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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘I have a very real fear’: Pandemic puts Spokane artists, cultural organizations on the edge

For every dollar spent on tickets to concerts and gallery showings and film releases, $32 goes back into a city’s economy, according to a study by Americans for the Arts.

Melissa Huggins, executive director of Spokane Arts, thinks people often forget that’s the case.

“Right now, we are seeing what a huge impact even just on our downtown the arts have,” Huggins said. “Without concerts at the Fox and plays at the Civic Theatre and music at all these venues, the result is a less vibrant city life.”

As shutdowns sweep the nation, state and Spokane, arts institutions haven’t been spared. Performing arts venues, theaters and museums don’t have the option of curbside service or delivery, Huggins said.

Those venues and institutions likely won’t reopen until Phase 3 or 4 of Washington’s reopening plan, Huggins said, because social distancing is close to impossible in many instances. Even once they have the option, some may struggle to get moving again as limited crowds keep revenues down.

Unlike so many of Spokane’s other small businesses, arts institutions have largely been unable to take advantage of federal and state funds to help them get back on track, Huggins said.

The Paycheck Protection Program, for example, must be used to pay employees and doesn’t work if the venue can’t reopen. Others, like Economic Injury Disaster Loans, are unavailable to the majority of arts institutions because nonprofits generally won’t or can’t take on debt, Huggins said.

Freelance artists in Spokane struggled to get unemployment for weeks, Huggins said, even after rules were changed to open up the program to gig workers. As recently as two weeks ago, Huggins said she knew of multiple Spokane creatives still waiting on payments they’d applied for months ago.

Other state agency or private grants geared toward industries impacted by the pandemic, like those given out by Spokane’s Innovia Foundation, either don’t reach or aren’t intended for the arts, Huggins said. The only art-specific grant program in the area is the one Spokane Arts administers, Spokane Arts Grant Awards, which Huggins said isn’t as well-funded as others.

The organization planned to distribute $125,000 of grants to local institutions this year, which was increased to $150,000 in light of pandemic impacts. Those will be disbursed at the end of this month.

There were some glints of hope in the form of $50,000 CARES Act-funded grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, but criteria to apply were prohibitively narrow for the vast majority of Eastern Washington institutions. Only two Spokane institutions were eligible, and only the Alliance for Media Arts and Culture received one. The rest went to arts on the West Side, Huggins said.

“That speaks volumes,” Huggins said. “Eastern Washington’s arts need more support from our federal representatives.”

Huggins thinks the best solution would be a massive nationwide investment in the arts from the federal government, in the form of direct grants to key drivers of the creative sector. And with city and county CARES Act funding soon to be distributed to Spokane businesses, Huggins said she hopes applications will be open to arts nonprofits and not just traditional businesses.

“I have a very real fear that this pandemic and the accompanying recession will mean we lose some of these institutions,” Huggins said. “A lot of the arts in Spokane were just now recovering from the last recession. If Spokane wants to maintain its status as a bright, vibrant regional cultural hub, we need more investment and support in those places.”

A few sectors of the arts world have started to return to life, but they’re often the exception, not the rule.

Juan Mas sits on Washington’s film board and is a leader with the Spokane Film Project. Mas, who’s been producing films, television and commercials in Spokane for years, said the city has an active and vibrant film production scene that was devastated when shutdowns prohibited them from working.

Industry leaders, including Mas, worked together to develop a proposal for the industry to begin reopening under Phase 2. The governor approved it, and for the last couple of weeks production has been back up and running – to a degree.

Mas said the film industry is unique in the arts world because crowds can be controlled, unlike those performed in front of live audiences in theaters and music venues. That’s allowed film to break ahead of the pack, but Mas said he hopes other arts take advantage of the plans the industry laid out while it worked to reopen.

“I described us as kind of like a mix between a beauty salon and a restaurant, in terms of reopening precautions,” Mas said. “Distance and PPE can be done, but there are challenges to account for. For hair and makeup, we looked to how salons reopened, and for feeding crews we looked at restaurants. I hope as other arts start to reopen we kind of laid the groundwork to help them get going.”

Mas said productions will certainly look different as they reopen, but a lot of precautions can be hidden to preserve artistic values while still keeping crews safe. Mas anticipates larger film productions might even use special effects to remove masks from performers’ faces.

But those precautionary measures will come at a cost, Mas said. Out of an average $30,000 budget for a small commercial film project in Spokane, producers might have to add up to $20,000 just for protective equipment and slower shooting schedules. If the state and the city want to keep reaping the benefits film productions bring to the area, Mas said, they may need help offsetting costs.

“I did a project once that envisioned a day without art,” Mas said. “We went around town and bagged all the statues, covered all the murals. People got so mad. Yet I don’t think we realize day to day just how much we should value those things.

“People want to make a living, but also just to keep their art alive and tell their stories.”