Art venues seemed to tip like dominoes last month by announcing temporary closures wrought by social distancing measures aimed at curbing COVID-19. From museums to theaters, art spaces already have taken a big hit due to canceled exhibits and performances that typically bring in the bulk of their income.
Now, they face even greater uncertainty as cities and towns wrestle with which programs to cut to deal with financial shortfalls exacerbated by the virus. Local governments are working now on future budgets and making decisions that will have an impact on arts and culture for both the short and long term.
The Phoenix city manager has asked every department to suggest possible cuts up to 25 percent as part of the city's budget process. That includes the department of arts and culture, which has programs in several areas from arts education to public art. The city’s arts and culture commission, which is composed of community members, plans to discuss the impact of COVID-19 during its April 14 meeting before those recommendations are due.
The city of Mesa is also exploring possible cuts to arts and culture. Several of its venues, including Mesa Arts Center and multiple museums, are closed due to COVID-19 until September 30. The city is now weighing the value of keeping venues staffed while they’re not open and discussing whether it makes sense to reopen them once the public health risks subside because it takes city money to operate them. The city could decide the money is needed elsewhere.
Decision-makers have different perspectives on the issue. “I don’t know that we should be worried about arts and other social programs,” Jeremy Whittaker told fellow Mesa City Council members during a March 26 study session. “I don’t think a person that lost their job is really that concerned about if they are going to be able to go to the Mesa Arts Center.”
By contrast, council member Jenn Duff argued during an April 2 study session for arts and culture as an essential element of quality of life, while noting that Mesa Arts Center and other cultural venues have been significant drivers of economic development and revitalization in downtown Mesa.
That's not to say the other issues — such as health care, jobs, public safety, and housing — don't matter. But it does highlight the fact that not everyone appreciates the value of arts and culture.
Local governments throughout the Valley will be discussing similar issues in the coming days and weeks, as plans for the fiscal year 2020-2021 budgets take shape. Normal processes for obtaining community feedback are being curtailed in many places, in part because social distancing makes things like in-person community meetings untenable. The city of Phoenix canceled community meetings to get budget feedback, for example, citing public health concerns.
Citizens can still weigh in by calling or emailing local officials involved with budgeting decisions or offering comments during City Council meetings that are broadcast live on city websites, sometimes with City Council members participating remotely from their homes.
It turns out that similar discussions have been happening at the state level — and beyond.
Americans for the Arts estimates that the financial impact of COVID-19 on the nation’s arts sector is about $3.2 billion, yet controversy ensued in late March after Congress passed an emergency relief bill that includes funding for several staples of America's cultural landscape, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Smithsonian Institution.
When the state of Arizona approved its preliminary budget for the next fiscal year, it failed to include a $2 million allocation requested by Arizona Commission on the Arts, a group that supports local artists and arts organizations through grants and other programs. The state could add arts funding when it revisits that budget, which means advocates still can press their local representatives to help make it happen.
Meanwhile, several city staffers around the Valley are still charged with planning future programming while doing their best to deal with unpredictable timelines. “We’re still planning for fall exhibitions,” says Peter Bugg, visual arts coordinator for the city of Chandler. “And we have a lot of backup plans for summer shows.” So far, he says, there haven’t been staffing cuts in Chandler galleries.
In Scottsdale, there’s another layer of decision-making underway. The city contracts with Scottsdale Arts to manage cultural resources such as Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. Scottsdale Arts CEO Gerd Wuestemann is working with his board of trustees in addition to following city budget developments.
“My guestimate at this point is that we’ll probably see $1.5 to $2 million in losses due to COVID-19 in the near term,” Wuestemann says. For fiscal year 2018-2019, Scottsdale Arts' operating budget was just under $13 million. "Once we can reopen, it’ll probably take 15 months to recover financially.” For now, he’s working with staff on ways to provide virtual experiences to people who miss spending time at the museum or performing arts center.
“We may have to postpone some things, but we’ll come out on the other end a more nimble organization," Wuestemann says. “I know we’ll get through this together.”