Artists Are Rallying to Donate Their Masks and Other Protective Gear to Hospitals Facing Shortages Around the US

The Mask Crusaders began as a listserv suggestion from artist Camille Henrot.

Artist Tom Beale. Photo by Eli Burakian.
Artist Tom Beale. Photo by Eli Burakian.

As the country struggles with the coronavirus crisis, artists and designers who work with plaster, wood, concrete, pigment, or other dust-generating materials may find that they are sitting on a treasure trove of vital resources: N95 respirator masks, gloves, and other protective gear that is now in high-demand at hospitals around the nation.

After hearing about the shortages in New York hospitals, Brooklyn-based sculptor Tom Beale wondered how he could get the box of N95 masks he had in his studio into the hands of healthcare workers. He found that this was not as easy as one might hope.

“It was surprisingly challenging to find an appropriate way to make a donation, despite calls in the media and from government officials for citizen donations,” Beale told Artnet News. “There is a phone number and email address listed on the New York State website for donations—I reached out there first and still, more than 24 hours later, I haven’t gotten a reply.”

Then Beale spotted a post on Instagram from painter Tauba Auerbach offering a link to an initiative specifically organizing museums and artists to donate protective gear to hospitals slammed by COVID-19. Dubbed “Mask Crusaders,” the site invites donors to list their equipment and then lets needy medical institutions lay claim to it.

The Mask Crusaders project is operational in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, but still needs managers in Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and elsewhere, according to participants.

Just fifteen minutes after Beale posted his supply of face masks and gloves to the site he received a text message from a midwife at Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn.

“She said they were almost out of surgical masks and currently have to wait hours for approval to receive an N95 mask,” he said. “If a pregnant woman had symptoms of the virus, she would have to wait hours before receiving an assessment while they waited to get approval to use a mask. She said this had happened and would continue to happen.”

By the time he arrived at the hospital, an employee told Beale that workers were down to their last mask.

“I have also heard that there is a need for non-latex gloves, which are also common in artists’ studios,” he said. “I am donating a box of these tonight as well.”

Artist Tom Beale delivering protective gear to Woodhull Hospital in New York City.

Artist Tom Beale delivering protective gear to Woodhull Hospital in New York City.

In an Instagram message, Auerbach explained that the idea for Mask Crusaders originally came from artist Camille Henrot: “She brought it up on a listserv we were both on and some folks like [artists] Jesse Hlebo and Shabd Simon-Alexander immediately started working (in collaboration with some other folks I don’t know) on a way to organize donations.”

According to the Mask Crusaders Google doc, Molly Crabapple and Dora Budor are among the dozens of other artists who have pledged or made donations. Institutions including the Whitney Museum and the Museum of Art and Design are also contributing. Auerbach says that the several N95 masks she had were claimed by hospitals “within hours.”

“N95 masks are truly like gold to healthcare workers right now,” Beale said. “They keep them from getting sick when in close contact with infected patients, and they are rationing them and doing crazy things like sanitizing them over the course of a week, which is not protocol. If the healthcare workers get exposed, they have to go in quarantine and the healthcare system is further weakened when it is already stretched to the maximum.”

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