Iowa Arts Council’s Schmitz: Audiences must feel ‘safe and comfortable returning to venues’ before they can reopen

(The Center Square) – Only the grit and tenacity of some Iowa entertainment venues are what seem to prevent their permanent closure amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Iowa Arts Council Administrator David Schmitz said.

The National Independent Venues Associates did a survey of their members and 90% were concerned about making it through this year, he told the Center Square.

The promoters, presenters and artists behind these venues have used a combination of loans and even their own funds to keep those venues going.

“In Iowa, we have had a combination of small business relief grants that have been offered through the CARES Act, and also SBA backed loans, which, which of course are a national program,” Schmitz said.

Those resources have helped live music and independent venues, but it’s clearly not enough.

“As many have said, they were the first to close and they’ll be the last to reopen most likely in this pandemic,” he said. “What they face is a much longer duration of being closed.”

At least 700 jobs have been lost in Iowa’s nonprofit arts and culture industry since the pandemic began. A financial impact of $31 million has been felt in the state, America for the Arts reported from a survey of more than 350 Iowa arts and cultural organizations.

Most of the personnel who work at these venues are independent contractors or gig workers. These workers were not covered under relief programs like the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and other programs funded with CARES Act funds.

The federal extension of unemployment benefits ran out at the end of July. Workers who were laid off or just didn’t have work with no gigs available were able to access the expanded benefits. They need a federal extension of these unemployment benefits, Schmitz said.

The effect was widespread, with Iowa Workforce Development reporting 9,741 arts, entertainment and recreation workers filed new claims for unemployment in the last six months.

Several pieces of legislation pending in U.S. Congress, including the Save Our Stages Act, need funding. He said venues need help through the expansion of eligibility of other relief programs like PPP to the independently managed and publicly created venues.

“I think people are still unaware of the size of our creative workforce,” Schmitz said.

Iowa has more than 42,000 people in the creative workforce and makes up 2.3% of the state economy, the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported.

“And this is especially true with live music and independent venues,” he said. “There are so many people who earn a substantial part of their living from those touring productions, from those Broadway plays, from Broadway acts and from those small and independent venues.”

The spillover effect caused by the pandemic has been enormous this year.

“It’s all the independent workers, the freelance workers, the gig workers that really formed the backbone of that creative economy. So, it really is critical that we find ways to support those folks,” he said.

The drop-off in their earnings in the spring was immediate and very steep.

“It will be awhile before many of those venues are able to reopen,” he said.

For the audiences, feeling safe and comfortable returning to venues is a very important factor around when a venue can reopen fully, Schmitz said.

Performing arts venues, in particular live music venues, have an extra burden in that playing shows half full is not financially feasible. Most of them need seating to be at full capacity to make the economics work, while museums and other cultural organizations can partially reopen with less than 100% capacity, he said.

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