By the time Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms issued her March 23 mandate for Atlantans to shelter in place because of Covid-19, the executive director of her Office of Cultural Affairs had been managing a staff of 25 part- and full-timers from home for 10 days. Equally prescient in anticipating the collateral damage a citywide quarantine would have on artists and arts organizations, Camille Russell Love found herself advocating for them in uncharted waters.
ArtsATL profiled Love in 2018 as part of a Legacy Series about Atlanta’s arts leaders and caught up with her by phone at her Midtown high-rise last week. She talked about her office’s playbook in a time of closures, cancellations and staff reductions from the perpsective of someone who’s been on the job for more than 20 years. She also talked about silver linings and the healing power of art.
ArtsATL: How are you coping with the new normal?
Camille Russell Love: I’m not going to call this a new normal because there’s nothing normal about it. But we have to be optimistic and productive despite the unfortunate circumstances.
ArtsATL: What does it take to manage your team from a remote location?
Russell Love: It takes a lot of additional effort to get the work done because we’re not in the office where our resources are. My days are spent communicating with staffers via teleconferences, phone calls, text and email. I typically have a meeting with my managers at 10 every Monday morning to talk about the issues at hand and work on solutions. And on the first Wednesday of every month, I have a meeting with the entire staff.
ArtsATL: What is the state of affairs on Atlanta’s arts and culture landscape?
Russell Love: This is a scary time for employees and artists who’ve had to cancel performances, exhibitions and revenue-generating activities for themselves. Spring classes at the Chastain Arts Center — where we have four employees and 20 part-time artist instructors — started the week social distancing was mandated. Once we had to postpone classes, staffers expressed concern that they wouldn’t get paid for classes they were scheduled to teach.
ArtsATL: Has the problem been resolved?
Russell Love: Yes. We assured them that as valued city employees, they would be paid. We’ve done the same for arts organizations and individual artists we support through grant programs by accelerating their final installments so they won’t have to wait until June or July to receive funding.
ArtsATL: How many artists and arts organizations will benefit from that accelerated schedule?
Russell Love: We have about 80 contracts for arts services from institutions [including Moving in the Spirit, the Breman Museum, Atlanta Ballet and the Alliance Theatre] and nearly 30 independent artists [commissioned to design mural bike racks, civil rights sculptures, the Adamsville Gateway Project and projects for the interior and exterior of the police precinct building in Zone 3].
ArtsATL: I won’t ask if you have a favorite project, but do you want to single one out for an honorable mention?
Russell Love: A project I am proud of is the restoration of the Folk Art Park [at Ralph McGill Boulevard and Courtland Avenue]. The park opened prior to the ’96 Summer Olympics and pays homage to the South’s deep folk art traditions, but over time the installations succumbed to weather damage.
ArtsATL: How would you characterize City Hall’s response to the fallout from the coronavirus?
Russell Love: Recently, essential staff [police, fire, sanitation, water and parks & recreation department workers] were awarded a $500 monthly increase to compensate them for hazard pay. And City Hall has made working-from-home work for nonessential staff like mine. My priority was to get funding to grantees sooner than later, and we got clearance to move forward quickly.
ArtsATL: Is there a resource in place to guide artists seeking relief, whether or not they have a contract with your office?
Russell Love: We publish a monthly newsletter where we compile information from local and national funders offering resources to assist artists. The newsletter is voluminous under ordinary circumstances, but we’ve added advisories from the Centers for Disease Control and Georgia Department of Health in response to the coronavirus. There are also updates on local theater closings, virtual-resources streaming for audiences confined to their homes and grassroots efforts established to aid out-of-work artists.
ArtsATL: Do you see a silver lining to the chaos?
Russell Love: This experience has created a reason for people to be part of real communities — to let go of the silos and figure out ways to be helpful to one another. People are being cooperative and collaborative.
ArtsATL: Responsible leadership is essential to maintain a sense of normalcy and security, and to execute a solid game plan in the best of times. But this pandemic is unprecedented. What are you doing to cultivate a sense of optimism at the Office of Cultural Affairs?
Russell Love: You can approach life looking at the downside of things or you can approach life looking at the upside. This is inconvenient, it’s going to be hard for people because we are going to lose loved ones. But we have to deal with it. If your stance is “woe is me,” you won’t come up with any solutions to the problem. But if you approach it from a point of view of “Let’s see how we can move forward,” then you will figure out how to move forward.
ArtsATL: Two years ago, you allowed ArtsATL to film you at home, where you are surrounded by paintings, sculpture, photography, books and dolls. How has that environment inspired you as you run the Office of Cultural Affairs from home?
Russell Love: I have an extensive library of novels and dolls from around the world that coexist with one another. I have sat in that room and imagined where the dolls came from, imagined them having conversations with each other and wondered what it might be like if they were back home. I’ve let my imagination take over and focus in a way I never did before. If I get bored after-hours, I just go in there and pull something off the shelf. I’ve been working harder than ever for the past three weeks but spending time isolated in a space that I love has been a joy.
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