At a month and a half into the coronavirus-shutdown crisis, John Langs still feels like he’s trying to race on a bicycle with no chain.

“You’re pedaling as hard as you can,” the artistic director of ACT Theatre said. “But you can’t go anywhere.”

The crisis has ripped through Seattle’s arts and culture scene, guillotining income for individual artists and organizations while they scramble to cut expenses. The arts is a labor-intensive business (it doesn’t mass-produce much), and furloughs and layoffs have been deep: 90 employees at Seattle Repertory Theatre, or roughly 65% of its workforce; 215 artist and production jobs after Seattle Opera canceled “La bohème,” plus 12 administrators; around 35 employees, or two-thirds of the year-round staff at ACT, plus casts and crews for its productions of “Sweat” and “The Effect.”

The remaining ACT skeleton crew, Langs said, have all taken a 50% pay cut. Staff and board members stocked a food pantry for unemployed artists.

“There was literally a pile of food in the ticket office,” Langs said. Eventually, ACT board members and donors began buying grocery store gift certificates, delivering them to out-of-work artists.

Those left behind, leaders at several organizations explained, have a few urgent but confounding tasks: frantic fundraising (in a climate where they worry donors are feeling conservative about their wealth), applying for relief (there are many funds, but not nearly enough money), making contingency plans based on guesswork dates about when things might return to “normal.” ACT received an $835,000 loan as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) which, Langs said, “will keep the wolves from the door for now,” but doesn’t change the theater’s precarious uncertainty.


“We read the data every day and look into the crystal ball — we hope to be selling tickets in June for a late July start,” Langs said. If that doesn’t work, they have a September/October start plan. If that doesn’t work, he said: “I don’t know — we’ll really have to tighten the screws.”

One of the projects ACT had to abandon: “Sweat” by Lynn Nottage, a quasi-documentary play about Rust Belt factory workers and what layoffs do to their community. The set, a lovingly scuffed-up bar — chipped linoleum, worn-smooth tables, an ancient jukebox — is sitting onstage, fully built but abandoned just a few days before the first preview.

Coronavirus has quieted bars across the city, of course, but this one has an especially severe quarantine — with theaters closed, you’re not even allowed to look at it.

“‘Sweat’ is an amazing story, and especially important now,” said actor Reginald André Jackson. “We all came to this play hoping to honor the people who were living through that …”

Jackson trailed off with a soft, sighing laugh. Now he’s on unemployment.

The ghost set stands as an eerie emblem for the current moment: an empty bar where characters would be jostling, commiserating and arguing about unemployment — the very thing the city as a whole is facing. Except all the actors are now unemployed.


A few organizations have been able to rebuff layoffs — so far.

Amada Cruz, director and CEO of Seattle Art Museum, said the institution is losing $500,000 per month during the stay-at-home order, plus a projected $600,000 from a now-canceled June fundraiser. Despite this, Cruz said SAM has been able to preserve all of its 271 staff jobs through June, with a combination of executive pay cuts and a $2.8 million loan from the CARES Act. (SAM’s closure hasn’t been entirely bloodless: 47 occasional workers, including some teaching artists and front-desk employees, have been told to stand down.)

Contemporary dance and performance venue On the Boards has just begun to talk about layoffs and reduced hours with its staff, but committed early on to paying all the artists who were supposed to perform there through June. This was an unusual move — especially in a climate where some theaters around the country were going so far as asking playwrights to return the payments they’d received for the right to produce their plays.

“On the Boards owns our building so yes, we are lucky to not have to pay rent,” artistic director Rachel Cook said. “But I’m really nervous for the smaller organizations that have to pay monthly rent and aren’t getting relief.”

The city of Seattle has offered some help, forgiving rent for two months (April and May) for arts organizations on city-owned property. Additionally, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s March 18 order prohibiting evictions across the city for 60 days also states that landlords must allow small businesses and nonprofits to defer rent during those 60 days without charging any penalty fees or interest due to late payment.

But, as artist Tracy Rector pointed out during a recent Seattle Arts Commission meeting, those deferred payments just mean an increasing debt load — while many small businesses and organizations are still without income.


Matthew Richter, cultural space liaison for the city’s Office of Arts & Culture, has publicly offered to approach private landlords on behalf of arts organizations. A handful have reported success: Northwest Film Forum and Velocity Dance Center, who share a landlord on Capitol Hill (50% off their April rent), Café Nordo in Pioneer Square (70% off its April rent), the acrobat and circus school SANCA in Georgetown (waived rent for April and May), plus a few others.

But, Richter said, the majority of landlords have not been able to mitigate rent beyond complying with Durkan’s 60-day, no-late-fees order.

“So many folks need help”

Nobody knows the full extent of the economic damage. On March 23, the granting and arts-advocacy group ArtsFund projected $43.8 million in losses for Puget Sound arts, culture and science organizations by the end of April, and $74.1 million through May.

But that data is already outdated. “We know the numbers have all dramatically grown in magnitude,” Sarah Sidman, vice president of strategic initiatives at ArtsFund, said in mid-April. “We will have new numbers to share by month’s end.”

Another way to tell the story: the local relief funds that have popped up, and the stark gap between what they have and what people are requesting.

The city’s Office of Arts & Culture carved a $1 million arts relief fund out of its own budget. That was gone in 10 days. The county agency 4Culture also coughed up $1 million; as of April 15, over 700 individuals had sought $1.2 million in relief, with 256 organizations requesting an additional $1.15 million.


The granting and advocacy organization Artist Trust started a relief fund for individuals at $250,000, which grew with fundraising to $500,000 (including donations from Jody Allen, chair of Vulcan; the Dale and Leslie Chihuly Foundation and the tech executive/venture capitalist philanthropy fund All In Seattle).

So far, Artist Trust has received 2,000 applications for relief totaling $4.4 million. “So many folks need help,” said Brian McGuigan, program director for Artist Trust. “We have a lot of work to do.” Artist Trust and ArtsFund (which has amassed $2.6 million in relief that will be disbursed to its network of organizations on April 30) are still actively fundraising.

The relief can’t meet the demand — but compared to the size of the local arts and culture industry, the demands so far have been relatively modest.

“The largest 21 arts organizations in the Greater Seattle area are a $400 million sector in terms of budget size combined,” said Krishna Thiagarajan, president and CEO of Seattle Symphony Orchestra. “That’s just the largest organizations. So $1 million or $5 million is nice, but it’s not going to alleviate the effects we’re all facing.”

The symphony has seen some relief, including a $17,500 stabilization grant from the city, plus $3.82 million from the Paycheck Protection Program — or PPP, part of the federal CARES Act — which has allowed them to temporarily hire back the majority of its formerly furloughed employees. “The PPP money is basically an extender,” said symphony spokesperson Shiva Shafii. “It buys the organization some time.”

“Our need is to replace $3 million for the immediate damage COVID has done,” Thiagarajan said, “then another $7 million just to get us back to where we should have been.”


And that’s just the symphony.

For some, the real crisis is about to begin 

Meanwhile, individual artists have been scrambling — not just full-time professional actors like Jackson, but artists who’ve woven a network out of income streams, most or all of which have been choked off during the coronavirus shutdown.

For some, who’ve just spent the end of their last paychecks, the real crisis is only about to begin.

Seattle painter and illustrator Brandon Vosika, for example, had a part-time retail job at a curiosity shop in Ballard (closed); was going to teach a few art classes at Facebook’s offices (canceled); sold prints and tote bags at shops, including Tacoma Art Museum’s (all closed); and was planning to sell work during a monthly art fair at Museum of Museums (all canceled). Vosika still sells a little art online, but says people are buying less these days.

“I’ve applied for half a dozen grants and, like so many people, because there are so many people applying, I haven’t gotten any of them,” he said. “I have a little money saved, but for my friends who live paycheck to paycheck, it will be crazy.”

Artist, filmmaker and activist Etsuko Ichikawa, who has lately been using molten glass to “draw” on large pieces of paper, also had a little money saved — for years, she’s been planning to give up her apartment and studio to travel for six months on the cheap in Asia. Now she’s stuck in Seattle where, she calculated, three months of her backpacking budget will just pay for one month’s rent. Exhibitions and events in Seattle, Denver and Pullman have been iced.

“I’m not on Plan B,” she said. “I’m on Plan F or G. But I’m pretty tough. I’m a pretty positive person.”


Even when the economy opens back up, critical momentum has been disrupted. Seattle-based dancer, choreographer and musician Dakota Camacho (Ilokano and Matao/CHamoru) has already lost $20,000 due to canceled performances and residencies in Canada and the U.K., including the Settlement 2020 project in Plymouth, England, where indigenous artists planned to inhabit an abandoned mansion and make work connected to colonization and the 400-year anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower.

Gigs beget other gigs, Camacho says, especially in early careers like theirs: “Say we open the economy back up in the next couple months — what does that mean for me? I don’t have any paid work on the calendar right now. What am I going to do when the lockdown ends?”

Whatever happens, Richter, from the city Office of Arts & Culture, says we need to preserve what we can in the arts and culture community — if only because, selfishly, we’ll want them around when the pandemic passes.

“There will come a moment when we’re ready, as a city, to come back out again and take part in our shared cultural life,” Richter said. “We need those cultural spaces, those cinemas and clubs and record shops and theaters and dance halls, to survive, so that when we’re ready, they’re still there. I want to say to all of them: ‘Hang in there. We’ll desperately need you.’”

Update 4/24: Seattle Opera said it has received a $2.3 million loan under the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), allowing it to rehire 180 workers for a period of time.