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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Creative community faces ‘catastrophic’ challenges to survive

Julie Gautier-Downes Jackson, executive director of the Richmond Art Collective, says the group is struggling to stay afloat after restrictions have made the group’s mission almost impossible to carry out. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Julie Gautier-Downes Jackson, executive director of the Richmond Art Collective, says the group is struggling to stay afloat after restrictions have made the group’s mission almost impossible to carry out. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

At the start of the year, the Richmond Art Collective faced one of those crises that often afflict small arts organizations.

Its rent was being raised sharply, and it had to find new digs. In February, it moved from West Sprague to its current space on West Broadway, in the Wonder Building. A month later, the governor’s stay-home order was implemented, and the RAC’s new studio and gallery space – shared by member artists – was shut down.

The arts incubator – already in that tenuous position known as business-as-usual in the arts world – was pushed closer to the edge, as were the artists who relied on the space to create and show their work, many of whom lost their day jobs.

“It has been a rough three months for our organization,” said Julie Gautier-Downes Jackson, the group’s executive director. “Arts organizations are used to operating on a shoestring, but this has compounded it.”

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have been harsh in many parts of the community, and especially so for many arts organizations. Across the board, large stalwarts like the Spokane Symphony and Civic Theatre, the smaller operations and performing arts venues, and individual artists are changing how they’re doing business and worried about the future.

Meanwhile, emergency help is limited. Government funding to offset the emergency is so far not well-suited for many nonprofits, and there is limited crisis funding of any kind available to support the arts. Many artists themselves are in dire straits, as well, in part because they’ve lost their “day jobs.”

“It’s hard to overstate how catastrophic this is, particularly for nonprofit organizations,” said Melissa Huggins, the executive director of Spokane Arts. “There isn’t much right now in terms of funding and resources and tools for nonprofits to access.”

Huggins said the performing arts in particular could be devastated, especially if bans on large gatherings continued through the rest of the year. Organizations could well go out of business completely, or return at some future point in a much-reduced capacity.

As we consider what things will look like on the other side of this, we’ll make a mistake if we overlook arts and culture. Spokane has become a thriving, vital place to live in the past decade in large part because of improvements on the cultural landscape.

Nimble new organizations like Terrain, RAC and many others have expanded, deepened and improved the arts landscape. Creative partnerships among organizations have brought a wide range of artistic collaborations to the public. Restaurants driven by creative individual chef/owners – a vital part of cultural life in the city – have boomed.

That vibrancy is threatened now, and we will need it back. The arts are a canary in the coal mine for civic health – and economic health. Huggins pointed to an Americans for the Arts study that estimated that for every $1 spent on local arts and culture, another $32 is spent along with it, on lodging, meals and other activities.

“Investing money in the arts means investing in the local economy,” she said.

Few places to turn

The Civic Theatre announced its 74th season on March 11 – a lineup including “A Christmas Carol,” “The Little Mermaid” and “Spamalot” on the main stage.

A sold-out run of “Cabaret” was still underway in the studio theater.

On the same day, in Olympia, Gov. Jay Inslee banned large public gatherings. It was among the first public-health actions taken in a series that evolved from school closures to the widespread stay-home order, which is still mostly in effect. Relaxing the prohibition on large gatherings – such as audiences – is liable to be one of the last steps in the reopening.

Which puts the Civic and other organizations that rely on audiences in a devastating position. Jake Schaefer, the theater’s creative director, said that upon the announcement of the new season, and the bad news about the virus, the Civic received an outpouring of support, including ticket sales and donations. Many supporters have sent parts of their federal relief checks to the Civic.

And yet its season ticket sales have plummeted.

“We’re at about 17% of where we were last year,” Schaefer said.

The theater has 10 full-time employees, another 20-30 hourly workers and a lot of contract workers associated with each show. It has applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, a federal emergency program that will forgive loans if employers keep employees on staff. The Civic’s application is pending.

Not all arts organizations have access to those loans, or other forms of emergency help. Huggins noted that the PPP program isn’t a good fit for many organizations such as comedy clubs, music venues and other places that can’t really support workers now and into the foreseeable future. Some state assistance is targeted to for-profits only, and others involve taking on the kind of debt that some nonprofits boards avoid.

The $2 trillion CARES Act included $140 million for the National Endowment of the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities – but the regulations for grants under that funding exclude all but two Spokane County arts and humanities organizations, Huggins said.

State arts organizations tend to focus heavily on the West Side, and grants available through the Spokane Arts Grant Awards program – the only local grant fund dedicated exclusively to arts and culture – will likely meet just a small percentage of the need.

‘It’s not nearly the same’

For Vincas Greene, a dancer and teacher, the coronavirus has changed the way he’s doing everything – and yet he foresees coming out the other side with less damage, perhaps, than some others might suffer.

Greene continues to teach dance at Eastern Washington University via Zoom. He has lost the income he earned teaching dance in a couple of private studios, and the dance studio of which he is the founder and artistic director, Vytal Dance Movement, has had to sideline its spring show, which was originally scheduled for Saturday night.

Preparations for that show have moved online.

“I get together with my dancers every couple weeks on Zoom,” he said. “But it’s not nearly the same as being together in the studio and working on dances.”

He thinks his company will be able to come out of the shutdown in relatively good shape.

“It’s a hiccup and a holdup, but it’s not going to financially ruin us,” he said.

For many others – individual artists as well as the organizations that support them – it’s not so much that financial ruin is certain as it is that the financial future has become so unpredictable.

Jackson, the head of RAC, said her organization has the next three months covered, thanks to a SAGA grant, but is scrambling to figure out how to raise funds to pay the bills after that.

“The uncertainty is the hardest part,” she said. “Everybody is dealing with that – how long is it going to last?”

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