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With Income At A 'Grinding Halt,' Some Louisville Arts Groups Aren’t Waiting For A Government Bailout

A dark Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Louisville on March 26, 2020.
A dark Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Louisville on March 26, 2020.

In-person performances and other arts gatherings are on indefinite hold in the age of the novel coronavirus, but Louisville artists and arts groups are not sitting by quietly waiting for the storm to pass.  Nor are they waiting for the government to replace all the revenue they've lost from cancelled exhibitions, performances, fundraisers and galas. Interviews with a number of groups show some are even optimistic that when we are once again able to leave our homes, the arts will play a large role in rebuilding.

The Stimulus Will Help

The $2 trillion federal stimulus package sets aside money for the arts: $75 million respectively for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, as well as $50 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, infusing those agencies with funds to dole out to arts organizations in need across the country. 

Critics, including some federal lawmakers, have called this cash infusion for the arts, “wasteful spending,” but the arts community says this funding will help real people and save jobs — recent numbers from the United States Bureau of Economic Analysis show that the creative sector is a nearly $878 billion a year industry

Yet, those federal funds might not come quick enough for some in the Louisville arts community.

“I think a lot of us who have cash flow issues, whether we're private citizens, private artists or organizations, within two or three months, we might not be able to sustain our operations,” said Aldy Milliken, executive director of the KMAC Museum and chairperson of the Arts & Culture Alliance in Louisville.

The Arts & Culture Alliance estimates a $1.3 million economic impact loss for every day that cultural institutions stay dark, based on arts economic activity numbers from March 2019. The advocacy group Americans for the Arts conducted a nationwide survey with more than 7,500 respondents, and projects a $3.6 billion economic impact loss to date for the nation’s arts industry. Which is why some local artists and nonprofits aren’t waiting for those checks to arrive in the mail.  

KMAC has had to furlough several of its employees, with the hope of reinstating them once the museum can resume its normal operations, and has the remaining staff working on reduced salaries, according to Milliken. The museum has also been looking at other ways to reduce overhead during this time.

“I think what we're really trying to determine now is what do we require to sustain ourselves through the next two or three months?” Milliken said, not just of KMAC, but of the Greater Louisville arts community as a whole. “What gets us to Sept. 1...so that we can tell the community, ‘Hey, if you want a dynamic art scene [when this is over], this is what we need in support.’”

Looking for Lilith Theatre Company started an Artist Emergency Assistance Fund, hoping to raise $2,500 to pay its artists for missed work due to conoravirus-related cancellations and closures, “with the intention that if we raise more than we need to cover those costs that we would be open to sharing it with others beyond the Lilith circle,” co-artistic director and co-founder Jennifer Thalman Kepler said.

The theater group had to postpone the world premiere of “Good Grief,” a work by local playwright Erin Fitzgerald.

Thalman Kepler said it was disappointing, but also she “felt really resolute, like this was the right thing to do and this is what we need to do for our community. It’s hard and it sucks, but it’s the right thing to do.”

“And then I think we immediately went to, what about the artists in our community that aren’t going to get paid, including us,” she said. “We’re an ensemble theater company and…so just like how everyone is worried about how this is going to impact their individual families, Lilith is our family.”

Artists As Independent Contractors

All Lilith artists are independent contractors, including the directors. The company determined what it would cost to pay their artists for two weeks to help set a fundraising goal, “and then we’ll figure out what comes next,” Shannon Woolley Allison, also a co-founder and co-artistic director, said. 

It’s not a lot of cash, she said of the crowdfunding effort but, “if every company can do something small, we can keep this whole spiderweb of a theater community that we have afloat.” 

Thoseindependent contractor and self-employed artists will now also be eligible for unemployment benefits, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced last week.

Fund for the Arts, in partnership with The Arts & Culture Alliance, is working on a number of resources for artists and arts organizations, including an online hub where virtual presentations of performances and educational  materials can be found. The philanthropic nonprofit also plans to establish a grant program, from already existing funds, designed to get cash flowing quickly into the local arts community.  

“Part of our mission and role is around helping to support the cultural sector every day, on the best of days,” Fund for the Arts president and CEO Christen Boone said. “Of course when there are very real challenges that not just one, but many organizations are facing, there's a great opportunity for us to help rally resources, information, best practices, (as well as) convene, create networks and help build capacity.”

She said the situation is dire for a number of arts nonprofits, especially since it’s unclear how long they’ll have to hold off from hosting events, performances and exhibitions. 

“We did a quick survey to say, what if this pandemic closes venues and performances for a month, two months, three months, how much cash do you have on hand?” Boone said.

Roughly half of the groups they connected with, across the city, state and country, have “three months or less cash reserves,” and for many independent artists, their “income has come to a grinding halt," Boone said. 

Details on the emergency relief grants are still being worked out, but Boone said they plan to make the application process as simple as possible given that the need is urgent and she anticipates applications being open sometime this week. 

“But the tail of this economic impact may linger,” Boone said. 

Looking For Long-Term Funding

With that in mind, they’re raising more money for long-term funds to ensure arts groups get through the summer and fall, and ultimately be able to come out on the other side of this without the fear of financial collapse. The organization, as well as the Arts & Culture Alliance, are discussing ways to bolster the Louisville arts sector, such as helping arts nonprofits understand things like how to apply for an emergency loan from the federal Small Business Administration

The Kentucky Arts Council has also compiled a list of local and national resources for artists impacted by the pandemic. Many are also encouraging people with tickets to canceled events and shows, who feel they can spare the money, to donate the cost of their ticket to the organization, or to buy tickets and subscriptions for the next season, rather than asking for a refund. 

Boone said organizations are also asking what they can learn from all of this: “Forced innovation is often the root of creativity and problem solving.”

Looking for Lilith Theatre Company’s “Good Grief” is, for now, slated to open June 4. 

“And if that’s not possible, we’ll look at something else,” Shannon Woolley Allison said.

In the meantime, Woolley Allison can’t help but notice how “the context of this crisis is changing the meaning” of their art, including “Good Grief,” which is about an unconventional support group. 

“I’ve been thinking about the gift of that show happening after this crisis is over when so many people are going to be in that place of grief,” Woolley Allison said. 

Reciting one of the songs from the play, she said, “When everything is uncertain, grief can open up a curtain revealing things the likes of which you’ve never seen, things that just might blow your mind.” 

WFPL News will continue to update this story as we learn about more resources and relief efforts.