It was the summer of 2002, and Daisy Voigt lay dying. The journalist-cum-art-collector, who for years served as the eye of the hurricane for a swirling group of Washington painters, writers, musicians, and actors, had a malignant brain tumor.

Her artist friends, whose pockets generally weren’t brimming with money, wondered what they could do. “She suddenly had to stop working, which meant there was no income,” says printmaker Lou Stovall. Voigt had a part-time caretaker; soon, though, she would need somebody in her house all day.

Larry Frazier, a lawyer who’s been active in the city’s arts scene for more than 20 years, had an idea. During a recent trip to Atlanta’s National Black Arts Festival, he had met an old college roommate, Marvin Kelly, who described a national fund he’d helped create for artists with medical problems. Frazier decided to appropriate the framework for Kelly’s Artists Support Project, then paying the medical bills of cancer-stricken Atlanta ceramist Attiya Melton, to build a similar local fund for Voigt.

“We started the fund basically to benefit Daisy solely, although we earmarked a small portion of it for [Melton],” explains Frazier. He tapped artist Sam Gilliam to design a print that collectors could buy to support Voigt. Gilliam created an abstract painting using crumpled, tie-dyed nylon bags as a model, brushing fingerlike extensions across the canvas to symbolize Voigt’s influence in the community.

Frazier then went to Stovall, who agreed to print a silkscreen edition of Gilliam’s design in his Cleveland Park studio. But before Stovall cut the first couple of color screens, Voigt’s health took a turn for the worse. “We all thought she was going to last a while,” Stovall says—but Voigt died Nov. 12.

Several people, however, had already donated thousands of dollars to cover Stovall’s printing expenses. So Frazier got another idea. “I realized Daisy doesn’t need this money [anymore],” he recalls. “I saw that we had a project with a tail, the tail being this fundraiser [the Artists Support Project] was doing. So now we had the tail wagging the dog.”

Stovall finished 130 prints, sold 14 for $500 to $750 each, and put aside the profits for Voigt’s memorial service. The Art Lives Fund, D.C.’s first grass-roots insurance program for artists and their supporters, had helped its first client.

“One thing that’s a problem in the arts is that, next to having a desire, you’re setting up yourself for failure,” says Gilliam, sitting in his airy studio in Shaw.

Gilliam, 69, is one of the few self-employed local artists who can be said to be living comfortably: He’s nationally recognized and hardly short on work. Gilliam chalks up his good living partially to toil: “Every artist knows that the way you allay the problems that are down the road is that you work.”

To the eye, at least, Gilliam is fit as a fiddle. And he has health insurance to cover any unforeseen medical problems. In this respect, too, Gilliam is unlike many in his field. According to Adam Forest, executive director of Fractured Atlas, a New York-based nonprofit that provides health insurance for independent artists on a national level, there are approximately 480,000 uninsured artists now working in the United States.

“Artists have a terrible time getting health insurance,” says Ned Farrar, membership administrator of the Cultural Alliance of Greater Washington. The alliance, according to Farrar, is the only organization in town providing group coverage for self-employed artists. For this service it charges an annual membership fee of $77, plus monthly premiums.

Independent artists face two obstacles to obtaining health insurance, says Farrar. “The first huge hurdle is underwriting,” he says. “If you don’t have a perfect health record, companies can exclude you.” Farrar says he’s heard horror stories of artists who have been denied individual coverage because of severe acne.

The second hurdle, he says, is cost: “The steady increase in health-care costs—which has just been frightening—has had an immediate result on our organization.” Whereas the Cultural Alliance was able to give self-employed artists individual health-insurance coverage for $197 a month in 1998, the cheapest comparable policy it provides today runs $480 a month. After Kaiser Permanente stopped providing the organization with coverage for independent artists this past May—a plan which had cost $327 a month—the Alliance’s individual-artist membership plummeted from 420 to 31.

Like others without health insurance, artists facing a severe ailment must often drop their work to beat the bushes for other sources of income—after all, the art market is hardly predictable. “If you have a serious illness, you put [your art] off,” says Gilliam, “because you have to pay your light bill or your rent, or you need money to buy your liquor.”

Uninsured artists in such a predicament have few institutions to turn to for help. They can solicit grants from charitable foundations such as Robert Rauschenberg’s Change Inc. Or they can take out loans from groups such as the New York Artists Equity Association or the Craft Emergency Relief Fund, which also offers discounted craft supplies to artists in crisis.

Or, if Frazier, Stovall, and Gilliam get their way, those artists who live in Washington can solicit the Art Lives Fund, which will work a little differently. Though its guidelines are still fairly loose, the project aims to use sales of works by established artists to support those in trouble.

When the fund hears about a local artist who’s in the throes of some medical crisis, Stovall and a well-known artist will jointly produce a print series. Then, using word of mouth to champion their cause, they’ll sell the prints to collectors and dealers, dumping the proceeds into Art Lives. Once the fund is stocked, they’ll cut a check to give to the invalid. “The idea,” says Stovall, “is to invite various artists to make the prints so that we can encourage buyers to create a collection.”

The concept of culling support from a network of peers is an old one in the arts world. But the organizers of Art Lives credit Kelly with formalizing the process. Kelly says his Artists Support Project is supposed to harness the collective energy of the nation’s African-American artists. “It’s a fairly extensive network that’s never been formally organized,” he says. “We do have the resources to bring to bear in crisis situations—it’s just a matter of galvanizing that potential.”

Before 2002, Kelly, a leather craftsman and D.C. expat now living in North Carolina, was involved in many auctions and similar fundraisers for artists in ill health. But after a particularly large number of people contributed to Melton’s benefit, he became convinced that an organized, legally sanctioned fund was the way to go. “It’s just the idea that, if there’s an artist in need, you have some scripted ways to help out,” he says. “It’s not just scratching your head or calling to get $100 from somewhere.”

The Artists Support Project has since auctioned off artworks to support Eugene Foney, an artists’ agent who recovered from prostate cancer last winter. Art Lives, now a Delaware-based corporation awaiting tax-exempt status, has so far worked only with Voigt. With approximately $7,000 in the fund so far, its board members—Frazier, Stovall, Gilliam, and lawyer Laura Wertheimer—have yet to hammer out exactly whom Art Lives will support. Or how much support it might be able to offer.

“It’s basically for artists or their families who have health issues, mainly in terms of those who have terminal [illnesses],” says Frazier. Still, he says the fund will probably not be used to sustain anybody: “It’s for emergency, temporary things….Maybe it would be to help bury somebody.”

On its first run, Stovall says, the plan worked smoothly, successfully mixing good will and market forces. The project’s effectiveness over time, though, is waiting to be determined.

“There’s no question that the program has a lot of appeal on an emotional level, and that kind of impact is quite leverageable from a fundraising standpoint,” says Forest. “I’m sure they’ll be able to do a lot of good for a handful of recipients. But by working only with people who are already experiencing sky-high medical bills, there’s got to be a fairly modest limit to the number of people the program can help.”

“We’re hoping,” says Stovall, “that we don’t get a flood of artists saying, ‘We need a Band-Aid.’” CP