The fund will provide grants and loans to groups with budgets of $20 million or less, to pay for everything from technology for newly remote workers to general operating support. Examples of organizations eligible to apply are the Weeksville Heritage Center, Bronx Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio.
“Just as inequality is playing out in our society, it’s playing out in the arts,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, one of the fund’s contributors. “When you get to the medium and smaller arts organizations that don’t have endowments, that don’t have rich boards, that don’t have huge amounts of operating cash flow . . . those organizations are panicked.”’
Kate D. Levin, who oversees the Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts Program, a contributor to the fund, said it is modeled, in part, by those created during crises in the past.
“But here there are no set answers,” Levin said. “In the past, most disasters have had the component of a time frame. Hurricane Sandy. The damage was understood. The question was how to get past it. Similarly, with 9/11. This is a very different kind of circumstance. People are juggling an unknown time frame.”
Though the organizers of the fund wanted to start with New York because of the city’s importance as a cultural center, they know the need spans the country, extending to individuals as well as nonprofit groups. Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, another fund contributor, expects Mellon to partner with other advocacy organizations to develop additional granting programs soon.
“People had their springs lined up with their readings and their gigs and that income has just vanished,” said Alexander, a scholar of the arts and a poet herself.
As lawmakers discuss stimulus bills and bailouts, they’ve focused on airlines, the cruise industry and restaurants. But Ed Henry, president and CEO of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, knows that many arts workers don’t have benefits. “Like restaurant workers, they’re going to fall off the cliff immediately,” said Duke, whose foundation is also joining the New York effort.
That’s already happened, with this week being particularly damaging. The Metropolitan Opera, with its $300 million annual budget, announced it would stop paying its orchestra, chorus and staffers after March. The Metropolitan Museum of Art estimated it could have a $100 million shortfall because of its closure. That same crisis is playing at smaller organizations throughout the country. On Wednesday, the Oregon Symphony, which has a $20 million budget, also announced layoffs.
“It’s not just a show that got canceled. People’s lives got canceled,” says Benjamin Burdick, the producing artistic director of Boise Contemporary Theater in Idaho, which had to cancel its latest production. “Thirty people who were going to get a paycheck for a month and a half are not going to get that. We have a small and incredible staff that I wouldn’t trade for anybody in the world. I hope that two months from now, or a month from now, I don’t have to look at them and say we just can’t pay the bills.”
That arts groups are scrambling should surprise no one. Many nonprofits depend on earned revenue from ticket sales to stay in business. With that gone, they have had to look at other options.
“Maybe it’s changing the scope of the project, maybe they can’t just do it now,” said Mary Anne Carter, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Whatever it is, we are committed to working with them to find a solution that is agreeable to all.”
That’s the case at the Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Mass., which canceled a slate of shows recently, including appearances by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the Beach Boys and a screening of “This Is Spinal Tap” with director Rob Reiner. The Boston-based Barr Foundation had awarded the theater a $750,000, two-year grant that included support for an outdoor stage. With $250,000 still remaining in the grant, the theater received permission to shift the money to general operating support. Troy Siebels, the Hanover’s president and CEO, says that he has done the math. He can keep his budget balanced, without laying off staff, until mid-May with that money.
“It’s important because we know this will end at some point and we need to be there when it does,” he said.
Even as budgets collapse and uncertainty sets in, arts leaders say they’ve been moved by the improvised, communal expressions that have emerged in recent days. These include Italians singing outside their windows on a quarantined street, free concerts streamed by Willie Nelson and Neil Young, and Yo-Yo Ma’s online performance of Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, which was dedicated to health-care workers around the world.
There was also the scene Saturday night at Koger Center for the Arts. The South Carolina Philharmonic took their home stage and live-streamed their preplanned concert, performed without an audience in attendance. It wasn’t for the money. They were already going to have to eat the $7,000 lost from ticket sales.
Deciding to stream the program of Zhou Tian, Mozart and Schumann “ended up being the best decision we could have made,” said Rhonda Hunsinger, the orchestra’s executive director. “It served a greater purpose than we even knew it could.”