It’s no surprise that arts and culture groups in Washington have endured significant financial losses since pandemic closures began, with staff furloughed or laid off and programming going online. A new survey released Tuesday from arts advocacy group ArtsFund gives a recent snapshot of how cultural organizations are doing.

The survey gathered data and responses from 77 arts and culture organizations in Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties — primarily music, visual arts, theater and multidisciplinary organizations — over the three-month period from January to March 2021. 

The data paints a picture of economic hardship, major shifts in programming and an eye to reopening in the fall. 

Among the most striking data from the survey is the high percentage of layoffs and furloughs and the decreases in income that have come with the loss of in-person audiences and patrons. 

As of January, 56% of the organizations surveyed still had staff furloughed or laid off due to the pandemic. That’s a decrease from the 74% of organizations that reported staff furloughs or layoffs in April 2020, when pandemic closures first started. Still, the amount these groups say they’re budgeting for personnel expenses in 2020-21 is 25% lower than in 2019-20 and 30% lower than in 2018-19, the pre-pandemic year.

Before the pandemic, the 77 organizations surveyed had budgets ranging from less than $250,000 a year (4% of respondents) to more than $5 million (24% of respondents).  


All of them took a hit. 

Overall, total incomes in 2020 decreased by 29% compared to 2019, and by 42% compared to 2018.

And most have seen decreases in earned income (including from ticket sales, events and programming). Overall, organizations are projecting a 65% decrease in earned income for their 2020-21 budgets, compared to their pre-pandemic 2018-19 budgets. And earned income is projected to make up a smaller slice of their total income: 22% for 2020-21, compared to 31% in 2019-2020 and 42% in 2018-2019.

Although the money isn’t flowing as readily, some have already reopened, and 35% of the organizations surveyed say they hope to kick off in-person events and programs again this fall. Most are confident they’ll have the money to do so successfully, with visual arts groups being more confident than theater and dance groups. 

Even as they look to relaunch in-person events, some know that the challenges are far from over and that the arts and culture landscape in Washington will be changed. 

“Our sector is projecting a reduction of 25% of its workforce and over 50% of earned income,” Michael Greer, ArtsFund president & CEO said in a news release. “While many have increased their reserves throughout the pandemic through federal programs, increased philanthropy, and conservative business practices, there is a real concern that these reserves will be spent down quickly as they return to their spaces and programming with what is anticipated to be significantly reduced audiences.”

One survey respondent projected that some venues may have to downsize physically or offer less programming to combat lost income from smaller audiences: “Adjustments to venue size are likely since audiences may not have confidence in gathering safely in larger groups for an unknown period of time,” the report quotes. “Smaller venues means less ticket sales and a negative economic impact. Right-sizing venues to expected lower audience turnout.[…] Perhaps fewer season offerings.”


Many respondents foresee other permanent changes to the arts and culture scene as well, including continuing to offer digital options alongside in-person programming, improved safety and sanitation protocols, and commitments to more diverse, equitable and inclusive practices. 

One respondent wrote: “We need more proactive approaches to prepare for such disruption and really strengthen the sector and emphasize the role the arts can play for collective and individual well-being.”

One of those roles, according to Faaluaina Pritchard, executive director of the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, is countering bigotry.

“With the anti-Asian things that are going on that are violent and criminal, we need to do positive stuff,” said Pritchard in a panel of arts and culture organization leaders hosted by ArtsFund on Tuesday. “That’s why the Asian Pacific Cultural Center needs to teach about who we really are.”

Panelists said they anticipate innovation in the industry, particularly around issues of equity and inclusion. Kevin Malgesini, managing director of Seattle Children’s Theatre, highlighted the work of the Seattle Theatre Leaders group, led by co-artistic director of Sound Theatre Jay O’Leary Woods, which is organizing theater leaders to address issues of equity in the Washington theater community.

Panelists also expressed concerns, particularly about economic uncertainty and rebuilding their communities as the industry recovers from the pandemic.

“Tasveer came together to create a local community here and we worked on this community bonding for over 18 years and the pandemic is a threat to all the work we have done,” said Rita Meher of Tasveer, a social justice arts nonprofit. “Even after we resume, it will take several years to bring the audience together and the community together again. That’s a fear we have.”