A couple of days after Hurricane Sandy slammed New York City, Caron Atlas, director of the nonprofit Arts & Democracy Project, got a call from a nearby neighborhood city council member, Brad Lander. The two had worked together as community organizers; now Lander wondered if Atlas could arrange cultural programming for some 500 special-needs evacuees—mainly elderly and people with physical and mental disabilities—who were taking shelter in Brooklyn’s Park Slope Armory. Anxious to help, Atlas agreed right away.

At first, Atlas says, she simply suggested some arts programming, but the shelter coordinators responded that “if I wanted to do that, I needed to create the infrastructure for all of the programs.” So she and her artist collaborators created what they termed a “wellness center” in the gigantic armory that offered religious services, AA meetings, scores of musical performances, film screenings, a knitting circle, arts and writing workshops—and simple conversation and friendship.

The experience helped spark a desire in her to create an ongoing infrastructure run by artists and cultural organizers—her working title for it is the Arts and Wellness Relief and Recovery Corps—that could set up similar wellness centers in any emergency shelter in the city when disaster strikes.

The Corps is only an idea so far, but Atlas and her Arts & Democracy colleagues have been in contact with other artist-activists in disaster-ravaged places including northern Japan, New Orleans, and the Australian state of Queensland, which was hit by major flooding in 2011 and again in January. They’re learning about similar efforts, past and present, that use the arts to help restore people’s equilibrium after a disaster, to knit ravaged communities together—and to examine social problems that are laid bare when normal civic functions go haywire.

Artists as “First Responders”

One common theme among such projects is the overwhelming willingness of artists to help after a disaster. “When we set up the wellness center,” says Atlas, “there were more artists showing up to help than we could accommodate. It was like booking a festival; we had four or five performances a day, and people dropped off art supplies too, and led workshops.”

This was no isolated instance. Yasuyo Kudo, an artist and designer who heads the Tokyo-based Art and Society Research Center, recalls that in the first few weeks after the March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan, visual artists, actors, musicians, photographers, and other creative people flocked to the disaster area.

“While the ‘real world’ relief work was progressing,” she says, “other relief work using the Internet was launched. In the month after the earthquake, many websites were built by artists and art-related people, asking for donations to help the victims, and exchanging information among the artists involved in relief work in the area. These activities emerged everywhere in Japan very quickly and spontaneously.”