While there is reason to hope the worse days of the pandemic may soon be behind us, the arts community faces years of uncertainty.
That’s the takeaway from a COVID-19 impact survey recently released by ArtsFund, a funding and advocacy group. How quickly creative organizations recover has a big impact on the region’s quality of life. A vibrant arts scene is good for the economy, good for the community, and good for the soul.
The reckoning takes place as private donors step up and local government continues to funnel federal relief dollars to cultural organizations. In addition to funding, Seattle must prioritize downtown public safety so that more people feel secure when they finally make the transition from virtual to real-life experiences.
The 2022 COVID Cultural Impact Study of organizations and individuals around the state showed the devastating impact of the pandemic. There was a $95.9 million (21%) decrease in overall revenue across 121 organizations in 2020 alone.
Only about half of Washington arts patrons report that they have gone back or are prepared to go back to in-person events. Those who do are expected to spend half of what they spent before the pandemic.
“We’re still in crisis mode,” said Tim Lennon, executive director of LANGSTON, a Seattle nonprofit that programs the Central District’s historical Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute. He spoke at an online ArtsFund event last month. “If we don’t have the support to sustain our organizations that are providing paid work for individual artists, our artists won’t be here on the other side of this crisis.”
The Seattle Art Museum had to move quickly with online lectures and other offerings when COVID closed its three venues: the downtown Seattle Art Museum, the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park and the Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront. After reopening in September 2020, it closed again in November during a surge of cases. It has been open since last February with limited capacity.
On a recent afternoon, you would be hard pressed to see much of a difference at SAM’s downtown galleries. Except for a few reminder signs to stay masked and six feet apart, the floors offered the same quiet inspiration as before. People filtered from room to room, enjoying a welcome respite from the day.
Pre-COVID, SAM earned 24% of its annual revenue from guests, shop and gallery, and group experiences; in the last fiscal year which ended in June, that number fell to 6%.
Before the pandemic, the museum averaged about 1,000 visitors each day. Since reopening, with some limited capacity restrictions due to public health orders, the daily average is down to 753.
Federal loans and crisis fundraising allowed it to maintain most of its staff, with 13 layoffs from a staff of more than 300 at the time.
To get back to normal, omicron has to disappear, said Amada Cruz, director and CEO of SAM. Her other big concern: public safety downtown. “Let’s put COVID aside. The No. 1 reason why members said they are not joining again was because of the perceived dangers of downtown. They felt threatened. And I don’t blame them.”
King County is distributing $20 million of federal COVID relief funds focused on the creative economy. In its study, ArtsFund identified the need for more public support, as well as higher wages for workers in the arts.
Just as important, Mayor Bruce Harrell and the City Council must devote adequate police resources and effective strategies so that patrons return to SAM and other arts venues downtown, and the region can truly celebrate a much-needed return to the non-virtual world.
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