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Arts and Entertainment

Cautious Optimism: The Arts In Missouri And The Ozarks During COVID

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(Logo courtesy Springfield Regional Arts Council)
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On the KSMU ‘Sense of Community’ series, we’re conducting a “checkup” on how the Ozarks is doing, as we all try to move closer to recovery from the socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the quarantines and the shutdowns.  Today we’re looking at an area of society that was especially hard hit: the arts, and those who produce, promote and support the visual and performing arts. After talking to various arts administrators and individuals in preparing these reports, the best term I can come up with to describe the general mood is, “cautious optimism… but we’re not out of the woods yet.” With the Springfield area making the national news recently due to the local surge in the Delta variant of the COVID virus, this collective caution is understandable.                                

Michael Donovan is the Executive Director of the Missouri Arts Council. And when I called him at his office in St. Louis, he didn’t mince words. “It’s had a huge and negative impact on both individual artists and organizations,” he said. “For an artist that depends on performances or concerts, or even selling their work to the public, the loss of opportunities to do that—the closing of festivals and galleries and performing venues—was immediate and visceral. And at one point it was estimated that 63 percent of artists were out of work.”

That figure comes from national statistics collected by Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education. On June 14 they released a report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the arts in the United States. Among their findings: creative artists, and I quote, “remain among the most severely affected segment of the nation’s workforce,” losing an average of $34,000 each in “creativity-based income” since the pandemic’s outset. As Michael Donovan mentioned, 63 percent of artists experienced unemployment. Some other alarming figures:

--37 percent of creative artists “have been unable to access or afford food at some point during the pandemic.”

--58 percent have not visited a medical professional due to an inability to pay.

--Nonprofit arts and culture organizations suffered more than $17 billion in financial losses as of June 14th.

--99 percent of producing and presenting organizations had to cancel events.

--Local restaurants, retail and lodging have themselves lost $17 billion in revenue due to cancelled arts events in their areas, and local government revenue losses total $5.8 billion.

Now, these are national figures. Missouri Arts Council Executive Director Michael Donovan could not offer me specific figures for here in Missouri, but he says, “I would expect that they would be comparable in Missouri as well.”

Locally, Springfield Regional Arts Council Executive Director Leslie Forrester told me that her organization did a quick local analysis about six weeks into the pandemic in the spring of 2020, and she said even at that early point, there were already heavy revenue losses. “It was already about a half a million dollars lost at the beginning.  By the time the new fiscal year starts July 1, I think we’re going to be closer to about 2.5 million dollars in total loss.”

Right at the start of the shutdown in March 2020, Leslie Forrester said the Springfield Regional Arts Council assumed the role of a “convener” for local arts groups. “Immediately after we all shut down we started having bi-weekly meetings with all the arts leaders in town. That was a really scary time. You know, ‘how long is this really going to last?’” Those regular meetings continue more than a year later, allowing local arts groups to keep in touch.

Forrester credits previous local arts administrators and boards for having the foresight to develop “rainy-day” funds. “A lot of us were really lucky that previous boards and leaders were really thoughtful about building rainy day funds,” she said. “And if COVID isn’t a ‘rainy day,’ I don’t know what is! But,” she added, “not everybody has that kind of safety net.”

Local groups have also had to rely heavily on Federal payroll-protection grants and emergency loans. Unfortunately, a potentially very helpful Federal program, the Small Business Administration’s “Shuttered Venue Operator” grants, had only issued 50 grants as of June 4, according to the online Journal of Accountancy. “It was approved in December (2020),” said Leslie Forrester. “In theory it was supposed to trigger right away because it was ‘emergency’ money.”

However, the Journal of Accountancy characterized the process as “a long drama.” The first 50 Shuttered Venue” grants totaled $54.2 million, but didn’t go out until early June, said Leslie Forrester, because of what she called “constant computer glitches” and crashes. As far as we know, NO local arts organizations in the Springfield area have received these grants. And some could really use the help. Forrester mentioned Springfield’s Gillioz Threatre. “The Gillioz, their budget was down 91 percent. And what business, anywhere, can survive when your income is cut by 91 percent?”

Maintaining donations from patrons, in addition to—or in lieu of—ticket sales, has been a problem for some arts organizations in the state, according to Michael Donovan of Missouri Arts Council. Because they haven’t had audiences in place, and haven’t been able to produce programming to remind patrons of those organizations WHY they became patrons in the first place, he said, “they’re not reminded, and they’re not as generous to support the organization,” said Donovan. “And of course, the organization has to be doing things in order to deserve that support. So they’re going to continue to depend on donations and volunteers,” he added, “and people (who) are willing to support the organizations. And that too had declined during the pandemic.”

However, Leslie Forester of Springfield Regional Arts Council tells a somewhat happier story about our area. “They may not have seen as many of their large donations, but their most loyal donors kept coming back again and again. “  Many first-time donors also chipped in to help, she said. “$25, $50, $100, which is really, really encouraging, that people were really engaged to make sure their favorite organizations survived. It is a big deal, especially in an uncertain market.”

There was also the annual Springfield Regional Arts Council grand round, the “Arts and Culture Grant,” $40,000 spread among a dozen organizations. “We shifted all of that money to operating support or whatever those organizations would need,” said Forrester. The maximum grant they were able to give out was about $5,000, and “for some that just covered a month’s rent… or a single month of utilities,” she said. Other community groups, often in partnership with the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, also helped a great deal.

Earlier we mentioned that Americans For The Arts reported that individual artists around the country have suffered a great deal during the pandemic. Leslie Forrester mentioned the many area artists whose annual income is strongly reliant on what she calls the “festival circuit,” the many local and regional arts festivals that take place around the country—like our own “ArtsFest on Walnut Street.” “For those artists,” Forrester said, “their source of income happens, usually, from spring to mid-fall. So last year it was completely wiped out… those artists lost an entire year’s worth of income.” Locally, ArtsFest’s 40th annual festival was cancelled last year. Forrester said they tried to offer a “virtual” ArtsFest to help connect artists and art patrons. “There wasn’t a ton of traffic that way. Because, when you’re looking to buy a piece of art, you’re not just buying it because you think it’s ‘pretty,’ or it matches your décor. Often you’re buying art because you’ve met that artist and heard their story, and then connect with the piece on a deeper level. And that’s really hard to do virtually.”

Michael Donovan of Missouri Arts Council agreed. “The festivals were closing down very quickly last summer, and that left individual artists with very little option to sell their work. You could do some of that online… but the most effective way to purchase art is to see it and to be in the presence of it. And you can’t order that off the Internet like buying furniture at Wayfair!” Increased use of technology—online streaming and presentations—has helped performers and performing organizations more than it has the visual arts. Leslie Forrester of Springfield Regional Arts Council noted that it took a lot of really quick action by the local arts organizations to provide those virtual options for their audiences. “We were hearing from our audiences that they still wanted those experiences, even though we all were at home. So how did we do that? We did that really quickly! The investment in technology had sort of been lagging. FIT Technology Group partnered with Community Foundation to help several non-profits make the shift in the technology, even just helping us get connected to better Internet.”

Although occupancy and mask restrictions have recently been loosened, that could change if the Delta strain of COVID isn’t gotten under control in Greene County.  Leslie Forrester said the Springfield Regional Arts Council is still hearing from people who aren’t yet comfortable convening in large indoor gatherings. “For all of us planning and moving forward,” she added, “that’s going to be a long-term impact of COVID, that we’re not going to feel comfortable sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers right away.” She predicted it “may be another year before we’re able to see full houses again because of that.”

Michael Donovan of MO Arts Council is cautiously optimistic.  “I think the improvements have been incremental,” he said. “They’re certainly better than they have been in the last 15 months. But they’re still far from where they were before the pandemic. And it’s going to take continued vaccination levels, and people feeling comfortable with going out and seeing live events… we’re all going to depend on having that layer of protection in order to fully re-open. He added,  “The arts are very resilient; they are designed for circumstances like this. The community needs the arts to come back. The state, and local communities, cannot recover economically if the arts don’t recover economically.”  

Leslie Forrester of Springfield Regional Arts Council offers these words of caution. “I think that the next year is going to be a crucial time.This is going to be a longer crisis than we’re probably really prepared for it to be. The next 12 months, I think, are going to be just as critical as the 12 months in COVID.” But she also said, “We’re ready to rally. We’re ready to get back to it! People are really, really, ready. So the more we get vaccinated, the more we can fully be open—and maybe sit shoulder to shoulder again, and have that communal experience that we’ve all been missing.”