Arts & CultureArts FeaturesCOVID-19

Charlotte’s Arts Community Weathers Pandemic Amid Funding Struggles

For many Charlotteans, COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, went from abstraction to stark reality on March 17, when Gov. Cooper ordered the statewide closure of bars and restaurants, allowing them only to serve takeout.

Before that, the Charlotte arts community saw a trickle of cancelations from touring exhibitions turn to a stream of local museum and theater closures to a deluge of shows and performances shutting down or postponing at least through March, and now longer for most venues and organizations.

If anyone doubted the severity of the pandemic, harboring hopes that venues could stay open as long as they limited the number of patrons to under 50, Cooper’s order to practice social distancing in order to “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus outbreak served as the nail in the coffin.

Flexibility in the face of the unexpected is part and parcel of running an arts organization, offers K. Liles, co-founder of community-centered nonprofit SouthEnd ARTS, but this is different.

“No one expects the world to shut down,” Liles says.

COVID-19 and Charlotte’s response to the disease marks an unprecedented paradigm shift for the city’s arts organizations, large and small, many of which were already financially stressed by the defeat of the arts tax on the ballot last November.

That proposal would have raised the sales tax a quarter-cent, generating $50 million a year in revenue, with 45% earmarked for arts and culture. The measure predictably pitted “no new tax” conservatives against pro-arts liberals, but the political battle lines also proved porous, with many arts supporters questioning who would decide how to spend that $22.5 million and whether historically underserved communities would benefit.

The measure was rejected by 57% of voters. Supporters had hoped the tax would help the Arts & Science Council overcome its fundraising shortfall. COVID-19 wields a further blow against the city’s highest profile arts and culture nonprofit.

In November, before the current crisis was even on the radar, ASC cut expenses, then in January informed the cultural partners that it provides funding to that ASC may be cutting the funding available for grants by 50% if its fundraising goals are not met. Concurrently, the organization requested a funding increase from the city and county while pursuing resources in the private sector.

“All of this effort is now under intense pressure in light of the widespread community challenges we face,” Bryant says.

Jeep Bryant (Photo courtesy of ASC)

Due to the closure of facilities and prohibitions on public gatherings, organizations and individuals supported by ASC are now hit with the immediate cessation of revenue, he continues. The sudden loss of income affects not just artists, but administrators, scientists, historians and educators as well.

For their part, ASC has suspended all in-person events and programs, but they are not alone in the region-wide arts shutdown. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center has suspended all events through April 12.

“No one knows if that will be enough,” says Blumenthal President and CEO Tom Gabbard as a caveat. “Only time will tell.”

If state officials call for a longer period of closure, Blumenthal will comply, Gabbard adds.

Compounding the economic instability triggered by the pandemic is the previous uncertainty engendered by the loss of proposed art tax revenue. Blumenthal was already expecting a reduction of funding from the ASC.

“It was uncertain how much since the city and county have been reviewing the situation,” Gabbard says.

Tom Gabbard (Photo by Chris Edwards)

At SouthEnd ARTS, Liles is also dealing with uncertainty over ASC funding, a situation that preceded the current outbreak.

In the wake of the art tax defeat, ASC told SouthEnd ARTS they were working hard to provide funding for the cultural organizations already supported under their umbrella, Liles offers.

“We were never told directly if this was going to impact us,” Liles continues.

Based on her public health degree, Liles has recommended to her board that SouthEnd ARTS shut down for April and possibly May.

The nonprofit has already canceled two events at the Charlotte Trolley Powerhouse on Camden Road: a Social Justice Speaker Series featuring Tiffany Capers, executive director of affordable housing and community development nonprofit CrossRoads, on April 2; and a South End gallery crawl on April 3.

SouthEnd ARTS, which focuses on giving a platform to local artists who otherwise go overlooked, had planned to curate 12 juried artists in an exhibit that would show during the two events, giving them exposure while building cultural bridges in the community. Now Liles is hoping to pay the artists impacted by her canceled events, and she’s not sure if ASC can help her out.

K. Liles (left) with SouthEnd ARTS alum Elisa Cutter. (Photo by Carlene Ortiz)

In lieu of that funding stream, Liles is seeing if she can support the artists for the next 30 days on SouthEnd ARTS’ Instagram account. Virtual art exhibits may be one way out of the current health crisis shutdown, Liles maintains, a way to get exposure and revenue to the artists who need it.

Not all arts organizations have been equally affected by ASC’s revenue shortfall.

On Raleigh Street in NoDa, Charlotte Art League’s (CAL) Cindy Connelly and Jim Dukes say that due to the timing of grant cycles, they won’t know about organizational sources of funding until July 1.

Regardless of how that plays out, CAL community manager Dukes says individual organizations in Charlotte’s arts community need to change and realize they can’t rely on grants.

CAL Executive Director Connelly agrees, pointing out that the League has pivoted from being a fine arts gallery when it launched 55 years ago to a more community-centered resource, diversifying to serve the underserved, and offering classes for older adults and veterans.

“We’re [also] recontextualizing our space for healing arts [and] education,” Dukes offers.

Given that, the nonprofit’s business model relies on programs, classes and events to get people through the door. Can they pivot to survive in Charlotte’s post-coronavirus shut down?

“We’re going to see [the crisis] reflected in our revenue,” says Connelly, “but it’s exciting because we get to come up with new and creative ways on how to address these problems.”

Jim Dukes (left) and Cindy Connelly of Charlotte Art League. (Photo by Chandler Snipe)

Connelly says they’ve closed their galleries to the public, and canceled events for March and possibly April, too. Like Liles, CAL is looking to its online presence as a way to showcase creatives’ artwork.

They also plan on working with spoken word artists to disseminate product into the community, which may inspire other artists, Dukes offers.

“We have a product to sell for our artists, but we also have a unique obligation as artists to be documentarians,” Dukes maintains. “We’re in a unique time right now. Years from now we’ll look back on this through social media and say, ‘Remember how we ran out of toilet paper? How stupid was that?’”

Connelly interjects that the nonprofit has had to think outside the box since its inception.

“This is kind of par for the course for us,” she says.

Dupp & Swat is a creative studio launched by Davita Galloway and her brother Dion nearly a decade ago. It’s an art gallery, a retail space for designers and a rental venue for photo shoots, open mics, book signings, theatre rehearsals and more.

Davita says Dupp & Swat has been unaffected by ASC’s post-art tax revenue shortfall.

“We didn’t receive many grant monies to begin with,” Galloway says. “Everything that we’ve done, we’ve created by ourselves or from generous donors in the community.”

Davita Galloway (Photo by Will Jenkins)

As an independent arts organization, Dupp & Swat has keenly felt the revenue loss due to government limitations on the number of people who can gather at events, Galloway maintains. She says she’s been reimbursing customers for the past several days while artists cancel or postpone their events.

“By the same token, we’re having to level up and be more creative in how we present ourselves,” she offers. “We’ve always had to exploit nontraditional methods.”

Like Liles, Connelly and Dukes, the Galloway siblings are weighing digital options for disseminating and monetizing art, including ramping up online marketing for the products they usually sell in their studio.

While stressing the challenges of creating a new arts and commerce paradigm, Galloway doesn’t dismiss the severity of the current crisis. Several of her artist friends have lost substantial incomes, she says.

“One person in particular lost four months of income in a matter of 15 minutes due to canceled gigs, so it’s very real,” she says.

Everyone is trying to keep their heads above water at this point, Galloway believes, and that makes the reliance on community doubly important.

Counterintuitively, community gatherings are one thing we’ve all been warned against. In the meantime, social distancing, while necessary to minimize the severity of the pandemic, will increase isolation and economic stagnation.

No one knows what the ripple effects of the coronavirus will be, Gabbard says, but we can be sure they will be massive.

“Broadway, London, national tours and performances in Charlotte are interconnected,” he offers. “This is a seismic disruptor for all facets of our community, including the arts.”  

Bryant points out that the economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture sector in Charlotte-Mecklenburg is around $242 million annually, and the loss of revenue due to the cancellation of programming and activities in that sector will be felt across the county.

Furthermore, it may be a long time before artists and contract workers will be able to book a paying gig, he says.

“This won’t be over in two months,” Liles agrees. “It’s a worldwide situation and we have to be fast on our feet.”

She hopes the arts community can develop a common voice to help the city understand that art is necessary, especially in times of trial.

“If we’re going to grow economically, we’re going to need the arts culture to be strong.”

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