Washington’s arts and culture sector lost nearly $100M when COVID-19 pandemic hit

Jan. 28—The corridors of the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture in Browne’s Addition were quiet this week, the closure another casualty of COVID-19’s interruption of the humanities in Washington.

“We just didn’t have staff,” Wesley Jessup, the museum’s executive director, said Thursday. “We didn’t have the capacity.”

The arrival of the omicron variant caused the MAC to close its doors once again and prompted another round of cancellations in an industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic. A study released earlier this month by ArtsFund, a Washington nonprofit advocating for the arts, found that organizations promoting the humanities, culture and sciences in the state, including museums, theaters and artisan guilds, lost nearly $100 million in revenue in the immediate months following the COVID-19 outbreak, and forced 41% of respondents to lay off or furlough workers.

It will likely take years, and significant public investment, to ensure the survival of those organizations, the study concludes. That’s especially true in Eastern Washington, said Melissa Huggins, executive director of the nonprofit Spokane Arts.

“Things are open, so maybe there’s a perception that things are just fine, and that’s not the case,” she said. “We’re still dealing with waves of closures.”

The Arts Fund surveyed more than 200 nonprofit organizations statewide, and another 1,500 Washington residents, to determine what assistance was available in the midst of the lockdown and how visitors feel about returning to exhibitions, concerts and more. Among the report’s findings is the conclusion that public assistance will be necessary for survival of the arts in the next few years.

“Without those the sector would have collapsed,” Huggins said of the public assistance, in the form of grants and loans provided by local, state and federal governments. “They were totally life-saving.”

The survey included input from large-scale nonprofits, theaters and performance companies, as well as smaller organizations such as the Spokane Potters Guild. The nonprofit was founded in 1997 and operates out of a rented warehouse in the Chief Garry Park Neighborhood.

The guild had to cancel in-person classes during the pandemic, said Leslie Twenge, a board member of the nonprofit.

“We keep afloat by our classes, selling clay, and we have two fundraisers a year,” Twenge said.

The Potters Guild is indicative of the kinds of arts organizations that exist east of the Cascades, said Huggins. They are volunteer-run, and as a result may have been ineligible for the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program that was initiated under the first round of federal COVID-19 aid and intended to cover payroll for employees.

Not only were such groups ineligible for PPP loans, but applying for other types of aid was contingent on volunteers putting in the time to fill out paperwork.

“That really impacts their ability to apply for these kinds of intimidating government applications,” Huggins said.

Some organizations had to pivot their offerings in order to take advantage of how the government dollars were awarded. Spark Central, the West Central-located arts and education hub, told ArtsFund that it had changed its programming to cater strictly to students because of the funding opportunities available through public schools.

“Unless there is a flush of arts funding, we’ll probably stick with the education vein,” Brooke Maston, Spark Central’s executive director, told the study’s authors. “I miss the arts programming for adults and the publishing — but I don’t see that will happen unless funding comes back.”

It’s dedicated funding, from the local, state and federal level, that will be needed to ensure the survival of arts organizations, said Michael Greer, president and chief executive officer of ArtsFund. He pointed to the finding that visitors to arts and culture venues in Washington said they’d likely spend about half of what they did pre-pandemic when venues start to reopen.

“The industry as a whole is shrinking,” Greer said. “That’s why this public support is so important.”

The survey identified regional differences in the availability of that assistance.

Arts organizations east of the Cascades reported the second-lowest access to local emergency relief dollars in the ArtsFund survey. Just 8% of organizations in Eastern Washington reported having access to local funds, compared with 54% in King County and 49% in the central Puget Sound area. None of the organizations in southwest Washington reported access to local money.

King County announced in September $20 million in funding for cultural sector reopening plans, funded by the American Rescue Plan, including independently owned theaters, music venues, science and nature conservancy as well as after-school programs.

The Seattle Office of Arts and Culture set aside an additional $7 million in assistance for organizations with an annual budget of less than $1 million.

Meanwhile, local governments in Spokane County are trying to determine how to spend their allotment of federal dollars under the federal coronavirus aid package. The city of Spokane approved a budget ordinance earlier this month, pledging $1 million of its funds to support people working in the arts.

Government assistance alone is unlikely to solve the sector’s long-term funding issues, though. The MAC, for example, receives public dollars because it is a state agency and it still had to lay off employees during the height of the pandemic, Jessup said.

“It’s really hard to operate in times of uncertainty,” he said. “You don’t know what’s coming.”

The study also concludes that arts organizations need to make sure they’re catering to audiences that typically have limited access to the arts, including younger Washingtonians and those without the ability to pay admission fees.

“We’ve got the youth that we want to see today in our venues and galleries, we want to ignite that passion for arts and culture for when they do become the leaders of tomorrow,” Greer said.

Jessup said the MAC will be focusing on that goal with their new DreamWorks exhibit, premiering in the United States at the museum later this spring. They’ve secured grant funding to ensure that every regional Title I school, those institutions with a large portion of students living below the poverty level, can send students to the exhibit for free.

“We’ve gone for two years, and these kids haven’t had any field trips,” he said.

The exhibit, on loan from Australia and traveling to the region by barge, features 400 items showcasing the studio’s animation from sketch to final product, including established franchises such as “Kung-Fu Panda,” “Shrek” and “Madagascar.”

Jessup said hosting the exhibition is intended to be a way to relaunch and inspire new interest in the arts following the pandemic’s shutdowns. Even so, he acknowledges, all of the arts in Spokane will be in need of a kickstart.

“Whether it’s the MAC, or Spark Central, or Spokane Symphony, or the Jundt (Art Museum at Gonzaga), how much has this community missed having Terrain for two years?” he said. “That’s been horrible, frankly. That’s really a hit. It’s not just the MAC, it’s all of these organizations that play such an outsized role in the cultural life of the community.”

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