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July 10, 2020: On Financial Help To The Arts

Good day,

It’s been four months since the start of shut-downs and so much remains unknown: when live performances can begin again, when audiences will feel comfortable returning to venues, how organizations plan to deal with their present and future fiscal issues, and what financial relief can be expected by the government.

It appears that July is looking to be the month that more lifelines are being thrown to arts groups by many countries’ governments...

Many, but not all.

Surely by now a comprehensive U.S. rescue plan for the arts would be presented, if not passed and enacted.

But even as its Congress considers a second round of stimulus checks, it has yet to pass meaningful legislation to significantly assist the not-for-profit cultural sector.

Taking a critical view of how the government is not coming to the aid of the arts — at least compared to the ways other countries have responded so far, Jesse Green of The New York Times this week writes a scathing article that not only takes the government to task but the ineffectiveness of arts leaders.

Speaking of the British government’s nearly $2 billion cultural bailout, Green writes that it “sends a powerful message about the centrality of the arts in a modern democracy. [Prime Minister Boris] Johnson, a Conservative, called them ‘the beating heart’ of Britain.

Green goes on to say: “…the American theater’s biggest failure is the one that renders it helpless in an existential crisis like this. In allowing itself to be cast as just another industry — a role it does not even play very well — it has disowned its true identity as a public entitlement.”

Meanwhile the for-profit commercial film industry in the U.S. — with studios and unions joining forces to form a powerful lobbying group — is making its own case to get as big a slice of the bail-out pie as possible from the government, according to a report from Variety.

This is happening as governments elsewhere are beginning or continuing to offer financial aid-to-the-arts packages, such as those in Wales and Scotland.

England has also shown a willingness for the not-for-profit and the commercial sectors to join forces to find creative avenues of support. The Theatre Artists Fund has just been launched — with a boost of funds from Netflix — which will support grants to theatre professionals. “The scheme follows [film and stage director Sam] Mendes’ recent calls for streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime, who he said had made ‘lockdown millions from our finest acting, producing, writing and directing talent,’ to reinvest in the theatre sector. It is hoped that Netflix’s initial donation will be followed by further support from corporations, trusts, industry figures and theatregoers to help individuals who will remain out of work over the coming months.”

Germany has been a bold leader in supporting its country’s culture with an even more generous financial lifeline. And closer to the U.S., the Canadian government is also stepping up to assist its cultural and heritage organizations in a series of aid programs.

Back in the U.S., there are those who are calling for a new Federal Art Project similar to that which was created during the Depression in the ‘30s which employed more than 10,000 artists across the country. But so far — other than actions in individual states like New York — no comprehensive package has yet emerged.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal suggests that the great pause of performing arts institutions — here focusing on Broadway's closing until 2021 — should be a call "to rethink its challenging and costly economic model to ensure long-term survival." Perhaps it will allow some new business models to emerge as well as allow for time and to deal with other vital issues, including those of equality, diversity and inclusion. "The direction we were headed was not a sustainable one,” said Greg Nobile, a Tony Award-winning producer. The same holds true for not-for-profit world.

So how to re-think models? "Looking to the long-term, this is an opportunity to break free from embedded institutional resistance to change," says an article on the Arts Professional website. "Old arguments that organizations require individual boards, leaders and staff because they are harnessed round a specific mission and vision may perhaps be set aside to facilitate the creation of more resilient organizations fit for the future."

So much to consider. So little funds to do it with.

Finally, a glimmer of hope in the green hills of the Berkshires where Equity, the actors’ union, had green lit several productions. Is this the beginning of the return of live performance, the start of stripped-down live productions that will be the norm or -- if the virus spreads and the shows are seen as opening prematurely -- a step backwards?

-- Frank Rizzo


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