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'Come on home': Washington arts groups seek community's help in COVID comeback

The sector was devastated by the pandemic, but it could've been much worse without more than $35 million in relief money.

SEATTLE — A new report details just how significant an impact the COVID-19 pandemic had on Washington state’s arts and culture sector, which took a nearly $100 million hit in the first year alone.

The study, conducted by the nonprofit ArtsFund, found that among 121 organizations across the state, there was a $95.9 million decrease in revenue from March 2020 to March 2021, and the pandemic doesn’t seem to be letting up.

The hit, which is massive in an industry where most organizations report an annual budget below $250,000, would’ve been much bigger, with organizations reporting a loss of about $131 million in earned revenue. However, pandemic relief money, individual contributions and grants supplemented $35.7 million of that revenue.

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“We are not at the tail end of any pandemic—we are at the beginning of what we're considering a structural transformation,” said ArtsFund President and CEO Michael Greer. “Along with reimagining the role of arts and culture in our community, we need to be forward-thinking in all our relief and funding efforts so that we can reimagine this structural transformation going forward for the community.”

The hit to the industry also impacted other areas, including an additional $32.3 million drop in salaries and benefits typically paid to cultural workers and contractors, the study found.

Among the organizations surveyed, 41% furloughed staff or made reductions in hours and pay. While only 6% of these believe the furloughs or reductions are permanent, 46% changed their staffing model, the majority of which say is permanent.

The study found that many arts and cultural venues, places like the Seattle Art Museum or the Museum of Pop Culture, have been ready to return to pre-pandemic levels despite staffing changes and shortages, but uncertainty “around participants’ willingness to return” was the key challenge to reopening for the majority of venues, even those that remained open in some capacity throughout the pandemic.

That uncertainty is only getting more complicated with omicron, the latest COVID-19 variant.

“Getting people in a room together is really important and that will only be able to come a little bit here and there in waves. We were making a little bit of progress, and then we had to dial back with omicron,” said Levi Fuller, the administrative coordinator for the Jack Straw Cultural Center, located in Seattle’s University District. “So, looking into spring and summer, maybe we'll have to only do in-person events in the warm months. No one knows exactly what that will look like yet."

Jack Straw adjusted when the pandemic began like other arts organizations, going hybrid with a mixture of in-person and remote activities.

The ArtsFund study found that 81% of organizations either established or expanded remote work during the pandemic, 65% of which believe those changes are permanent.

One cultural nonprofit in King County told ArtsFund, “[We] had to leave our space suddenly because we could no longer afford rent without our earned income streams. We are now operating remotely and offering online and in-person programming across the city as we build a plan for our next home.”

Moving forward, Greer said these organizations must be central to pandemic recovery and that recovery must focus on equity.

“One of the things we've found is that none of these initiatives will work without centering equity in everything that we do,” Greer said.

One of the areas highlighted by Greer and in the impact study is improving accessibility to art and cultural programs, with about 33% reporting they had made improvements and another 22% saying they plan to.

"We have allowed more and different audiences to be a part of arts and culture, and we know that arts and culture needs to be accessible to everybody,” Greer said. “There's really no way for our industry to grow without incorporating those audiences through these new delivery methods, so by reducing barriers to entry, we are going to see more participation and voices within the sector.”

Meanwhile, organizations continue to be agile and adjust as the rollercoaster ride that is the pandemic shows no signs of stopping.

The 5th Avenue Theatre, which is in rehearsals for “Beauty and the Beast,” says it benefitted from federal and county help. State funding also allowed it to refurbish its auditorium while performances went dark. The theatre has also enhanced its air filtration system and is requiring vaccinations or proof of negative test, as well as masks, to ensure attendee safety.

"Take good care of yourself. If you feel sick, don't come, we've got a very good refund and exchange policy," said Bernie Griffin, managing director for The 5th Avenue Theatre. "Come when you feel well."

Many organizations have continued their programming with safety measures in place in response to the pandemic and have pivoted in light of its effects. Seattle JazzED's Girls Ellington Project was set to go to Las Vegas for a regional Ellington festival, but it was canceled because of COVID-19. 

Still, they didn't miss a beat- the girls said they still wanted to continue recording their music, and Education Director Kelly Clingan said they hope even more people will get involved.

"Seattle JazzED is here for our community. We're interested in collaboration, which is a part of jazz music itself," Clingan said. "Pick your horn back up, come join us and play music with friends- there are not prerequisites to many of our classes."

Kathy Hsieh, Cultural Partnerships and Grants Manager for the City of Seattle, says need remains great in the area.

"It's huge, it's so massive," Hsieh said. "The reality is arts and culture organizations, as you saw from the ArtsFund report, the revenues are way way down because a huge percentage of them still haven't been able to open at all, because each time they're about to prepare to be open, each variant comes along.'

Hsieh says the performing arts, specifically, have been challenged by wave after wave of variants. They practice and prepare for a performance- and when it's postponed, have to bring actors back to re-rehearse.

"Despite all that, so many of the arts and culture organizations in Seattle have continued to do work," Hsieh said. "They've been doing things online to share with their audiences and most have been offering for free. All of that has still continued to happen, so almost every arts organization has still been doing work -- but not getting earned income, is the challenge, because they're not able to sell tickets. They've been doing it based on reserve funding and now that's been mostly depleted."

Hsieh says looking into next year, even more challenges could arise because nonprofits no longer have reserve funds. She, like ArtsFund, says more public funding may be needed to sustain these programs.

"The arts have been so vital for keeping our spirits lifted through the pandemic," Hsieh said. "The only way to make that shift is we need more public sector support in general and individual donors until that point."

Using its findings, ArtsFund developed a number of recommendations for those with influence to focus on in order to help the industry, including a reimagining of the role of arts and culture, expanding and sustaining public support, refocusing on equity and protecting the sector’s workforce.

This could be achieved through closing the digital divide in the community, which would allow more people to access digital programming, or legislation that provides sustainable funding for the sector.

Perhaps the biggest assistance for the sector will continue to come from the community, whether it's theater fans, art lovers or anyone craving some live music.

“We want to get back to what we do: serving our community by telling tales through music and dance,” Griffin said. “We're just really excited for the opportunity to continue to serve our community. What we say is, ‘Come on home.’”

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