Metro Chicago Theater expressing support for the Save Our Stages Act in its marquee (photo © Joshua Mellin via Flickr)

Following months of strained negotiations, the US Congress has passed a $908 billion coronavirus relief package meant to boost the nation’s pandemic-stricken economy. The stimulus deal includes $600 payments to most Americans, enhanced federal unemployment benefits, Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for businesses, and money for vaccine distribution, among other provisions.

In a significant win for the hard-hit arts sector, the deal allocates $15 billion in funding for live music venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions by incorporating the Save our Stages Act, introduced in both houses of Congress this summer following a campaign by the National Independent Venue Association.

“These venues are so important to my state and so many other states across the country. They are the lifeblood of our communities. They were the first to close and will be the last to open. This bill gives them a fighting chance,” said Senator Chuck Schumer on the Congress floor this weekend.

Also included in the relief package are provisions to create Smithsonian museums dedicated to American women and Latinx history, after separate bills for the two museums were blocked by Republicans on the Senate floor earlier this month. Sponsors of the bills had sent lawmakers letters requesting that the legislation be included in any year-end deal; the museums now have the green light from Congress.

In addition to the $900 billion economic relief deal, a $1.4 trillion appropriations package for the coming fiscal year includes a $2 million increase for the Office of Museum Services at IMLS for a total budget of $40.5 million, and $5.25 million increases each for the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), for total budgets of $167.5 million each.

The CARES Act, passed in March, provided a $200 million infusion to the arts through direct aid to government agencies in charge of distributing grants to individual organizations: a respective $75 million for the NEA and NEH; $50 million for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS); and $25 million for the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

This time around, legislation appears to primarily target the performing arts, though not exclusively. The Save our Stages Act authorizes the Small Business Administration (SBA) to establish a grant program for “live venue operators,” such as theater producers or music venue owners.

Museums are also eligible for awards, so long as they have at least one auditorium, theater, or performance or lecture hall “with fixed audience seating and regular programming.” All grantees must have fewer than 500 full-time employees and not be publicly traded companies, and the first two weeks’ applications will prioritize venues that have been hit with 90% losses.

The American Alliance of Museums said the year-end deal secured “major victories” for museums, and expressed gratitude to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who ensured museums were included in the live venue legislation.

The relief bill will also expand PPP loan eligibility for nonprofit organizations and news outlets, some of which did not qualify in the first round of loans this year because they were part of larger companies. The language has also been revised to ensure that churches and faith-based organizations are eligible for loans.

Earlier this year, museums, galleries, and other arts institutions — including some of the industry’s wealthiest businesses, like David Zwirner Gallery, Gagosian Gallery, Hauser & Wirth, Artnet, and Pace — received tens of millions in PPP funding. But as the National Independent Venue Association notes, PPP loans are inadequate to help organizations that find themselves in financially dire situations, such as those that have been forced to shutter.

“We need help to cover fixed overhead to pay rent, mortgages, utilities, taxes and insurance until we can all fully reopen safely,” the group says on its website.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...