How to Protect the Artist Refugee

April 27, 2022   •   By Sarah Kornfeld, Cate Riegner

WHEN REFUGEES FLEE from countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, it also signifies the eclipse of culture. Over 82 million people are currently displaced by war worldwide, and among them are artist refugees, whose work is to uphold a nation’s traditions. In cases of cultural genocide, artist refugees are integral to teaching children about their homelands and keeping the flame of memory alive. Recognizing this, UNICEF is currently funding and implementing programs within refugee camps, through which artist refugees teach and create art as a means of healing and cultural sustenance.

We suggest two additional forms of immediate support:

First, working artists who are fleeing war should be afforded a level of protection similar to that of cultural monuments. In moments of crisis, the intrinsic value of artists is equal to the monuments and cultural artifacts they create. This request is complex: artist refugees are not more important than non-artist refugees; more infrastructure for more bureaucratic systems would not be helpful to anyone; and when it comes to distributing funds to artists in a world riddled with fraud, this adds another route for scammers. Yet, given these realities, it is crucial to consider that the United Nations named 2021 the International Year of Creative Economy for Sustainable Development (a $2.2 trillion economy). We must step back to value both this economy and, more critically, the artists and creators driving it.

Asking arts advocacy organizations to carry the burden alone is not sustainable, though their work is admirable. Artists at Risk Connection, for example, is a project of PEN America, an organization that intersects literature and human rights and connects over 600 organizations that offer emergency funds, legal assistance, relocation, and fellowships for artists who face oppression, persecution, arrest, and violence for their creative work. Such organizations are on the ground in Eastern Europe today, actively saving Ukrainian artists’ lives. But governments worldwide should adopt best practices from such organizations, rather than relying on them.

Since its inception in 1945, UNESCO has supported treaties and legal protection for monuments, art, and, recently, cultural diversity. Seven World Heritage Sites protected by the World Monuments Fund are in Ukraine. (As of 2021, there are 1,154 monuments across 167 countries.) Director-General Audrey Azoulay recently stated, “We must safeguard this cultural heritage, as a testimony of the past but also as a vector of peace for the future.”

This isn’t UNESCO’s first experience in war; they partnered with the European Union on a €10 million project to protect the heritage of Yemen. We believe they should reframe cultural heritage funding to put artists to work as representatives of their fractured countries. This call to action for wider protection can also be integrated into the plans for rebuilding nations following war. By valuing artists at the same level as monuments, they are recognized as integral to cultural renewal and the hard work it takes to breathe life back into cultures that have faced death.

Second, patronage technologies like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) and platforms like Patreon can be used to directly support artists in refuge. Western Europeans and Americans are booking Ukrainian homes on Airbnb with no intention of visiting in order to support the families who rent them out. Such online philanthropy should likewise be extended to Ukrainian artists and journalists.

Technology is not the eternal solution, but emerging patronage sites have become a lifeline to many artists. The Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot teamed up with Trippy Labs and PleasrDAO to create Ukraine DAO, which recently raised $7.1 million through its NFTs to support Ukraine. This was achieved by people pooling resources and bidding collectively for group ownership in a Decentralized Autonomous Organization — an expression of democracy and transparency.

Pussy Riot tweeted: “Revolution could not be achieved with conventional currencies, there are too many ways for traditional funds to be intercepted by traditional institutions, governments, other factions with intent to control, harm, or simply shift funds without transparency.” DAOs and NFTs can be legitimate currencies for supporting artists. Our hope is that the Pussy Riot initiative will help reframe the use of NFTs from merely Sotheby’s sale of cool digital images for millions to a constructive vehicle for refugees.

The Kyiv Independent offers another viable example. The newspaper is almost entirely self-funded thanks to a Patreon account and a GoFundMe campaign that raised €1.2 million from over 23,500 donors. We envision a partnership between the technologists at the forefront of these new patronage platforms and arts advocacy organization worldwide.

Tech companies themselves have the resources of whole nations. Their brand promise — that they are empowering artists and creators through their creator platforms — dictates that they take a passionate stand on behalf of artists. Most have lobbyists who should be working with governments around the world to make artist refugees a top priority. They can do this by bringing artists and creators onto their platforms without onboarding fees, supporting them in networking, and providing tools for those who are new to patronage platforms and individual fundraising.

Remarkable bursts of creativity can emerge from war. The mass migration of artists from Central and Eastern Europe in the 1930s–1940s brought some of the most exciting moments in 20th-century creative history. Hollywood exploded with directors, writers, and actors from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Poland, and Ukraine. Painters found refuge in the burgeoning modernist movement with Peggy Guggenheim, who arranged visas for escape and later bought up all the art she could to provide a platform for artists in New York. Poets and writers found themselves in new countries, acting as representatives of their nations and the antifascist movement. Art saved lives and gave many a reason to keep living.

It is a moral mandate that we aid those who carry on cultural memory. Finding a desk for a writer, a studio for a painter, or a stage for an actor or dancer can save a creative life. We must grasp this moment to create and sustain new patterns of economic support for artists. If we choose to do so and move to value artists’ role in carrying legacies forward, we will choose life over war.


Sarah Kornfeld is an American author and international arts consultant. Kornfeld explores themes of love, trauma, and exile in artists and families in fiction, non-fiction, and cultural research. Together, Riegner and Kornfeld are currently working on a book about the realities for artists and new economies, They Call Me Resilient: How Artists Can Change The World If We Don’t Screw Them Over.

Cate Riegner is a technology market analyst and founder of, a non-profit bridging the arts, health, and sustainability; she also trained as a dancer at the School of American Ballet in New York City. Together, Riegner and Kornfeld are currently working on a book about the realities for artists and new economies, They Call Me Resilient: How Artists Can Change The World If We Don’t Screw Them Over.