Artists Barter for Health Care at the First O+ Festival

One community has devised a preemptive treatment for uninsured creative prosessionals: The O+; Festival -- a three-day, multi-venue festival of art and music which launches in Kingston, NY this weekend.
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America's health care system is broken. I know, I know -- it's not news. So, how do uninsured, independent, career creatives -- professional painters, graphic designers, ballerinas, indie filmmakers, studio musicians, etc. -- cope without health care? Benefit shows rally support for ailing musicians. Non-profits dole out grants to freelancers in dire debt from hospital bills. Slit-topped coffee cans sit on bodega counters, collecting change for chemotherapy treatments. Without the resources to confront health issues before they become physically -- and, so, financially -- insurmountable, uninsured artists may find themselves armed with little beyond this well-worn handful of desperate fund-raising tactics.

One community has devised a preemptive treatment for this population: The O+; Festival -- a three-day, multi-venue festival of art and music which launches in Kingston, NY this weekend. Participating artists and musicians submit intake forms along with their stage plots, because they'll be paid in health services: dental work, addiction counseling, cancer screenings, physical therapy and more, during a weekend triage clinic staffed by doctors who opt to treat artists outside the system, with case-by-case opportunities for follow-up care. O+ will also aggregate resources from organizations that already offer low-income or independent health care access, via a public health resource expo. Some artists will take part because they need the care, and some because they care about the cause. For the nearly 100 participants (Phosphorescent, Amazing Baby and Tracy Bonham among them) and festival volunteers who will have access to specialists of their request this weekend and after, it's preventative medicine.

When we -- a handful of creative types and medical professionals in and near uptown Kingston -- started brainstorming this spring about what the O+ Festival could be, we couldn't have imagined what it would become. Was it a doctor-artist imprint of the one-on-one philanthropy touted by Kickstarter and Edward Norton's Crowdrise? Or was it a self-contained barter economy wherein the currency is the art of medicine, and the medicine of art? That came down to whether artists who lack basic health services are seen as, on whole, charity cases, or as vital contributors to society making their existence outside a system that doesn't accommodate them. Obviously, art has value. Even in the economic downturn, which has brought more than a few galleries and record labels tumbling with it, society craves culture, and fosters it. And the creative process that begets it often requires months if not years of dedication and budgetary concessions. O+ provides a new option to those who've forgone health insurance to afford making and sharing their work.

Each of O+'s founding board members shares a common vision from a different perspective; we all wanted to bring national music acts and renowned artists to Kingston, and to champion local artists producing work of quality. The dentist has a simple, ardent passion for dental health. The ER doctor wants to help people in need without being bound by red tape. The painters curating O+'s wheat-paste art fair are addressing the contemporary art world's hidden influences. We've set aside political views, although, a community venturing to address one of the nation's most politicized issues in a format that excludes politicians is rather political in itself. And for me, an affliction of apocalyptic anxiety makes close to my heart any idea that eliminates the big, absent middleman from an equation where I'm on one end, and a basic human need is on the other. Survival-inspired interest in localism has resonated with me especially since reading the fiction piece "Diary of an Interesting Year" by Helen Simpson, in the New Yorker's December 2009 issue, wherein a post-apocalyptic England sees a large number of deaths of -- chaos and anarchy aside -- women who weren't informed enough to carry out a home birth. Moral: People with esoteric knowledge about the human anatomy are good to have in your corner, in your neighborhood. Just in case.

Tabling the debbie-downer discussion of governmental/economic collapse for now: Not all artists struggle to afford health insurance, and the issue obviously extends well beyond artists. But here is a grassroots approach that can help some uninsured people, one community at a time, access health assurance. Assurance knowing you have access to consultation and care when you're ailing without recourse. Assurance that Alex Chilton lacked, when despite symptoms he didn't seek medical attention until the day he died of a heart attack earlier this year. Believe it or not, plenty of doctors thrive on art and music. In the Kingston area alone, four short months brought about 40 local health care providers donating more than 120 hours of free services; how many elsewhere would leap at the opportunity to treat an artist, if given a venue to do so? While the O+; Festival certainly doesn't cure America's health care problem, it's one community's band-aid solution.

Weekend passes are available by donation. Line-up and more information at

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