'Shuttered venues' grant program tosses arts organizations a lifeline

Brian Hallenbeck, The Day, New London, Conn.
·3 min read

Apr. 8—EAST HADDAM — With the end of the COVID-19 pandemic within view if not yet reach, arts organizations in Connecticut and across the country are struggling to hang on.

The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program could be their lifeline.

Created by Congress in December and bolstered by the $1.9 trillion America Rescue Plan Act that President Joe Biden signed into law last month, the program will provide $16.2 billion in coronavirus relief aid for live venue operators and promoters; theatrical producers; live performing arts organizations; movie theaters and talent representatives.

The U.S. Small Business Administration, which will administer the program, starts taking applications Thursday.

"Our reopening depends on the program," Donna Lynn Hilton, Goodspeed Musicals' artistic director, said here Wednesday at an outdoor news conference in front of the Goodspeed Opera House. "We have a very long road to recovery ahead of us."

The Goodspeed, which in a normal, pre-pandemic year would expect to welcome more than 100,000 patrons to the opera house and its Norma Terris Theatre in nearby Chester, has lost $11 million in revenue while closed to in-person performances, Hilton said. About 70% of the Goodspeed staff has been laid off or furloughed for the past year.

Two loans secured under the Paycheck Protection Program — another form of federal coronavirus relief aid — and support from donors have enabled the theater to retain some staff, Hilton said.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, who voted for the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant program, addressed Hilton and other arts organization officials and advocates who gathered at the news conference, noting that Congress has come to understand that leisure and hospitality — including arts, entertainment and restaurants — has been the hardest-hit sector of the economy during the pandemic.

"And no recovery is complete unless it includes arts and culture," he said.

Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, cited data indicating the state's "creative sector" lost an estimated $2.4 billion in revenue in 2020, while more than 33,000 people, or 56% of those working in the sector, became unemployed.

Catherine Marx, director of the SBA's Connecticut office, said individual shuttered venues grants will be awarded for up to 45% of an operator's gross earned revenue in 2019, but cannot exceed $10 million. Up to $2 billion in grant funding will be set aside for grants to entities with no more than 50 full-time employees.

Under a three-tier system, those hardest hit will be the first to get grants, Marx said.

The funding can be used for a variety of specific purposes, including payroll costs; rent payments; utility payments; mortgage payments; worker protection expenditures; payments to independent contractors; maintenance costs; administrative costs; state and local taxes; insurance payments and capital expenditures related to producing theatrical productions.

Brett Elliott, executive director of the Katharine Hepburn theater, which held its first live event in 379 days on the last weekend in March, said a grant would enable "The Kate" to bring back regular shows, make "bold financial decisions" and "fulfill our mission."

He said the theater's comeback also would be good for business at shops, hotels and restaurants in Old Saybrook.

East Haddam First Selectman Rob Smith said theaters like the Goodspeed, The Kate and the Ivoryton Playhouse in Essex are part of the fabric of the communities in which they're located. When people return to them, everyone will benefit, he said.

"This is really important," he said of the grant program.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com