After an 18-month shutdown the arts are opening for live business again. COVID will be a continuing factor, but it’s possible to start taking stock of what’s changed over a tumultuous period and make some conjectures about going forward. So here’s what I’m seeing, based on the thousands of arts stories we sift through in a given week.
These observations are also based on dozens of conversations with artists and people who work in and run arts organizations. I was going to put everything in one post, but it got impossibly long, so I’m going to dribble it out in several posts over the next week or so. I’m going to start with funding/finances, if for no other reason than money is the engine that ground to a halt.
Counter-Intuitive: What many are saying privately but not in public: Many arts organizations are coming out of the COVID shutdown in better financial shape than they were going in. Not all of course, and for many the prolonged shutdown has been a disaster. But for non-profit arts organizations, the reality is the more you produce, the more money you have to raise. With no (or significantly curtailed) productions, expenses could be sharply reduced or eliminated. At the same time, donations — the lifeblood for many non-profits — stayed stable or even increased in some cases significantly, driven by fans and supporters who care about their theatre or orchestra or opera company and responded by wanting to help.
Additionally, between PPP loans, which fairly easily converted to grants; invested endowments, which had an extraordinary year as the stock market soared; the Save Our Stages act, which allocated $10 billion for venues; and many foundation and local government programs that stepped up to help; there was significant financial help for non-profit arts organizations. Compounding the increased emergency resources, many organizations took the opportunity to cut loose artists and staff, significantly reducing human resource expenses. Considering that at the beginning of the pandemic, the shutdown looked to be catastrophic for the arts, many have survived relatively well.
But: The big losers? Artists. With few exceptions, the most fortunate employee artists working in arts organizations had to take significant pay cuts. Those who got “furloughed” could apply for expanded unemployment benefits, but those benefits were a significant cut from regular pay. The vast majority of artists are freelancers, and their work pretty much went away. Many also didn’t qualify for unemployment, forcing them to look for other work outside their art.
- Watch how arts organizations regard their financial standing. Some see improved finances coming out of this pause as an opportunity to ramp up. The risk is adding new obligations that will have to be funded after the pandemic support goes away. Others are using the improved circumstances to invest in stabilizing. Since most arts organizations cut staff, as things reopen there’s an opportunity to reassess what kind of staffing, programming and facilities are needed or wanted.
- Which organizations tried hard to help their artists during COVID and which just cut them loose to fend for themselves? Worse, which organizations used the pandemic reset as an opportunity to make it even harder on their artists by turning the screws on contract negotiations? I’m not talking about negotiating in good faith so that everyone survives. But some arts organizations acted like rapacious opportunists. Going forward, supporters might want to consider how hard their arts organizations really tried to support and protect artists.
- Likewise – which programs did arts organizations cut and are unlikely to resume once they’re back up and running? Before the pandemic, community engagement programs were the talk of the day. One might imagine that some of those engagement programs would be even more important going forward, but a number of museums, for example, did away with their highly-touted community engagement programs. The disruption in finances proved to be a good way to really see what the values of these institutions are. What did they cut, what did they protect?
- How many artists have permanently left the field? A RAND report says that 27 percent of performing artists were out of work as of last July. Many have left for good. The sad reality is that from a financial standpoint, this won’t matter a bit to the bottom line of our arts organizations. Unfair, but true.
- Ironically, some of the worst-hit non-profit arts organizations were those whose earned income made up a higher share of their overall revenues. The earned dough was the revenue that disappeared, while donated income fared better. Look for reassessments of the mix of revenue streams going forward. Individual artists have had to diversify their income streams as traditional models waned. Institutions may now find themselves doing the same.
Others in this series: