Lawrence arts and culture organizations say they’re in dire financial straits amid pandemic, request relief funding

photo by: Kevin Anderson/Journal-World File Photo

The Lawrence Arts Center, 940 New Hampshire St., is pictured in this file photo.

Much like other industries nationwide, the Douglas County arts and culture community has been slammed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

But leaders of local nonprofit arts and culture organizations said that the most challenging part about the pandemic is the uncertainty.

“The problem is we don’t know how long we will be in this period,” said Steve Nowak, executive director of the Watkins Museum of History. “If someone could say, ‘Hang on until February,’ we could figure that out. But we don’t know how long we’re going to have to hang on.”

Nowak and other arts and culture leaders recently explained to the Douglas County Commission just how much they are hurting because of the pandemic. As most of them relied on raising much of their revenue through hosting events that require bringing many people together in small and enclosed spaces, the organizations are all expecting to see steep losses this year.

To survive the pandemic, the leaders said they may need more relief funding, which may be possible through the nearly $25 million in federal relief funding that the county is set to receive.

“We know we can get through this and be able to rebuild … but there is a huge gap between then and now that we have to make it through,” said Margaret Weisbrod Morris, CEO of the Lawrence Arts Center. “We need help to survive it.”

The arts center expects to see a loss of $500,000 of revenue that would go toward its 2021 budget, Weisbrod Morris said. The history museum expects to lose about $130,000, and Theatre Lawrence has already missed out on about $300,000 of expected income this year. The losses have resulted in layoffs and furloughs, the organizations’ leaders said.

photo by: Meeting screenshot/Douglas County Commission

Leaders of local arts and culture organizations speak to the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.

While the organizations have received some relief so far during the pandemic, the leaders said it has not been enough. Watkins Museum of History received a $76,000 federal grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and each of the three organizations received a loan from a bank as part of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program. But the paycheck money, which was used for paying employees during shutdowns caused by the pandemic, only covered about eight weeks of payroll and dried up quickly, Weisbrod Morris said.

When the organizations will be able to hold their normal events again and when the community will feel safe to attend them is also unknown. Nowak said he expected some Douglas County residents would not be ready to attend events in person as often as they had in the past.

In the meantime, the organizations are trying to reinvent the industry by offering new programs, many of them through virtual meetings. But that too is uncertain in terms of providing any significant revenue.

“We’re now startups,” Nowak said. “Everything we try is an experiment. We don’t know if it will work or not, and we don’t know if it will make revenue or not.”

The organizations are also offering scaled-down in-person programming. Theatre Lawrence has moved some operations outdoors, said Mary Doveton, the theater’s executive director. She said the theater was focused on keeping its “name out there” and providing entertainment.

But when the weather requires the theater to move back inside to its 300-seat auditorium later this year, it will need to limit guests to 96 people. Doveton said that would have “an enormous” economic impact on the theater.

She said the struggle during the pandemic not only hurts the organizations, but also the community at large, because arts and culture are needed to help people cope with stressful situations.

“It’s our arts and our culture that bring us together,” Doveton said. “In a time of change and fear like we are going through right now, that becomes even more important.”

Michael Davidson, executive director for the visitors bureau Explore Lawrence, also asked for the county to consider helping the organizations. He said the visitors center worked closely with the arts community, often promoting its events.

County Commission Chair Patrick Kelly called the arts and culture situation “heartbreaking” and noted that the organizations may be able to use funds from the county’s allotment of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as CARES. Douglas County will soon receive about $24.9 million in federal aid, and a team the county put together is crafting a plan for how to allocate it.

While those dollars will most likely be used to cover the costs of public health and safety needs, County Administrator Sarah Plinsky said there may be room to provide relief for business interruption and “distance learning.” She said those areas may be applicable to the arts and culture organizations and she looked forward to seeing funding applications from them.

However, she noted that the team expected to receive a lot of funding applications and suggested that not all organizations would receive money. She encouraged the groups to also consider keeping an eye on the second round of CARES funding that the state’s Strengthening People and Revitalizing Kansas task force, or SPARK, is expected to provide later this year.

Despite the revenue crisis, Nowak said the pandemic has brought the organizations together to think about the bigger picture and look out for one another.

“While we have to look to the short-term and midterm calamities that we face, I hope we can also use this as a way of launching us into thinking about what new models would be necessary to create long-term sustainability,” Nowak said. “We’re learning to work together in new ways, which is going to make that a lot easier.”

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