Starving artists: COVID-19 continues to impact arts and culture as we try to return to normal

For more than a year now, we have become used to theaters being dark, cultural events cancelled, and creative outlets being stifled. Despite the lights coming back up at places like Playhouse Square and the Cleveland Play House, and live music filling hotspots like B-Side Lounge and the Music Box, Cuyahoga Arts & Culture (CAC) reports this particularly hard year on arts and culture organizations continues to be difficult.

“It’s been a tough 15 months,” says CAC executive director Jill M. Paulsen. “The hard truth is that the creative economy will be one of the last to recover from the pandemic. Ohio’s creative industry continues to suffer from the highest unemployment rate among all sectors.”

Even as business begins to get back to normal, Paulsen reports that the 65 Cuyahoga County-based arts and culture nonprofits funded with CAC general operating support grants continue to report layoffs, and the June 2021 Ohio Labor Market Information shows Ohio's creative industry continues to have the highest unemployment rate among all job sectors, which has been the case since May 2020.

Before COVID-19, Ohio’s creative economy was a $41 billion industry, employing nearly 300,000 people. But Johns Hopkins University reports that, as of January 2021, arts and entertainment nonprofit job loss is more than 36%—the highest of the entire nonprofit sector.

In Northeast Ohio, arts and culture organizations funded by CAC general operating support grants saw significant losses in revenue and had to reduce staff. From March 2020 through June 2021, these organizations reported total revenue losses of $146 million and 4,793 people were laid off, furloughed, or had their hours reduced.

These organizations also reported $64.7 million in revenues that were not recouped, despite receiving more than $81.3 million in CARES Act funds and $3.3 million in Cuyahoga County grant money to all 96 CAC nonprofits.

<span class="content-image-text">Women in History</span>Women in HistoryWhile Cuyahoga County arts and culture organizations report that revenue loss has slowed in the first six months of 2021, Paulsen says this trend may change with the recent uptick in Delta variant cases.

From January to June 2021, organizations lost more than $27 million in earned and contributed revenue in areas like ticket sales and donations. Paulsen says that If revenue loss continues at the current rate, 2021 losses will be at least half as much as in 2020—more than $54 million—ensuring a second year of significantly reduced revenues.

An ongoing pivot
While so many arts and culture organizations saw huge revenue losses and had to cancel or alter programming, CAC did its best to accommodate both its general operating support and project support grant recipients.

In April 2020, CAC announced that it would accelerate $5.1 million in grant payments to its 65 general operating support grantees, while also eliminating the matching fund requirements for project support grantees and allowing reimbursements for projects that incurred expenses but had to be canceled because pf COVID-19. Paulsen says 2020 project support grantees were also allowed to delay their projects until 2021.

But still, Paulsen says these accommodations may not be enough for some artists and organizations who continue to struggle as the pandemic drags on. She says 15 months ago CAC, like so many other organizations and individuals, thought the pandemic would last a few months and then everything would return to normal.

Instead, she says they have felt helpless as arts organizations have had to cancel their events and projects. “Now we’re at a place where we’re seeing so many entities continuing to move forward,” she says. “Then came Delta and they’re really going in a different direction in the last few months in response.”

But Paulsen says she has been impressed with the perseverance artists have shown in the last year-and-a-half. Although many things had to be cancelled, she says almost 15,000 events and activities in 2021 have shifted to online, occurred with lower capacity, or were otherwise altered with precautions.

“The dedication of these organizations to serve their communities despite the hardest of circumstances is truly impressive,” she says. “We are grateful for the flexibility and creativity CAC-funded organizations have shown so they can continue to be in service of residents.”

In particular, Paulsen says she was blown away when she attended Rid-All Green Partnership’s Fresh Fest held earlier this month. Although the daylong free event has always been held outside on the farm property, the event went off without a hitch, and organizers took all the necessary safety precautions.

“To go out in this beautiful community and be around art, culture, dance, and agriculture—it was a beautiful day,” she says. “It was a good reminder of how art lifts us higher.”

Then, the weeklong Cleveland Walls! mural program in August also combined plenty of outdoor activities with programming by Shooting Without Bullets being held in a large industrial space with high ceilings and open doors kept safety a priority. “It was the perfect way to bring power to their work,” she says.

<span class="content-image-text">LANDstudio</span>LANDstudioAdditionally, after attending Cleveland Walls, Paulsen says she was able to take her daughter to the Children’s Museum to participate in some outdoor activities.

And Cleveland Public Theatre’s annual Pandemonium fundraiser moved outside this year, with performers scaling the theater’s brick building as part of the entertainment. “I was impressed that they took their long-time event and seemed to adapt to the reality of the pandemic,” Paulsen observes.

CAC’s own pivot
In addition to general operating support and project support grant programs, CAC has also adapted its investment in support for artists and resident-led arts and cultural projects in 2021—therefore giving artists and neighbors the opportunity to use CAC funding to respond creatively to challenges, inspire, and give hope.

CAC funded more than 26 arts and culture projects led by Cuyahoga County residents during the pandemic through ioby’s (in our backyards) CAC Match Fund in 2021. CAC granted $70,000 to provide dollar-for-dollar matching up to $3,000 for creative crowdfunding projects led by neighbors. While projects were not required to respond specifically to COVID-19, many leveraged funds to provide safe programming or respond to pandemic-specific challenges in area communities.

CAC funded 14 arts and culture projects directly related to the impact of COVID-19 through Neighborhood Connections’ 2021 COVID-19 Rapid Response Grants, with a total investment of $24,459 in matching funds.

In 2021, CAC invested in 10 collaborative “civic practice” projects between Cuyahoga County artists and nonprofits who were trained in a shared approach through the Learning Lab program by Center for Performance and Civic Practice. Many of the resulting projects responded directly to nonprofit or community needs during the evolving pandemic.

Paulsen says it’s just a given that arts and culture organizations and their member artists have adapted so well during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This is an industry of creative people,” she says. “We shouldn’t be surprised to see creative thinking is behind serving residents and running operations.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.