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Publisher’s View: Delaware’s arts will need our help in recovery

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Rob Martinelli
Today Media Inc.

On the surface of it, the CDC’s decision to relax its mask and social-distancing guidelines in May and Gov. Carney’s loosening of state restrictions are great news for Delaware arts organizations (along with many other local businesses).

But both decisions come with some concerns.

Jessica Ball and Arreon Harley-Emerson — the executive director and president, respectively, of the Delaware Arts Alliance – say they’re feeling optimistic considering outdoor, socially distant performances last year sold out and people seem eager to return, but Ball admits to being a bit worried about how quickly the CDC guidance changed.

“There is not a lot of lead time, not much time to adjust,” she told me. “We’ve been thinking a lot about how arts organizations will ramp up. You can’t just flip the switch.”

Harley-Emerson, the director of music and operations for the Choir School of Delaware, agrees: “We need some more guidance than we’ve gotten. During the pandemic, we’ve pivoted to deliver virtual, diverse, and culturally relevant programming. We’re still figuring out how to get back to normal. What will subscriptions look like? Will audiences still want us to stream and post recordings of our performances?”

A survey of arts organizations of different sizes and locations indicate that long-time donors stepped up to fill the remaining gap between the lost revenue and the lower expenses tied to staff cuts and the severe reduction in performances. For example, the Grand Opera House laid off 60% of its staff last summer.

A survey of the “creative economy” by The Americans for the Arts nonprofit in Washington, D.C., says 62% of Delaware creative workers (about 5,500 people) lost their jobs thanks to COVID-19, for a total loss of income of $163 million. Sadly, 69% of BIPOC creative workers have become unemployed versus 49% of white creative workers.

What many organizations learned was that they can do small and they found they could adapt, change, and move forward programs that were successful in the past by adding a new spin. The Freeman Arts Pavilion bought land adjacent to its stage area and is renovating its physical structure to accommodate 550 lakefront seating pods (and 4,000 people) over the next few years with some of that capacity growth this year.

I’m not hearing much about how we’re going to help Delaware arts organizations survive and grow over the next year after the devastation of this pandemic. Many organizations have been running deficit budgets for years.

Delaware Division of the Arts Director Paul Weagraff says the state and National Endowment for the Arts “have continued steady funding throughout the pandemic, augmented with federal funds through both the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan. These additional funds have been critical to the arts sector’s ability to withstand the loss of earned revenue during the closures. Both the state and federal sources should remain strong, while increased earned revenues and private giving will help with reopening costs and losses incurred over the past 15 months.”

But what are the other options?

The creation of the Shuttered Venue Operator Grants in late December as part of the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act will be the answer for some groups. Nearly 14,000 applications nationally requesting a total of $11.4 billion had been submitted through last week but only 50 had received approval for just $54.2 million – none of them from Delaware.

Part of the problem, beyond the delays in processing applications, is that eligibility for the grants depends on an equation of 2019 earned ticket revenues minus your Paycheck Protection Program allocation. In other words, the SVOG program is geared more toward larger independent performing arts and presenting organizations that have staff, own their spaces, and run shows regularly.

We need to encourage municipalities to protect the arts organizations that they use as selling points for prospective residents and businesses. New Castle County Executive Matthew Meyer has been a leader in using COVID funds in this area, but many of our cities could be more aggressive.

If you’ve stayed on the sidelines as an individual or small business, now is the time to reach out to your favorite arts organizations with either a financial donation or the offer of in-kind services.

Finally, the state needs to include the arts sector in its overall recovery plan. I’m told the Delaware Arts Alliance is talking to Sound Diplomacy, an international consultant, to come to Delaware to help create a creative and cohesive recovery plan that will align with state goals.

Mark Fields acknowledges that “it can be sensitive to advocate for funding for the arts when other needs are so high, but I think many people have come to realize that the arts are a critical piece of our mental health as we emerge from this extended isolation. It will take even longer to rebuild relationships, buying patterns and contributions to pre-pandemic levels.  Just simply opening the doors won’t be enough.”

Harley-Emerson is right when he says “Delaware arts organizations aren’t looking for a handout. They’re looking for an investment.”

It’s up to all of us to make that investment. 


By Rob Martinelli

Rob Martinelli is the president and CEO of Today Media, the parent company of Delaware Business Times.

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