Directors of three of the Chippewa Valley’s largest arts centers say a $20 million allocation for arts and humanities grants is welcome in a recently proposed federal coronavirus relief bill, but they have concerns about local organizations actually getting significant federal relief.
The $3 trillion effort Democrats powered through the House on Friday is not expected to become law as written but will likely spark difficult negotiations with the White House and Senate Republicans.
Back home, Pablo Center for the Arts in Eau Claire likely won’t get any aid from a federal bill that funnels money to the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, as the first federal coronavirus bill did, said Jason Jon Anderson, Pablo Center executive director.
In its first round of coronavirus relief funding, the NEA only awarded grants to its previous grant recipients. It also required three years of operating budget.
Since Pablo Center opened in fall 2018, it wasn’t eligible for that federal funding, Anderson said.
“It was somewhat frustrating the first time, and likely to be frustrating again, at least for an event center or performing arts center like Pablo,” Anderson said. “... I do not believe there will be any benefit to organizations locally currently.”
Pablo Center hasn’t been awarded specific arts grants to stem the economic toll, but has received $167,000 to offset full-time employee payroll and will likely be able to apply for loan forgiveness through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), Anderson said.
“I’m grateful to see these grants … but I find the funding very inadequate when you think about the millions of dollars being set aside to help benefit other industries,” Anderson said. “You’re looking at one of the largest creative economies in the world, and it’s being funded with only (a proposed) $20 million.”
In the wake of the virus’ spread, Pablo Center has taken 78 events off its calendar and refunded $125,000 in tickets, Anderson said.
It means Pablo Center’s liability is smaller than what it could have been, but still is a “huge hit to our total operation,” Anderson said. To help offset the hit, ticket fees are expected to increase next year.
“We’re an operation that’s a year and a half old,” Anderson said. “Given how our seasons align, where our memberships are, how we’ve disbursed our different cash flows throughout the year, I believe we have a fighting chance to be here. We have some severe challenges facing us. But I have hope we can make it through and I believe we have a plan to do so.”
Deb Johnson, executive director of Heyde Center for the Arts in Chippewa Falls, isn’t confident either that the Heyde Center will get significant funding from federal legislation.
“It’s my experience that these federal grants don’t trickle down sometimes to these community arts centers,” she said. “The funds are so needed, they don’t get all the way down to the grassroots level.”
Before the coronavirus, the Heyde Center’s income was more diversified, she said, including performances put on by the center itself, art classes and venue rentals.
“This has been a systematic shock to all of that,” Johnson said. “We have had things canceled and postponed well into August. If we had no way to perform, at least we’d have some weddings and anniversaries. But this is really, really scary because so much is out of our control.”
In Menomonie, the Mabel Tainter will likely seek federal relief if more arts-specific funding is offered, said Jeff McSweeney, the Mabel’s executive director. His biggest need: retaining staff month-to-month, so when the Mabel begins hosting large events again, it can do so efficiently and quickly.
“It’s critical that we have support for that so we can remain around, and be the entertainment, social and cultural center of our communities when we can have full attendance,” McSweeney said.
The Mabel ended performances on March 13. It’s looking to hold its next ticketed events in early August. Summer is the Menomonie theater’s slower season, and McSweeney is thankful it didn’t have to cancel blockbuster music festival events.
“But it’s very challenging, especially when we don’t know when we can open again,” McSweeney said.
Bill has shaky future
The proposed $20 million allocation for arts and humanities is one part of the massive Democratic measure that boils down to a campaign-season display of Democratic economic and health care priorities.
The enormous Democratic measure, costing more than the prior four coronavirus bills combined, would deliver almost $1 trillion for state and local governments, another round of $1,200 direct payments to individuals and help for the unemployed, renters and homeowners, college debt holders and the struggling Postal Service.
“While this legislation is far from perfect, we can’t afford to wait, it is vital that we provide funding to our local, state, and tribal governments to help mitigate the financial strain caused by COVID-19, and we do it now,” said U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-La Crosse, in a statement.
Republicans mocked the bill as a bloated Democratic wish list that was dead on arrival in the GOP-led Senate and, for good measure, faced a White House veto threat.
Party leaders say they want to assess how $3 trillion approved earlier is working and see if some states’ partial business reopenings would spark an economic revival that would ease the need for more safety net programs.