Cambridge arts groups seek city COVID relief funds
Organizations say they are in danger of closing permanently
BEFORE THE PANDEMIC, Improv Boston averaged about 2,000 patrons a week who watched its comedy shows and participated in acting classes at its Central Square location. Now, almost six months after it closed in compliance with state coronavirus rules, the nonprofit improvisational theater is asking the city of Cambridge for help.
“Due to necessary public space closures and capacity caps on venues, many organizations are facing displacement and rent default in addition to furloughing their staff due to lost earned and contributed revenue,” said a petition sent to the city by MASSCreative, a group of arts and cultural leaders, including Kristie LaSalle and Josh Garneau, the chair and managing director of Improv Boston.
In the petition, sent to Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, Vice Mayor Alanna Mallon, and City Manager Louis DePasquale, MASSCreative said the pandemic is exacerbating what was already a bad situation, with rising rents forcing the closing of arts institutions, including Green Street Studios.
“We’re the one industry that hasn’t received the support we need to survive,” said LaSalle. “The level of support we need stems from fact that for a long time the arts have been on a backburner in terms of political concerns for the city.”
“The hope is that we can resume operations in January, or another point very early in 2021. If we cannot, then the furlough will become a layoff as the company closes,” said Garneau.
MASSCreative is urging the City Council to amend legislation establishing the Mayor’s Disaster Relief fund to allow arts organizations to apply for financial assistance that is currently limited to residents, workers, and small businesses. The group is also seeking a property tax abatement for landlords who lease to nonprofit artists and cultural organizations.
Callie Chapman, the owner of Studio@550, which offers professional development workshops to artists, thought her studio and other arts organizations closed by COVID-19 were going to gain access to the relief fund in July, when city officials appeared to reach a consensus on opening it up to arts groups.
But that effort came to a standstill on July 27 when one councilor, Denise Simmons, tabled debate on an amendment dealing with the issue during the final City Council meeting before summer break. The next meeting is September 14.
Chapman, who was forced to shut her studio down in March with accruing rent of $2,300- a month, said the delay has been costly. “September is a long way from March,” Chapman said.
Simmons said there were too many “unanswered questions” about how opening up the Mayor’s Disaster Relief Fund to arts nonprofits would work, and how it might impact those other businesses previously designated as being eligible, specifically black and brown owned businesses.
Simmons said that while she shares the desire to help arts organizations, there also need to be answers provided on how the city has conducted outreach to ensure all local businesses are being assisted, including black and minority owned businesses who “may not be fully plugged in” to local business associations. She’s hopeful questions will get answered on September 14, and that arts nonprofits will receive some assistance from the city.
Siddiqui, who helped write the amendment with Mallon, said it was “very clear it would have passed,” at the July meeting if it wasn’t tabled. “One councilor at that time wasn’t in support of it and didn’t say the reasoning,” said Siddiqui in a phone interview.
Siddiqui said many arts organizations are facing dire situations. “There’s been a gap with the organizations and it hasn’t been enough,” she said of the funding.The arts organizations are also asking for a property tax abatement for landlords and owners who lease to non-profit artists and arts and cultural organizations, provided the landlord agrees to pass on the savings to non-profit artists and arts and culture organizations through “water-tight provisions and vetted oversight,” according to the petition. The groups claim there’s nothing to incentivize landlords and property owners to keep the arts alive in Central Square.
Arts organizations are also urging that developers be required to provide arts spaces with affordable rents inside new developments, that the city hire a director of cultural planning, and that funding be provided for a new municipal building for arts use.