Contra-Tiempo, a Los Angeles-based Activist Dance Theater company that was awarded a grant from the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture (image courtesy Contra-Tiempo and LA County Department of Arts and Culture)

LOS ANGELES — In November, the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture announced that it is awarding $12 million in CARES Act relief grants to 337 local arts nonprofits. The awards range from $1,000 to $45,000 with the intention that the funds will be used to cover pandemic-related losses incurred between March 1 and December 31 of this year. 217 applicants received the maximum amount.

Although there have been important sources of relief funding from federal, county, and local sources for small businesses, the arts community was in need of a dedicated source of funding, said Kristin Sakoda, the director of the Department of Arts and Culture.

“The entire arts ecosystem has been hit so hard, but at that point we hadn’t seen significant relief grants for the nonprofit sector,” she told Hyperallergic. “It’s a huge part of LA’s creative infrastructure, and we knew we needed to support them. This was extremely meaningful.”

To extend the reach of the relief grants, Sakoda says they partnered with municipal arts agencies in the cities of Los Angeles, Pasadena, West Hollywood, Culver City, Santa Clarita, Santa Monica, and Long Beach. These partnerships were especially important because a large pool of federal coronavirus relief funds, totaling $150 billion, is only available for cities with populations greater than 500,000. 

The department also allocated grants with an equity lens in mind, giving priority to organizations with budgets of under $15 million. “These organizations are really crunched, and have less access to funding,” Sakoda said. “We made sure that 95% of the grants went to micro, small, and mid-size nonprofits.”

Grantees include the Women’s Center for Creative Work, Los Angeles Nomadic Division, LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, LAXART, Pieter Performance Space, and a wide range of visual and performing arts organizations throughout the county. 

Nonprofits often count on annual benefits or galas to make up a large portion of their budgets, an opportunity that was lost this year, at least in person. 

“We rely on our annual benefit,” said Robert Crouch, executive and artistic director of Fulcrum Arts, which acts as a fiscal sponsor for other nonprofits, in addition to creating its own programming. “For various reasons, it was incredibly challenging to think we could pivot to an online event.” Crouch said he estimated their benefit, which was supposed to be held in the fall, would have raised about $50,000.

Fulcrum received the maximum amount from the county, which allowed the organization to cover operating expenses like payroll. “This funding not only fills gaps for lost revenue, but has allowed me to invest further into staff,” Crouch told Hyperallergic, “to pick up the slack and move the organization forward.”

Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) also had to cancel its annual gala in May, which it’s held for the past 40 years, though a virtual event in September did help make up some of the difference.

“It did really well, but not the same as we would have with a big party,” Sarah Russin, the executive director of LACE, told Hyperallergic. She says last year’s gala raised $150,000, while this year’s online benefit art auction raised closer to $100,000.

The county grant helped LACE cover payroll and rent — operating expenses that most grants don’t cover, since they’re often earmarked for specific programming. LACE was also able to give something back, as a participant in the Warhol Foundation’s regranting program, through which it gave 51 local artists grants of $1,500 each.

Other organizations had to make up for different budget shortfalls. Santa Monica’s 18th street Arts Center normally hosts residencies for up to three dozen artists a year, who travel from all over the country and beyond. 

Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, many artists from other countries were prohibited from coming to the US, while some domestic artists have chosen not to travel. “Since March, we’ve had to cancel 90% of our visiting artists,” 18th Street’s Executive Director Jan Williamson told Hyperallergic.

“Our business model as a residency center is rooted in contracts with different governments and organizations,” she said, adding that these grants are contingent on the artist residencies. When those were halted, those sources of revenue stopped as well. “We haven’t had the precipitous drop-off as other organizations that are ticket-based or individual donor-based,” she noted.

One of those organizations is Coaxial, a multi-disciplinary media arts organization that used to hold 150 events a year in its storefront just south of downtown Los Angeles. “We made an average of $3-4000 a month on shows,” Coaxial’s Co-Founder and Director Eva Aguila told Hyperallergic. “All of that stopped and on top of that, we were supposed to have a fundraiser in March that got cancelled.” 

They’ve since moved programming online, which has required new expenditures, but they don’t charge for that content. Instead of splitting ticket sales with the artists, they now offer them an honorarium up-front, which will be covered by the grant. Although their space is off limits to the public, Aguila says they’re reluctant to leave it. “We’ve invested so much money in that space,” she said, including a recent remodeling of the bathroom for ADA compliance.

“I thought we were gonna close down three or four times this year. This saved us,” she said, noting that another grant from the Getty was also instrumental in keeping them afloat.

Throughout the pandemic, arts programming has ground to a halt or shifted to online venues that may not have adequate revenue streams. Relief grants earmarked strictly for operating expenses allow these nonprofits to weather the storm, so that they continue to provide artistic programming that is integral to the region’s cultural life.

“The grant allowed us to focus on work and not worry about how to make operating costs each month,” Fulcrum’s Crouch said. “That’s the biggest gift, the ability to continue to work.”

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.