Rep. Joe Courtney, the Democrat representing Connecticut’s second congressional district, joined the Shoreline Arts Alliance on Friday for a virtual roundtable discussion of federal pandemic relief for the arts.
Courtney shared that the initial pandemic relief from the federal government last year was just a general infusion into the economy in an attempt to mitigate a financial crisis. However, by the end of 2020, he said lawmakers had a much better sense of which industries were going to be hardest hit by the virus, and knew that the arts industry needed particular assistance.
This inspired the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, administered by the Small Business Administration, which includes more than $16 billion in grants to venues that have had to close their doors as a result of the pandemic. Venues can apply for grants equal to 45 percent of their 2019 revenue, up to $10 million, and can use funds for rent, payroll, utilities, debt, taxes, and other administrative costs.
“The Shuttered Venues Program is an important and crucial next step in bringing the arts community back to life in Connecticut and throughout the country,” said Eric Dillner, CEO of Shoreline Arts Alliance. “This funding demonstrates and recognizes that the arts are vital to all of our communities, our economy, and the mental well-being of our citizenry.”
The program opened for applicants Thursday, but the portal had to be suspended due to technical issues and no applications have been processed. Courtney apologized for the technical delay, saying he knows how hard it is to be so “tantalizingly close but not quite there.”
“I’ve been around a few rodeos in terms of new government programs,” Courtney said, referencing the GI Bill in the aftermath of September 11. “The VA system opened its computer and it completely crashed. In some ways, it was a validation of the policy, because it showed that there was a pent up demand for the GI Bill, and it just took a little while before the VA was able to stabilize its system and process those applications.”
Technical issues aside, arts leaders shared their gratitude for the federal government’s assistance throughout the pandemic.
“The arts, culture, and historical preservation have made extraordinary pivots in what they normally do and are finding innovative solutions,” said Kathleen Maher of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport. “We thank the US government and all of our leaders for helping us navigate these very challenging waters.”
Many leaders of arts organizations shared the challenges they experienced pivoting their businesses at the beginning of the pandemic, though also noted the new opportunities that have come from exploring new formats.
“A year ago, we didn’t even know what Zoom was, and now we’re doing Zoom productions,” said Jennifer Eifrig of the nonprofit Judy Dworin Performance Project. “We reinvented literally 30 years of operations in just a few short weeks, and we’ve discovered great new opportunities that we couldn’t have imagined.”
Steve Van Ness, owner of Impact Arts Events Group, said transitioning to virtual events often required skill sets that arts organizations did not have.
“When COVID hit, I lost all the events I was doing, so I pivoted and started doing virtual events,” said Steve Van Ness, owner of Impact Arts Events Group, who also began leading sessions for other events professionals about how to broadcast events online. “What we heard over and over again was, we want to present art, but we don’t understand the technology, we don’t have the equipment or the resources or the staff to produce and broadcast events.”
Van Ness asked Courtney about funding for arts organizations to produce virtual and hybrid events, particularly over the next year or two as events transition “back to normal.” Van Ness said that art organizations he works with lack the technical know-how and context for broadcasting art online, a skill that will remain necessary and can be an opportunity for growth even as theaters reopen.
“One of the silver linings in COVID is that arts organizations presenting in a broadcast or virtual way can now present their art to the world instead of just in the theater to two or three hundred people,” Van Ness said. “It allows artists to broadcast and create events to, say, another arts organization in California if they want to come and watch it and be able to market to them.”
In response to Van Ness, Courtney said that while he was not aware of specific federal grants for that purpose, funding for states could certainly be leveraged to support technical training for arts organizations.
“Connecticut is getting a rather substantial amount of funds as a result of the American Rescue Plan, and if you look at the parameters of what Governor Lamont and the legislature are going to have, it’s pretty flexible,” Courtney said. “I don’t know exactly what the governor’s plans are, but frankly, their baseline budget, knock on wood, has not been as drastically impacted as other states, and so these new dollars coming in through the American Rescue Plan, which is in the billions…there’s going to be opportunities there.”