Long-awaited arts funding finally arriving

Mass. nets $100m so far; Boston Symphony receives $10m

MASSACHUSETTS ARTS appear to be big beneficiaries of $16 billion in federal relief aid that is finally starting to be released after a delayed start and an arduous review process.

According to federal data on the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, 123 Massachusetts arts organizations have received more than $100 million so far, the seventh-highest amount of any state in the country. 

Recipients include icons such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Boston Opera House, the Wang Theater, and the Boston Ballet. The four institutions received $10 million, nearly $7.9 million, $9 million, and $8 million, respectively.

Smaller organizations are receiving money as well. The Studio Theater in Worcester will get just under $5,000, a Newton-based DJ group received about $11,000, and the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River pocketed $600,000.

“We went 16 months with little to no revenue,” said Patrick Norton, executive director of the Narrows Center, a performance venue, art gallery, and studio space. “This is going to have a huge impact on how our organization is going to be able to move forward.” 

A lot more money is available. As of Tuesday, only $2 billion of the $16 billion has actually been delivered and another $1.2 has been awarded but not sent out yet. Of the 14,884 applications submitted, 21 percent were still in review, 5 percent had not yet reached review, and 364 businesses were denied funding.

“We are working as quickly as possible to decision the applications currently in our queue,” said Norman Eng, a public affairs specialist for the Massachusetts branch of the Small Business Administration, in an email.  “With over $16 billion allocated for the program, there is enough funding for all the qualified applicants that we have at this point.” 

Elizabeth Moisuk, regional communications director for the Small Business Administration, said organizations can still submit applications and that there will be an opportunity for venues to secure supplemental funds after the initial applications have been decided. 

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program is an initiative to aid performance venues and operators impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. It was approved by Congress with $16 billion in funding in December, but the grant money only started flowing in late May . Businesses are eligible for grants equaling 45 percent of their annual revenue, with a cap of $10 million. 

Massachusetts’ total grant allocation of $100,262,775 puts it among seven states that have been awarded over $100 million from the grant program. New York laid claim to the most, bringing in over $491 million to its performance organizations, followed by California, Texas, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. 

The bulk of the Massachusetts grants will accrue to organizations in the Boston area. Over a third of the grants awarded in the state are to venues in and around the capitol city. Of the 24 organizations receiving at least $1 million, 14 are in Boston or Cambridge. Seven Worcester organizations are grant recipients, making it the city with the third most. 

Emily Ruddock, executive director of MassCreative, a creative-sector advocacy group, said she works with organizations that have recently received funds and says the deposits come with a noticeable sense of relief for live venue owners and operators. 

Part of that relief may come from putting a complicated application process behind them. 

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program was established as part of the Economic Aid Act in December of 2020. In March, it was amended by the American Rescue Plan Act to broaden eligibility for the program. The application portal didn’t open until late April. Norman Eng, a public affairs specialist for the Massachusetts branch of the Small Business Administration (SBA) said that the lag between authorization and commencement was because the SBA had to build the program from the ground up. 

Eng says the SBA inherited a complex system when the funding program was placed in its hands. Statutory requirements created by the Trump administration meant thousands of applications, consisting of 30 to 100 documents each, required “extensive scrutiny.” Some applications had to be reviewed manually. Additionally, the organization didn’t have complete control over operations and wasn’t allowed to decide who would run the program. 

The result was a rocky rollout process rife with delays and complications. 

The program was set up so that the hardest hit businesses would be served first. Three priority groups were defined, with businesses that lost 90 percent or more of their revenue during the pandemic receiving grants in the first 14 days of award disbursement. Second priority businesses, which lost at least 70 percent of their revenue, were served in the following two weeks, and other businesses became eligible after that. 

Glitches in the system, however, kept the schedule from working as planned. Eng said a fraud prevention measure meant to flag potentially risky transactions, called Do Not Pay, resulted in holds on about 500 applicants who should have fallen into the first priority category. These businesses did not receive grants or notices of grants during the first 14 days, which began May 26. In late June, they were just beginning to have their applications reviewed, alongside entities that lost 25 percent of their revenue. 

Even those who did make it into the first priority round received grants later than expected. The application portal initially opened on April 8, but technical difficulties caused it to be closed and pushed the process back two weeks.

“Venues have been crying out for these funds,” said Rep. Carole Fiola of Fall River, House chair of the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts, and Cultural Development. “When you consider that a majority of these venues have been closed since March of 2020, I think many would say that the funds are long overdue and were needed months ago.”

Ruddock said the application process was especially difficult for small- and medium-sized organizations that don’t have a grant writer on staff. She said the infrastructure in place left organizations to find and fund technical assistance on their own and she worries that this inequity will show up in the long-term recovery of the sector. 

Smaller businesses are getting in on the action, though. Nearly 70 percent of grants awarded so far nationally went to venues with no more than 10 full-time employees. Another 24 percent went to those with 50 or fewer, and only eight went to those with more than 500.

While the funds were a lifeline for many businesses, Ruddock emphasized that they are not a panacea. Not all cultural organizations were eligible for the program, and the sector is looking to recover better, not return to a pre-pandemic “scarcity model.”

 “[The grant program] doesn’t absolve Gov. Baker and his administration or the Legislature of their responsibility to really [help] recover a sector that is incredibly crucial to Massachusetts’ economy,” she said. 

Fiola has similar expectations for the Baker administration. “We need to look at how we are mobilizing other sources of funding, like the state’s allocation of American Rescue Plan Act monies to revitalize the arts and cultural sector so that it comes back stronger than it was before,” she said. 

Some grant recipients also worry that arts and culture consumers will feel absolved of their role in the sector’s recovery if they catch wind of the program. A few business owners were reluctant to speak about their loans on the record. The owner of a production and talent agency in Massachusetts said his business shut down for a year and had 75 shows canceled or postponed, but he worried that if his clients knew he received a grant they would try to pay less for his services. 

The owner said the application process was “pretty mind boggling.” Even once he was awarded a grant, he needed to complete an approval process to actually receive the funds. He ran into technology issues that dragged the process out over about a week. Despite the delays, he said, the funds came at a good time, just as he was in the midst of relaunching his business. He’ll use the support for a myriad of needs, including paying independent contractors, advertising, payroll, and equipment costs. 

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Lily Robinson

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“While it may seem that those who received these grants were given significant support,” said Fiola, “I can say that for many venues, the funds they received from the program could not cover the amount of revenue these venues have lost from closing their doors and must now use to upgrade and improve infrastructure.”

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, which was notified in late June that it will receive the maximum grant amount of $10 million, lost over $50 million in revenue since it was forced to close last March and will use the relief funds to rebuild operations in preparation for summer and fall performances.