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.”

Garneau said Improv Boston has already made a lot of cuts – he and four other full-time employees were furloughed, some 60 part-timers are no longer working, and one of the organization’s performance spaces on Bishop Allen Drive was shut down.

“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.

Improv Boston in Central Square remains closed during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

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.

A newly painted art installation in front of Cambridge City Hall honors the victims of police involved shootings. (Photo by Sarah Betancourt)

LaSalle of Improv Boston said the delay has been painful. “It was a dire situation for us in July,” she said. “The six-week delay is an incredible stresser. If relief isn’t made available soon, lots of arts spaces aren’t going to make it to Phase 4.”

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.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

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.