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Austin venues apply for COVID-19 relief funding — at last

Maria Recio
American-Statesman Correspondent
Blind Boys of Alabama, along with Ray Prim, perform during the Long Live Music socially distanced concert event hosted by Luck Reunion and the Long Center on April 4. Long Center President and CEO Cory Baker said the venue has applied for a "substantial" grant amount through the new federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program.

WASHINGTON — The arts in Austin, from the performing arts and live music clubs to at least one museum, are poised to get relief from the pandemic that has left the cultural world without audiences — or much income.

A new $16 billion federal grant program swung into gear last week, nearly a month after an initial start was derailed when the system crashed on the day it opened.

“Things are in a very good place now,” Elisbeth Challener, managing director of Zach Theatre, said of the restart. “Fingers and toes crossed.” The Zach is applying for $2.6 million in funding after having had to lay off or furlough more than 80% of its staff and seeing a 60% decline in revenue in 2020, compared with 2019.

There is tremendous pent-up demand for assistance: The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program administered by the Small Business Administration — part of the December federal coronavirus relief package — has seen 8,786 applications submitted nationwide. According to SBA spokeswoman Andrea Roebker, the agency expects to start dispensing grants this month.

There is no breakdown yet by city or region, but Austin arts venues and operators say they are heavily invested in the Shuttered Venue program and are counting on the grants.

Austin Opera's Nathan DePoint, left, Annie Burridge and Vince Herod, seen underneath a rehearsal tent, staged "Tosca" at Circuit of the Americas last weekend. The production took place with pandemic protocols at COTA's Germania Insurance Amphitheater. The Austin Opera is requesting $400,000 from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program. “This will make a huge difference,” said Burridge, Austin Opera's general director and CEO.

“This will make a huge difference to organizations that receive them,” said Annie Burridge, Austin Opera general director and CEO. “The level of need and desperation makes this program really game-changing.”

The Austin Opera, like other arts groups, has had to pivot in terms of how it operates in a pandemic world. It staged its first full production live performance in more than a year, "Tosca," on April 29 and May 1 at the Circuit of the Americas amphitheater. 

But the operatic comeback is just one brief, bright note for the company. Opera staffers hope the new Shuttered Venue funding will bring them up to full strength.

“It means we can get back to providing a season like we had before a lot sooner,” Burridge said. Austin Opera is requesting $400,000 from the Shuttered Venues fund.

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Applicants can receive up to 45% of earned revenue from 2019, with a limit of $10 million for each venue or operator. Paycheck Protection Program loan amounts — forgiven after businesses show they used at least 60% of the funding to keep workers employed — are deducted to prevent “double dipping” for federal funds.

When the SBA starts dispensing funds, those with the heaviest losses, 90% of revenue, will receive grants during the first two weeks of the program, followed by those entities with 70% losses during the next two weeks, followed by the remaining eligible applicants.

Zach Theatre is seeking $2.6 million, which represents 45% of earned revenue in 2019 minus a PPP loan of $564,000.

And there is some drama in seeking funds, said Challener, who watched anxiously as the Zach got its place in line — 2,000th — before being able to download documents.  “Think of it as the Shuttered Venue’s 'Hunger Games,’” she said, referring to the dystopian films that portray a to-the-death competition.

Music, performing arts

Austin’s live music venues and producers have felt the pain.

“It’s been a tough, tough year,” said Stephen Sternschein, managing partner of Heard Presents, which is a promoter of musical acts and the operator of two venues, Empire Control Room and the Parish.

“We lost 90% of our revenue,” Sternschein said of 2020. “We got punched really hard in the face.”

The staff was cut back from 150 to “now about eight” at reduced salaries. But at least his operations will be in the first group to be funded, a situation that has made him anxious, he said, trying to make it to the application day.

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There have been outdoor concerts at Empire Control Room at about 10% capacity — and the capacity is slowly increasing, to 50% in June — but he said that was a model that could not keep the music venues viable.

“The economics of it are not successful,” Sternschein said.

He has submitted two applications totaling $1 million to the Shuttered Venue program. The two venues received $150,000 in PPP funding that was deducted from the request.

At the Long Center, President and CEO Cory Baker had to lay off 18 people, which is 40% of the full-time staff. “I hope everybody gets funded,” she said of the program.

Baker said she would not reveal the amount of the Long Center's submission — “we are not disclosing the amount right now” — other than to say it is “substantial.”

The Long Center has received $712,000 in PPP loans.

Museums

It’s a mixed outlook for museums, which were a later addition to the legislation.

It was originally labeled “Save Our Stages,” as lawmakers from both parties, led by U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, lobbied for funding to help live music venues, especially the clubs and music spaces endemic to Austin, as well as Broadway theater.

As arts groups clamored for assistance, the program was expanded to include all types of arts venues, including nonprofits and museums.

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But it wasn’t enough for the Mexic-Arte Museum, where Executive Director Sylvia Orozco did not apply to the Shuttered Venue program because, she realized, the museum did not qualify.

“It says in the criteria that you have to have ‘fixed’ seating. Well, we don’t have that,” she said.

“We need all kinds of money,” Orozco said of the specialty museum, which focuses on the art and culture of Mexico and has been hard hit by the pandemic, canceling special events such as the Día de Los Muertos parade in November.

“We apply for anything that we qualify for,” she said, adding that she is frustrated at the requirement since the museum has spaces that are used for events but not an auditorium with fixed seating.

“It seems like it’s not fair to museums,” she said.

The Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas is “planning to apply” to the Shuttered Venue program, according to museum spokeswoman Katie Bruton, but she did not have details on the amount.

The Contemporary, a modern art museum with two locations, a sculpture garden at Laguna Gloria and a downtown indoor site, has had some hard knocks.

“All of our front-line staff was furloughed,” said Nicole Chism Griffin, director of communications.

But, she said, “most likely we are not applying” to the Shuttered Venue program.

“It feels that funds are being geared towards larger venues,” Griffin said. “It didn’t feel like something we were going to be eligible for.”