Cultural and arts industry discuss major losses due to COVID-19

Photo courtesy of the Harlem Chamber Players
The Harlem Chamber Players is an ethnically diverse collective of professional musicians dedicated to bringing high caliber, affordable and accessible live classical music to people in the Harlem community and beyond. Their founder, Liz Player, says that many organizations located in Harlem that are led by people of color do not have large endowments or reserves to cushion the blow against venue closings and a loss of ticket sales caused by the pandemic.

On Oct. 21 Senator José Serrano, Chair of the Senate Committee on Cultural Affairs, Tourism, Parks and Recreation, hosted a public meeting to discuss how the coronavirus has impacted cultural and arts organizations across the state. The members present for the hearing unanimously expressed their appreciation of the industry of the arts and culture. They mentioned the blow New York state has taken in wake of the mass closures within the industry and how the arts could be part of a solution to stimulate the economy. How each organization within various sectors fared during the pandemic varied. But, it was clear that smaller organizations, specifically those who cater to communities of color, seem to be facing the most difficult recovery with little relief. 

“Communities of color have been the most impacted by COVID-19 and the pandemic has brought to light so many of the social inequities that have fueled these negative disparities. The arts are a powerful and unifying tool in our collective fight for social justice,” said Serrano. “Few tools have been as effective as the arts in shining a light on the changes we need to create a more fair and a more just society.”

Melody Capote, executive director of the Caribbean Cultural Center Africa Diaspora Institute, discussed during the meeting that communities of color face both COVID-19 and the historic disproportional mistreatment of the community. She emphasized that simply holding a public hearing was not enough and she stressed legislation that would make state and city funding equitable. 

She also repeated the words, “I can’t breathe,” referencing the last words of Eric Garner, who died in 2014 as a result of police brutality. His words have become a catalyst to the Black Lives Matter movement which has continued to gain prominence following the death of George Floyd in May, who also died as a result of police brutality. 

“I can’t breathe because the state Senate and Assembly speak about the special role of arts and culture in healing a community yet fail to focus on the culturally grounded organizations and communities of color whose culture has been robbed from us, only to find our stolen culture on display somewhere in the 5th Avenue Museum,” said Capote. 

Founder of the Harlem Chamber Players, Liz Player, noted that many organizations located in Harlem that are led by people of color do not have large endowments or reserves to cushion the blow amidst mass closures. 

“We all know by now that nonprofits led by people of color historically have not received as much funding as our counterparts, and many arts organizations in Harlem rely on admissions and ticket sales for a bulk of our revenue,” said Player, who also serves as the group’s executive and artistic director.  

She described requests created in collaboration with the Harlem Culture Collaborative and council leaders and legislators to help in the recovery: affordable places for creative sector workers to live and work, funding workforce training within creative industries, equitable and multi-year funding and reserving land for use by local organizations and artists in the community. 

Ana Chireno, director of Community Affair at El Museo del Barrio, also represented one of the smaller organizations more vulnerable to the major losses of revenue and lack of funding. The museum reopened on Sept. 12, but all of the on site events and school tours have been suspended until next year.

“East Harlem and Harlem had some of the highest COVID rates in Manhattan and Latinx and other communities of color were inequitably affected by the pandemic. The pandemic has unearthed so many historic inequities; we have a lack of access to healthcare, the nature of our workforce is essential but often is full of low-wage workers and lack benefits,” said Chireno. “And in a way, these inequities being brought into high relief really caused us to dig deeper into our mission and serve our community in ways that we never had before.”

Erika Sanger, executive director at the Museum Association of New York, requested an increase in the capacity permitted at museums and additional funding to accommodate for major losses over the course of several months. 

“To maintain the safety of our collections, we monitor carbon dioxide, we monitor humidity, we monitor air quality and all of those have already been improved with COVID compliance safety measures in place,” said Sanger. “So we are among the most safest indoor spaces in our state right now. The other thing that the state could do would be to provide critically needed additional funding to support museums that pre-pandemic employed 60,000 New Yorkers and had a $5.4 billion impact on our state’s economy.”

To combat long-term closures and decreased revenue, most cultural and art organizations have made the shift to holding online programs and events. 

In attendance was Melissa Diaz, director of Government Affairs at the American Museum of Natural History. She said that the museum closed to the public on March 13, but the effort to engage individuals near and far has never really stopped. Following the trend of other institutions in the country, such as educational facilities, the museum transitioned to online programs, virtual field trips and resources, including an interactive app. In an effort to accommodate urban and rural children with limited internet access a feature of the free iPad app, OLogy, can be used offline. 

John Cavelli, executive vice president of Public Affairs for the Wildlife Conservation Society was also present at the hearing to speak about the efforts of its live museums such as the Bronx Zoo. Similarly to the American Museum of Natural History, the zoos and aquariums part of the Wildlife Conservation Society were able to offer numerous online educational programs. 

Unlike some of the traditional museums which were set to reopen at the end of August and early September, zoos were able to reopen on July 20 and aquariums a month later on Aug. 27. 

“We have actually not furloughed any full-time staff. We had 615 essential employees. The other employees were able to stay on and work from home and work remotely,” said Cavelli. “Once we opened up in July, we were able to bring on our temporary and seasonal staff.”

Not all organizations were so lucky. Many performing arts representatives expressed concerns with prolonged shut downs for performers’ lack of income, but also through venue owners who may not be able to cover rent.

“No single part of New York’s economy has been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic or is facing a longer road to recovery than the performing arts and cultural institutions of all kinds and sizes. They face an unprecedented threat of extinction,” said Eli Dvorkin, the editorial policy director of the Center for Urban Future. 

According to Dvorkin, jobs in the performing arts in New York City have declined 72 percent from September 2019. He said that smaller venues, often run by immigrant-serving organizations, do not have the benefit of endowments and large donor bases to compensate for such losses. 

Without major federal relief, he urged the state to assist in compensating for these losses and create a plan for long-term recovery. Dvorkin also urged for reopening performance venues given compliance with protocols similar to indoor dining. 

Thomas Ferrugia, director of governmental affairs for The Broadway League, suggested that once the country has reached the recovery stage, to compensate major revenue losses in the performing arts, the state should expand the upstate tax incentive program. 

By expanding this program throughout the state, investors would receive money once the venue has had a chance to begin generating revenue again. This way, Ferrugia said, money directly from the state would not be necessary since New York is already facing a budget crisis.

Several other representatives were present to testify on how their organizations were impacted by COVID and what their legislative requests were to the present senators. Those who were unable to attend the meeting have until Nov. 11 to submit written statements regarding what should be considered when creating legislation that addresses the future of culture and arts organizations in a post COVID-19 world.