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How Small Arts Nonprofits in the US Are Responding to the Existential Threat of COVID-19

Across the country, arts organizations seeking relief funding from city agencies find their businesses ignored or poorly considered by local and national plans for recovery.

Music Director Andrey Boreyko and the Naples Philharmonic in Hayes Hall (photo courtesy Artis-Naples)

On March 12th, Patrick Neal and his wife headed out to work. Both play in the Naples Philharmonic, and arrived that evening dressed to perform at the concert hall. It was empty. To contain the spread of the coronavirus, the concert had been cancelled so quickly that no one had time to contact the orchestra.

No one can predict the duration of the crisis — but with no nationalized infrastructure to support artists, the initial response amounted to a frantic, disconnected, and inefficient effort to stem the losses. Witness the circulation of artist resource lists in various states of completion, websites and google spreadsheets filled with artists soliciting donations, and uncoordinated, crowdsourced fundraisers duplicating efforts and even competing with each other.

There’s never been enough money to build an arts infrastructure that supports artists. Federal funding for the arts falls far short of the need. This crisis changed nothing.

On March 27th, Trump signed a relief bill allocating $300 million to cultural organizations. This trickles down to institutions before making its way to artists. Compare this to the $4.5 billion in immediate losses in the arts and culture sector reported by Americans for the Arts.

Other countries are more realistic. Germany rolled out a €50 billion aid package for artists and cultural businesses. That’s $56 billion in our dollars.

In a statement released on March 27th, Robert L. Lynch, Americans for the Arts President and CEO noted. “It isn’t enough to keep many small-and medium-sized arts organizations afloat when their audiences can’t reach them, and their doors will likely have been shuttered for weeks and even months.” Congress’s inclusion of the cultural sector in provisions for paid leave, the unemployment expansion, and the Small Business Administration emergency disaster loan won’t be enough to make up the funding gap.

 

Erin McCue is a woodworker from Portland, Maine, who received a 2019 “Get Ready” grant from CERF+ to purchase a new filtration system for her studio (photo by Katie Arnold, courtesy CERF+)

“Based on the almost 11,000 organizations that have reported, median [losses] are  about $34,000  per organization, due to closures, cancellations, and rescheduling.”  Ruby Lopez Harper, Senior Director of Local Arts Advancement at Americans for the Arts told Hyperallergic. “That’s not recoverable.”

The dire circumstances make fundraising difficult. Donors need to feel that their support makes a difference and respond best to uplifting messages. “No [funder] wants to sign on to a rain cloud.” says Liv Moe, describing the necessity of picturing good health while fundraising, even when weathering extreme financial hardship. Moe is the executive director of Verge Center for the Arts, a contemporary art center and residency program based in Sacramento California. “But there’s also moments where you get frustrated because you want to be able to draw attention to these situations.”

Moe, like many Hyperallergic spoke with, cited a disconnect with city leadership — Sacramento offers up to $25,000 loans to small businesses, but didn’t produce an application form that accounted for a non-profit structure. The loan is not enough to cover the shortfall, and it was unclear if Verge even  qualified.

A week after chatting with Hyperallergic, Moe followed up with the bad news. They didn’t get the grant. “It doesn’t sound like many, if any, non-profits made the cut,” she said. “The city received  20,000 applications and only [had] a million dollars to distribute.” The center received an emergency grant from one of the local funders, though, and reports regional funding opportunities beginning to materialize in fits and starts. The structural issues remain though. Moe cited frustration with funders who see partnerships as a panacea for all problems. “I don’t need a partner to help me make friends. What we need is funding.”

Still, Moe might be among the lucky. Her residency program does not rely on admissions for income. Theatre and performance sectors have been decimated. Due to its small size, its funding gap amounts to about $150,000 — not millions.

From this perspective, the volunteer organizations are perhaps the best positioned to weather the crisis. They can hibernate. “I’ve never been so thankful to be so small.” Kate Van Steenhuyse of Harvester Arts in Wichita told Hyperallergic. Founded in 2014, the organization has no paid employees. “We have the flexibility to put our programming on hold right now. Even once this is past — I don’t know how long it will take to recover. It could take much longer.”

She went on to say, “We have to be mindful of where we put our energy. We don’t have a sexy plan” Rather, Harvester will wait until they have a better sense of what’s needed and what they can accomplish. “For now, I think the smartest thing we can do is be supportive and spread information, but that’s about all.”

While volunteer organizations may buy time this way, individuals can’t.

“In this country we don’t have national infrastructure that supports individual artists the way that would be effective in a crisis.” said Laura Zabel. “That said, every disaster is local,” noted Cerf+ Executive Director Cornelia Carey.

Michael Puryear is a furniture maker from Shokan, New York, who received emergency assistance from CERF+ in 2009 after he was injured in his studio (photo courtesy CERF+)

Zabel leads Springboard for the Arts, an arts organization based in Minnesota dedicated to building community and economic opportunities for artists, runs a pre-existing emergency micro-grant program. The fund, which normally sees about two to four applications a month — $10,000 a year through the program, received 887 applications in March and distributed $192,000. Their current goal is to raise and distribute $400,000. Cerf+, an organization that focuses on safeguarding artists’ livelihoods nationwide reported even higher numbers, receiving between 80 and 100 applications a day. They will be launching a focused campaign once the funds raised early on by other organizations have been spent.

Harper says individuals will most acutely feel the effects of COVID-19. “Organizations are able to cut expenses, and cut workforce,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s the individuals that are affected.”

The flood of funding applications supports this statement, as does the data. According to a new report produced by Mid-America Arts Alliance, a regional arts organization that serves Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, 81.5% of nearly 2000 artists surveyed have lost income, 37% have lost between three to five gigs and only 22% say they do not need any support right now.

Screen Shot of Mid-America Arts Alliance COVID-19 Artist Impact Survey report (page 11) (image by the author)
Screen Shot of Mid-America Arts Alliance COVID-19 Artist Impact Survey report (page 13) (image by the author)

After April the situation will worsen. “The majority of artists will need some kind of financial support in the next three months.” Todd Stein, Executive Director of Mid-America Arts Alliance told Hyperallergic.

In response, the Andy Warhol Foundation announced  they will commit one year of its $1.6 million regranting budget to emergency relief funds for its 16 regional partners. These include Albuquerque, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Houston, Kansas City, Miami, Minneapolis, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Portland (OR), Portland (ME), San Francisco, St Louis, and Washington DC.

Translated, this means individual artists in those regions can apply for grants in the $1000 range. 516 Arts in Albuquerque, NM announced the launch of 60 new emergency grants the same day Warhol reallocated its regranting budget.

Screen Shot of Mid-America Arts Alliance COVID-19 Artist Impact Survey report (page 14) (image by the author)
Screen Shot of Mid-America Arts Alliance COVID-19 Artist Impact Survey report (page 18) (image by the author)

Amy Kligman, the executive director of the Charlotte Street Foundation in Kansas City, another regranter, said she and her partners expect to announce something similar and would like to expand the awards by finding a matching partner. They’re also working on a smaller fund to support art made for virtual platforms.

“Artists are so used to functioning within the Matthew Barney ‘Drawing Restraint’” she said. Barney’s series likens art-making to an athlete’s resistance training. “They’re used to functioning in a constant state of recalibration.”

Louise Martorano, the executive director at Redline Contemporary Art Center in Denver similarly found partners — she pooled the regranting funding with city and state agencies to create the Colorado Arts Relief Fund. The grant offers up to $1000 to artists in need, which falls short of the $3,500 in immediate losses Martorano says artists are reporting. “It’s around $340,000 of funding but we need over a half million to reach the need of the current application pool.”

Martorano is not only looking for more funding, but has found opportunities to employ out-of-work artists. With the support of the Hemera Foundation, Redline contracted ten artists to make masks meeting the Denver Mask Task Force guidelines. Redline distributes the masks to local homeless shelters.

Redline Contemporary Art Center commissioned Nicole Banowetz (pictured above) and nine other artists to produce masks they distribute to homeless shelters in Denver (image courtesy Redline Contemporary Art Center)

“The generosity of their souls is why I get up in the morning,” Martorano said of artists. Artists in this program make only $10 per mask, and produce 30 a week. “We’ve already delivered 250 masks to four organizations.”

Masks by artists Nicole Banowetz and Laura Shill (image courtesy Redline Contemporary Art Center)

More signs of relief continue to emerge. Artists can now get $5,000 in unrestricted funds through the Artists Relief Fund, an effort conceived by a consortium of seven non-profits including  Academy of American Poets, Artadia, Creative Capital, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, MAP Fund, National YoungArts Foundation, and United States Artists. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation seeded $5 million in initial funding, and the consortium is continuing to raise funds.

Meanwhile, Stein, Zabel, and Carey are part of a burgeoning effort to create a more coordinated response they hope will lead to more funding opportunities. Early on, Heather Pontonio, the art program director for the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, initiated a series of teleconference calls connecting arts workers at the state, regional, and local level working to respond to COVID-19. The foundation works to expand career opportunities for artists and curators and funds small, medium, and larger arts organizations across the country. “Collectively, this whole group is trying to figure out how to get money on the ground as fast as possible,” she told Hyperallergic.

These calls are proving productive. Pontonio and administrators like her speak with infectious passion about transforming mundane chores into critical infrastructure work. Organizations that  build mailing lists and connections reach artists faster. Unified data collection efforts result in more funding and better advocacy at the city, state, and federal level. Working together is effective.

Currently, the most active conversation centers on developing a survey that details the financial losses artists are incurring. “Without having a unified lens, we can’t plan for future advocacy,” Pontonio said. “When the next pandemic comes around we don’t want to start from square one again.”

Houston, one of the few cities with an art community that has an emergency plan, finds itself well positioned to respond to COVID. After Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, Fresh Arts, a nonprofit that offers professional development services to artists, worked in collaboration with community groups, artists and the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA) to form the Harvey Arts Recovery Group, an initiative dedicated to providing the resources needed in the event of a disaster.

Reyes Ramirez, Fresh Arts (top); Carla Lyles, Carla Sue Cards (bottom left); Amber Slaughter, Artists for Artists (bottom right) (photo by Angela Carranza, courtesy Fresh Arts)

“We realized we’d be much stronger working together than everyone trying to launch independent programming.” Fresh Arts Executive Director Marci Dallas told Hyperallergic. Dallas outlined the full history of the effort, ranging from coordinated communication efforts to centralized fundraising.

I’ll tell you, it’s hard to coordinate a bunch of different people,” she said, describing splintered fundraising efforts and a deluge of emails from organizations with different messages trying to achieve the same thing. “In the long run it’s really helpful to have everyone speaking with one voice.”

Unified messaging helps artists and organizations connect with each other, an essential service in emergencies. “Seeing that there are other people in the same boat, realizing that you aren’t alone and that people care is really vital.” Dallas said, underscoring the unifying benefits of Pontonio’s conference calls.

In the Houston model, HAA maintains the website dedicated to helping arts organizations in the city navigate disaster response. Private donors funded the position of a disaster services program manager at HAA, currently held by Lauren Hainley. Her responsibilities include translating the needs of arts organizations to city politicians — a role that may prove critical during the COVID-19 crisis.

Across the country, arts organizations, and galleries seeking relief funding from city agencies find their businesses ignored or poorly considered. New Art Dealers Alliance Executive Director Heather Hubbs recently published a letter on change.org petitioning New York City to account for small galleries and arts organizations in their grant and loan programs offered by the Small Business Administration (SBA). To qualify, businesses must employ one to four employees and show a decrease of at least 25% in revenue — a problem for many art businesses that rely heavily on contract workers, and large but infrequent purchases.

Kathleen Gilrain, the executive director of Smack Mellon, a non-profit exhibition space located in DUMBO, cited fewer issues with the SBA, and described her experience navigating emergency funding after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “It was very similar,” she said. “Nobody knew where any money was going to come from.” 

Gilrain told Hyperallergic that the SBA announced a loan and grant program first. Later, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) did not initially offer relief to non-profits, the DCLA advocated on behalf of the city’s arts organizations, and secured support.

This crisis, though, proves much more dire and non-profits are already reporting the same access to funding issues that occurred with FEMA and that Moe experienced at the city level. In a report by Non-Profit Quarterly, the Paycheck Protection Program of the Cares Act, which exists to relieve COVID-19 related financial pressures on small for-profit and non-profit companies, stymied non-profit applications.

Banks were unprepared to process applications — partly because they did not receive them or the relevant guidelines until the day before, and partly due to the scale of requests. Moreover, the application questions did not fit the non-profit structure, and bank officers gave priority to large organizations. “We’ve been good customers at Chase for 15+ years,” Nancy Kleaver, Executive Director of Dancing Classrooms wrote on Facebook. “If you’re not set up to serve non-profits then say so. Don’t waste our very precious time right now.”

A new non-profit community letter lays out amendments needed for a CARES Act 2.0, but for some non-profits these efforts may come too late. Meanwhile, a new study titled Art in the Time of Coronavirus released by the Center for an Urban Future this week finds small and mid-sized arts organizations across New York City on the brink of insolvency. An email, bullet-pointed report lists losses too extensive to scan.

The Nuyorican Poets Café expects to lose almost half of its annual revenue — a loss of $302,000 — if it remains closed through July.  The Staten Island Children’s Museum projects $630,000 in lost income — nearly 30 percent of the museum’s annual operating budget. Beth Morrison Projects expects a $800,000 loss in gross income from performance and tour fees, over a quarter of its operating budget. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Even those with crisis management experience were not prepared for a crisis of this scale. “I’ll tell you what, a virus and global economic downturn was nowhere on anybody’s radar,” Dallas said of the disaster group’s planning. “Still, I think having structure is translatable and it really doesn’t feel like we’re building the ship as we go.” Ironically, the final meeting slated to finish the plan had to be cancelled due to the virus.

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