After nearly two years of the pandemic, only about half of Washington state arts patrons say they’ve gone back or are prepared to go back to in-person arts events. And startlingly, those who do venture out expect to spend about half of what they did pre-pandemic.

That’s according to a new study from arts advocacy and granting group ArtsFund, whose 2022 COVID Cultural Impact Study, released Wednesday, puts into stark relief the damage the coronavirus pandemic has done to Washington’s once-thriving arts-and-culture sector. And it seems like no matter what the coming months and years bring, the landscape will be permanently changed.

Combine that with the expected reduction in grants and loans that have helped arts organizations over the previous two years and “that is the frightening calculation,” said Michael Greer, ArtsFund president and CEO. “There’s going to be a permanent shrinking of the industry.”

Seattle Times arts recovery coverage

Seattle’s thriving and vital arts-and-culture community has been rocked by the coronavirus pandemic and the only thing certain about the future is change. The Seattle Times takes an in-depth look at the sector’s recovery in 2022 with support from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. We will explore how both individuals and institutions are doing in the wake of the pandemic; track where relief money is going; and look at promising solutions to challenges facing our arts community. We invite you to join the conversation. Send your stories, comments, tips and suggestions to artsrecovery@seattletimes.com.

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That’s not the only concerning number to emerge from the statewide study, which gives a concrete look at how the sector has been hit by the pandemic through surveys conducted from May to September 2021.

It shows the arts-and-culture nonprofit community shrinking almost in real time.

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For instance, 121 of the more than 200 nonprofits from across the state who responded reported a drop of 21% of revenue in the first year alone. And, Greer noted, 41% of respondents furloughed staff or reduced hours or pay.

“That is a massive number,” Greer said.

The hard truth is the lost jobs and salaries probably aren’t coming back, especially as variants extend the problem potentially not just months into the future but maybe even years. Forty-six percent of the organizations said they implemented changes to their staffing models and of those, 62% say the changes are permanent.

And this doesn’t count the struggling private-entertainment sector or the countless self-employed creatives who work within and without Seattle’s arts-and-culture industrial complex, many of whom have seen reduced paying work and have been forced into alternate careers.

The report cites a general concern of an arts-and-culture “brain drain” in Washington as workers retrain or move away.

“That is going to be your neighbor or someone in your kid’s class or someone that you went to school with,” Greer said.

A significant economic driver

For many of us, the arts-and-culture profile of Seattle is a lot like Oz — funky, cool and a little bit weird up here at the end of the yellow brick road.

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It’s been a thriving home for culture both high and low. It’s the birthplace of Jimi Hendrix and grunge, the mysterious home to some of our darker cultural touchstones like “Twin Peaks.” We have bustling nightclubs, theaters, orchestras, dance companies and a vibrant museum and gallery scene. There are a legion of video game developers moving here every year.

Before the pandemic, jobs in the larger arts-and-culture sector — of which the industries covered in the ArtsFund report are likely a subset — were becoming a significant economic driver in Washington state and the U.S., though most of us were unaware of this growing impact.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis says the 35 industries that constitute the sector, from architectural services to sound recording and software development, generated nearly a trillion dollars in 2019. That’s about 4.3% of the U.S.’ gross domestic product — and more than agriculture, mining, construction or transportation.

That number had been growing steadily for a decade and had increased by 3% annually in the three years before the pandemic, ahead of the national average. There were 5.2 million arts-and-culture workers in the U.S. with a payroll of $447 billion in 2019. And that didn’t include the self-employed.

In Washington, the impact was even greater. Arts-and-culture jobs 185,000 of them pre-pandemic, according to the BEA, accounting for 5% of employment and $25 billion in salaries — added more than $53 billion to the Washington gross state product, over 8% of the $612 billion gross state product.

Not only did our snapshot GSP numbers outpace the rest of the U.S., but so did our acceleration into these industries. Washington was third in arts-and-culture earnings, fourth in compensation and sixth in employment, all high benchmarks considering our relatively small population.

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More importantly, Washington was No. 1 in growth in all those categories in the three years prior to the pandemic. The state was growing arts-and-culture jobs at more than 10% — six points higher than the national average.

And then the first wave of the pandemic hit. Then delta. Then omicron.

No quick fix

“I keep reminding people this is the worst economic and health crisis — they, of course, go together — in our lifetimes,” said Amada Cruz, director and CEO of Seattle Art Museum. “This was pretty serious and with omicron it hasn’t gone away. So the impacts are very, very serious.”

Like Oz, if you peek behind the curtain, you’d be pretty concerned right now. Increasing rents and gentrification were already forcing out small organizations and independent artists, and the pandemic has increased the pace.

The ArtsFund report shows those problems accelerating amid the coronavirus. Some organizations closed for good, others weren’t able to tap into the relief system and are teetering on the verge. All — big and small — were changed.

Even SAM, one of the city’s largest institutions, was forced into layoffs and furloughs. The museum permanently laid off 13 people from a staff of 320, and while Cruz is a never-say-never kind of person, she says it’s hard to envision those positions coming back.

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At one point, museum administrators began to look at the budget on a quarterly basis, an excruciating process that nonetheless was necessary.

Where will all the changes end? The only certainty is uncertainty.

“The thing that’s interesting is because this uncertainty is still in place, we still don’t know what those changes are going to be,” Cruz said.

“We have learned that we have to be nimble, and we’re learning to be nimble. And that is a very difficult thing for a very big organization like the Seattle Art Museum.”

The period has been even more difficult for small arts-and-culture organizations, which generally don’t have as deep a well of financial reserves nor as many resources to help leverage the public relief system. More concerning, that relief system is diminishing as public programs expire, though some funds are still being disbursed.

LANGSTON, a three-person Seattle nonprofit that programs the Central District’s historical Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, halted its in-person programming when the coronavirus first hit.

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It pivoted to helping local artists with cash grants, raising and distributing more than $1.1 million to more than 2,100 Washington artists. That program ended in April, but Tim Lennon, its executive director, said the group is looking at restarting a similar effort as virus variants continue to dampen the creative economy.

“We are not a large organization and we definitely do not have the kind of financial resources that larger arts organizations or dedicated funding organizations have access to,” Lennon said. “But we’re going to do our part to at least create some financial support for local Black artists in 2022 because we’re already seeing that, much like March 2020, artists have gotten many of their gigs canceled in the first half of 2022 because folks are scared about omicron, and rightly so.”

Congress, the state Legislature and city and county governments gave millions in grants and loans to arts organizations in 2020. That money was intended as a short-term lifeline, not a permanent drip. And now that it’s beginning to diminish, many organizations are left with a large void in their futures.

Lennon and his staff fought and scrapped through the last two years. But there’s no way to predict what will happen over the next two.

“I’m very worried about our sector in 2022 and 2023,” he said. “We saw in 2020 things like the PPP program and other sort of relief efforts, especially in the public sector side, that helped get folks through 2020. We saw a lot of recovery and rebuilding funds in 2021. That’s largely going to disappear in 2022 and 2023.

“I think once those supports are no longer there, and as we’re battling more and more waves of different variants of the disease, we’re going to see more and more organizations without that lifeline just going away.”

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No single solution will solve the arts-and-culture sector’s problems, but the study’s authors have a number of recommendations. They include:

  • Centering the arts-and-culture sector in economic development strategies and encouraging cross-sector partnerships.
  • Expanding and sustaining public support.
  • Protecting the cultural workforce by increasing wages and investing in services to make arts occupations more viable.
  • Focusing on equity by actively eliminating funding barriers, engaging youth and families, learning from and better serving disability communities and helping diminish the digital divide.

Whatever the solution, ArtsFund CEO Greer says, it won’t be a quick fix.

“Some of this is going to take years and honestly some of it is probably going to take a generation to shift mindsets about the way that arts and culture interact with the community,” Greer said. “One of our primary takeaways is that arts and culture is a driver of both social and economic well-being within a community. And so that’s going to take a long time in order to really sink into the everyday vision of what arts and culture is.”

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This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.