After a year of closures and lost revenue for live performance and arts spaces, a new relief grant program designed to help arts venues opened for applications Thursday. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, offered through the U.S. Small Business Administration, is intended to assist live-event venues, many of which lost nearly all revenue in 2020 while still paying overhead costs like rent.

Theater producers, venue operators or promoters and other live performance venues hurt by the pandemic can apply for grants of 45% of their 2019 gross earned revenue, up to $10 million. Movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums that meet certain criteria, and talent representatives, can also apply.

The $16 billion grant program is part of the $900 billion in COVID-19 relief legislation passed by Congress in December.

In Washington state, 135 independent venues with capacity of 100 to 2,000 operated across the state before the pandemic, employing more than 3,000 workers and generating $785 million in economic activity, according to the office of Sen. Maria Cantwell, who advocated for SVOG. In addition, Cantwell’s office said, citing the National Association of Theatre Owners, there are at least 90 small and independent movie theaters across the state that would be eligible for such grants. Cantwell’s office hosted a virtual roundtable Thursday to mark the program’s launch, inviting feedback from venue operators across the state.

Though the grant application went live just Thursday, venue owners during the roundtable were already raising concerns over its reach and efficacy.

The SVOG application site has “been a mess to be honest,” said Philip Cowan, executive director of Tacoma arthouse and limited-run movie theater The Grand Cinema.


And indeed, the SVOG system malfunctioned on Thursday and no applications got through, The New York Times reported.

Cowan expressed concern that demand for SVOG grants was so high that the program’s funding might run out.

Capitol Theatre’s Charlie Robin also worried that his venue might be shut out of the funds because the Yakima theater, whose 100th-anniversary celebration was “completely obliterated” by the pandemic, doesn’t meet the criteria for first- and second-round funding. “The demand is there because the need is so, so great,” he said.

Cantwell said existing funds could cover up to $16 billion worth of grant money, but that lawmakers were prepared to revisit the program “if it does end up being oversubscribed.”

Many venues had already exhausted other types of federal funding or pivoted to projects that could be completed in preparation for eventual reopening.

Rand Thornsley of the Liberty Theatre in Camas said that his business had taken “a 90% reduction” from 2019, and had been surviving on Payroll Protection Program dollars that had brought staff back. They remodeled the theater’s lobby and reopened for “a short five weeks” in November before having to close again in compliance with changing public health directives.

The SVOG grants may fill the gap in planning that shifting directives produced for venue operators.

Normally, said Steven Severin, co-owner of Capitol Hill nightclub Neumos, his venue books artists six months to a year in advance, so he hoped the SVOG grant would “get us further down the road.” But, he said, “it’s not going to, by any means, make us whole … we need to keep pushing this forward. We never want to be in a spot where we have to be on the defensive again.”