Masters: CERF+

Masters: CERF+

Award of Distinction
CERF staff

Carey (with her daughter, Addie, seated in front of her) recently hosted a CERF+ staff and board retreat at her Vermont farm.

Caleb Kenna

“What are you doing here?” At a recent disaster relief conference, an employee of the Red Cross asked Cornelia Carey, longtime executive director of the Craft Emergency Relief Fund, this very question.

Carey was ready to open their eyes. Artists have a “unique role in the ecology of disasters,” she explains. They’re highly vulnerable, because of the nature of their work. (For example, many are self-employed.) But they also “contribute tremendously to recovery.” From fundraising concerts and auctions to cultural institutions reopening, “the arts are what make a community feel good – or feel like there’s hope.”

That kind of sophisticated understanding of the big picture drives the work of the Vermont-based organization, better known as CERF+. And it has clearly also helped the 31-year-old national nonprofit remain as adaptable and resilient as the artists it supports. The organization was founded in 1985. The late craft show producer Carol Sedestrom Ross and Josh Simpson (a glass artist, and today an ACC trustee) took note of the tradition of passing the hat for artists in need (who’d had a fire, perhaps, or an accident) and decided to institutionalize it. They raised $40,000 – and in 1987 the newly minted Craft Emergency Relief Fund disbursed its first grant. 

Since then, CERF+ has grown with its community – that little “+” in its name is a nod to an impressive array of work beyond emergency grants and loans. In 2009, CERF+ launched its Studio Protector, a first-of-its-kind guide to preparing for and responding to disasters. They have also invested heavily in educating artists about business insurance. (Nine-and-a-half times out of 10, Carey warns, homeowner’s insurance won’t cover what’s in the studio.) They work in policy, too; CERF+ has been leading a nationwide effort for a federal regulatory change so that self-employed people, including artists, can access an existing fund to replace work tools after a disaster.

As Carey puts it: “If we do the career-protection work really well, we’ll put our emergency-relief work out of business –which is the ultimate goal.”

The long view: Hurricane Katrina was an aha moment for the organization, Carey says. “It became very clear that no amount of money we could ever raise was going to right somebody’s life when their home and studio had been reduced to a slab.” Emergency relief assistance has an important role to play, but it isn’t enough: “We had to invest significantly in helping artists build more resilient careers.”

Wherever the need: For the past four years, CERF+ has been working with art schools and professional development consultants to create a career-protection curriculum. On the other end of the spectrum, they’ve also been adapting their work to reflect the aging of many artists – adding the idea of planning for a legacy to career protection. It’s about “looking out and understanding what the needs are and how we can be responsive,” Carey says.

A meaningful milestone: Last year, CERF+ celebrated its 30th anniversary and concluded its first major gifts campaign, which raised nearly $2 million. The endowment has allowed the organization to increase grants to $6,000 and boost no-interest loans to $9,000.

Deep roots: There are organizations like CERF+ in the fine arts world, but they’re largely funded by endowments from wealthy artists. CERF+ is an outlier – created by a community, for the community. “I think it keeps us integral to the community but also answerable to the community,” Carey says. “When an artist comes up and thanks me for the work we do, I say, really, we wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for you.”

Read more about the 2016 American Craft Council Awards and winners.