrinking donations to arts nonprofits in the wake of the pandemic has devastated much of the local creative community, Madsen said. Still, she’s hopeful the crisis could eventually trigger a new wave of investment in the arts once civic institutions are able to rebuild.

In the meantime, Creative Sonoma is helping local artists find emergency grants available through regional and national organizations. The group, along with Community Foundation Sonoma County, also has launched its own fund for local arts and arts education organizations, providing 20 to 30 different groups in the county with up to $10,000 each.

Rubio-Verduzco has received two small relief grants out of the eight or so to which she has applied.

To keep earning an income while at home with her newborn daughter Evaluna, Rubio-Verduzco is finding new ways to share and sell her work online, including by holding online sales on Facebook and Instagram.

She has had some success selling on social media, but it’s not nearly as effective as connecting with buyers in person.

“People aren’t buying art because it’s not essential, it’s not a necessity,” she said. “So communicating to the community that the arts are still important, that’s been difficult.”

Sandra Novia, 58, an arts teacher from Cloverdale, also has had to learn how to take advantage of online tools. She finished the school year at Old Adobe Elementary Charter School in Petaluma by teaching her classes on Zoom. She was surprised by how smoothly the lessons went but is looking forward to eventually getting back in the classroom.

“It’s so important to a have a presence with kids to feel the energy of what’s happening in the room,” she said.

When the school year ended, Novia was expecting to continue teaching at various youth and adult art programs, including at Sonoma State University and the Cloverdale Arts Alliance. Those are now on hold, and Novia has applied for unemployment. She’s unsure of when she’ll be able to start teaching again.

“It’s taken me 20 years to get this engine all greased and running, and now it’s just, ‘oh my gosh,’?” she said.

In recent months, Todd Barricklow, 50, a ceramics, metal work and block print artist in Santa Rosa, has continued working as an assistant to local installation artist Ned Kahn on his ongoing public projects. That’s helped Barricklow manage his family’s expenses and stay up to date with his home mortgage payments, and allowed him to finish three new sculptures. The trick now is finding a way to sell them.

“Nobody buys the stuff when it sits in my yard,” he said. “Having eyeballs to look at it is the best way.”

His wife, an arts administrator who has lost significant work because of the pandemic, has suggested doing private showings at their home or setting up appointments by video, which Barricklow plans to start soon.

Rubio-Verduzco said she too expects to continue coming up with novel ways to sell her jewelry as large gatherings appear out of the question for the foreseeable future.

“Even when things open up, it’s hard to imagine being inside an event hall for a holiday craft fair,” she said. “We all have to pivot.”

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