A Summer at PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection

Art on the front line

By: Julianne Schmidt (2L)

Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), 1913. Credit: Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection, Art Institute of Chicago
Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons), 1913. Credit: Arthur Jerome Eddy Memorial Collection, Art Institute of Chicago.

By the summer of 1940, while the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York was preparing an exhibition showcasing new acquisitions by young American painters and sculptors, many artists across the Atlantic were scrambling to save themselves and their families—along with their life’s work. Some chose not to relocate from war-torn Europe, accepting the risk to their life and the potential destruction of their allegedly “degenerate” modern art. 

It was at this critical moment that Margaret Scolari Barr, wife of MoMA’s first director Alfred Barr, began coordinating museum efforts to assist at-risk artists. Working in collaboration with Peggy Guggenheim, Varian Fry of the Emergency Rescue Committee (now the International Rescue Committee), and many others, Barr drafted visa paperwork, letters of reference, and affidavits of financial support and moral and political sponsorship for refugee artists. Under her leadership, the MoMA helped successfully relocate over 40 artists and cultural professionals, including Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Jacques Lipchitz, and Teresa Żarnowerówna. 

The Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) has come to fill a void left following Margaret Barr and the wartime NYC arts community’s informal support network. Established as a specialized team within PEN America in 2017, ARC is dedicated to safeguarding freedom of artistic expression, a fundamental right recognized jointly under Articles 19 and 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In the past five years, ARC has helped hundreds of artists by facilitating applications for emergency funding, legal aid, temporary relocation programs, and artist residencies and fellowships. I was fortunate to become a part of this team as an International Human Rights Program (IHRP) fellow at ARC this summer. 

Over the course of three months, my casework placed me in dialogue with artists from all corners of the globe, including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Iran, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Syria. Their practice areas ranged from documentary filmmaking, poetry, and music to the performing arts, painting, and satirical cartoons. Many artists contacted ARC due to recent political shifts that have placed creatives under assault, such as the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan and the Ukraine war. Others reached out after facing repeated persecution and censorship of their work throughout their careers. 

A key part of ARC’s work has been administering its Emergency and Resilience Funds for Ukrainian Visual Artists, funded by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. First launched in April, the grant assists artists affected by the war in Ukraine by providing funds to cover basic living expenses and work-related costs arising from planned artistic projects and cultural exchange programs. This international commitment to Ukraine’s contemporary art scene comes as Minister of Culture Oleksandr Tkachenko draws attention to Russia’s systematic targeting of Ukraine’s cultural heritage. Russian troops have looted at least 40 museums since February. UNESCO has recorded damage to over 200 cultural sites, including churches, libraries, museums, and monuments. 

Near the end of my fellowship, on August 12, 2022, Salman Rushdie was stabbed onstage during a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Members of PEN America’s team were present at the event. Though the motive behind the attack remains unconfirmed, the targeting of Rushdie, coming decades after the 1989 fatwa issued against him for The Satanic Verses, reinforces the critical work that PEN America, ARC, and their international network engage in daily. 

Artists stand at the forefront of human rights advocacy. Maxym Vehera pitched his easel in front of the barricades in Kyiv during the Maidan Revolution. Masood Hussain documented protests in Srinagar through reliefs reconstructing trails of shoes after a deadly stampede. The IHRP fellowship gave me an invaluable opportunity to connect directly with artists working parallel to Hussain and Vehera—learning about their backgrounds, the many influences on their artistic disciplines, and their lifetimes of advocacy—while engaging in work that has a direct impact on their lives. I encourage everyone interested to seek out an organization or cause important to them and consider applying