Nate McGaha, Executive Director, ARTS North Carolina
Nonprofit arts and culture organizations face three primary challenges caused by the pandemic: survival, unemployment, and reopening. While these are not uncommon challenges right now across the entire nonprofit sector, they are felt most poignantly in the arts, particularly the performing arts. The business model for almost all arts and culture establishment is based on bringing people together for a shared experience, often shoulder to shoulder with strangers. This is simply no longer an option and digital distribution cannot replicate that experience, nor the revenue it once produced.
Like so many businesses, nonprofits wrestle with survival as a mathematical query of income versus expense, reserves and resources, paying the rent or paying the staff. The pandemic completely shut down earned revenue from admissions, forcing these entities to lean heavily on donors who were being stretched thin by a world teeming with need and an uncertain economic future. A variety of loans and grants made possible by the CARES Act have been a lifeline for many, though like a tourniquet applied in the field, they can only serve to slow the bleeding, and without further care, drastic and dire decisions must be made for survival.
After six months of closure, the sector has increasingly been forced to limit payroll expenses in order to avoid extinction. A recent study by the Brookings Institute estimates that 50% of jobs in the Fine and Performing Arts have been lost. That is nearly 1.4 million people that have lost their livelihoods in the span of a few months from a single industry. As a result, the industry must also give consideration and support to aid the unprecedented number of artist and arts workers who are struggling with the challenges of unemployment.
In the midst supporting struggling creative workers and ensuring that our organizations and institutions survive this crisis, the arts sector is also deeply engaged in both planning and action to reopen, reemerge, and revitalize the industry when the effects of COVID-19 abate. This entails not only the challenges of safety, but also of having voices heard and needs met in a conversation that too often views the arts as extra and not essential. The challenges of fixing a broken business model are daunting, and are only compounded when an industry must struggle to achieve the tools and resources to complete the repair.
While arts nonprofits face these dire challenges of survival, upheaval and renewal, almost all continue to provide programming and services to the communities they are mission bound to serve. The challenges are many but the resolve of the people that drive this work is only matched by the creativity and innovation with which they apply themselves to the task.
Nate McGaha is the executive director of ARTS North Carolina, a statewide advocacy organization that calls for equity and access to the arts for all North Carolinians, unifies and connects North Carolina’s arts communities, and fosters arts leadership. Learn more about COVID-19 relief efforts for NC art organizations and ways to support arts in NC.