Since its creation back in 1965, the National Endowment for the Arts has provided grants worth a total of about $5 billion. A new federal program to support arts venues called Save Our Stages will give out $15 billion.
“It’s great that the federal government has finally recognized the economic power of arts in this country,” says Michael Seman, an arts management professor at Colorado State University.
Venues can apply for the grants, which will be distributed by the Small Business Administration, beginning next week. The program was created as part of the $908 billion stimulus package passed by Congress in December.
Few sectors of the economy have been hit as hard during the pandemic as the arts. In a normal year, arts and culture represent about $900 billion worth of economic activity — more than airlines, which have received roughly five times as much federal aid over the past year.
The arts economy is far more dispersed than airlines — or just about any other sector, for that matter.
Cities of all sizes normally rely on arts events to attract people who spend money on parking, restaurants and other amenities. Pre-pandemic, the average patron spent more than $30 on top of any admission price when attending a cultural event, according to Americans for the Arts, an advocacy and research group. Rural areas have their companies, also, with many profiting from hosting festivals.
Culture vultures can name favorite jazz clubs or theater companies that have shut down over the past year. An Americans for the Arts survey of nonprofits found that 11 percent are not confident of their own survival, while 66 percent expect severe financial losses. Collectively, they’ve lost roughly $15 billion in expected revenue.
Despite the scary numbers, however, arts organizations have been able to fare better than most people would have predicted at this point last year, especially had they known they would mostly be shuttered for a full year. They’ve cut back on staff, put productions on hold and moved many offerings online.
“There was this big sense of doom and dread and apocalypse that was happening last spring,” says Douglas Noonan, a public policy professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who studies cultural economics. “If we take stock now, we’re in a much better position than expected.”
Arts presenters, like other small businesses, have been able to take advantage of refundable Paycheck Protection Program loans and other largesse from the federal government. It hasn’t always been a smooth process and there are still lots of unanswered questions about applying for Save Our Stages grants.
“I’ve seen some shocking numbers about arts organizations, particularly minority-led, that have not received anything and don’t expect to receive anything,” Noonan says. “If we look forward and they weren’t getting bailout money, they’d fold or get jobs at Amazon.”
But there’s a renewed sense of optimism among presenters, says Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theaters. PPP loans have been “lifesavers” for many companies, she says, and people are now getting their application materials in order for Save Our Stages money. Beyond that, the acceleration in vaccinations has producers hopeful about possibly reopening. (According to theater company surveys, the overlap between theatergoers and adults willing to be vaccinated is near-total.)
Some companies are ready to go with productions that were put on hold a year ago, Clapp says, while others are already announcing their fall seasons. A lot of companies are still holding back, however, not wanting to announce dates until they’re sure they can open. “The general wisdom is we won’t sell subscriptions until we’re sure we’ll do the shows,” Clapp says. “It’s very difficult to keep asking people to buy tickets and then asking them to donate the value back.”
Presenters know they’ll face a changed landscape. Allowable seating capacity will vary by jurisdiction. Some share of patrons will remain cautious and not want to sit inside among hundreds of strangers.
Perhaps the biggest change will be the move online. Live performances were among the last fields to be disrupted by the Internet, resisting change and experimentation for years. This past year, resistance has been futile. Everything has moved online — not just live shows, but pottery sales and just about every other cultural pursuit you can imagine.
That means the theater company in Smalltown, USA, now has to compete with presenters located in New York or London. That may be a continuing issue. If you’re watching a virtual performance, it doesn’t really matter whether the company is located down the street or across an ocean.
Companies will desperately try to dial back the clock to 2019, but some pandemic-induced habits will remain. Those will account for a growing share of the arts marketplace, Noonan predicts.
“There will still be people watching theater online and even more in 2023 and 2024 than in 2022,” he says. “That’s going to be the dominant story for the next decade.”
But online theatrical productions, while attracting new audiences to sometimes tiny regional companies, have not been big moneymakers. For those in the business of making theater, Clapp says, the first priority will always be the live experience.
There’s certainly reason to believe that many arts patrons, having been performance-deprived for a full year now, will not just be ready but hungry to return. Venues that have opened with limited seating have found there’s more demand than they can accommodate.
“The floodgates are going to be open,” says Seman, the Colorado State professor. “Once we figure out how we can open up efficiently and safely and have live events, we’re going to see the roaring 2020s.”