The stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre is not empty. Instead, the sets for the Sister Act musical command the space like funky Catholic ruins. The theater, the largest arts employer in the state, had hired crew to “load in” the sets, says Allison Woods, who works as a stagehand through the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) Local 15 union. Sister Act was set to premiere March 14. When the show was canceled, crew didn’t get called back to break sets down.
Woods has fared better than many in the arts world, even others in her profession, during the COVID-19 shutdown. The work is gone—“There’s not a single thing on our calendar from today until the end of the year”—but she can collect unemployment and has insurance through the union, which froze hours so workers don’t have to hit the 90-hour a month minimum.
This sense of staying afloat in a sea of loss applies to the organization too. The 5th Ave has now canceled the rest of its season. Bernie Griffin, the managing director, estimates total losses to now be $4 or $5 million in revenue. The theater announced its 2020/2021 season this week—subscribers can renew their passes, as support—but the shows, from Shrek to Les Misérables, don't have dates. Yet Griffin is confident in the theater’s future. “This is a long game. It's not anything that's going to be taken care of in six months. This is a three-year endeavor.” Like other major arts organizations (the symphony, the opera), the 5th Ave will function with a deficit for years, she says. But it will be here on the other side of the shutdown.
That is not the case across the city. Seattle’s arts industry was among the first and hardest hit in the country. At the beginning of March, need skyrocketed. An ArtsFund survey released last week estimated $74.1 million in losses by the end of May from 85 Puget Sound organizations. Those were nonprofits, and the survey was conducted before the ban on gatherings over 50 people. The number will certainly rise. “The losses in the profit and nonprofit sides are in the hundreds of millions already,” says Randy Engstrom, the director of Seattle’s Office of Arts and Culture.
Some venues are bleeding out. A few have decided to close for good. Voices are rising: We need cash assistance, a rent freeze. What is being done to save Seattle’s arts?
On March 16, the Clock-Out Lounge reached its two-year anniversary. Jodi Ecklund, who’d spent years as a booker at Chop Suey, opened the Beacon Hill venue with a partner. Music jobs were hard to come by so she decided to “carve out my own niche.” In those two years, the Clock-Out has become a community hub, serving Breezy Town pizza, hosting music, a weekly comedy night, drag shows, trivia. And it was profitable, she says. She planned to throw the space a birthday party that weekend with staff members’ bands playing. Instead, Ecklund canceled the shows. The Clock-Out tried to function as a bar that weekend. Then on 16th—two years after opening—the venue closed indefinitely.
This narrative has become common ground for most small businesses in the city—the reality of the shutdown. But independent music venues like the Clock-Out have found themselves in an especially precarious position. For-profit venues generally don’t qualify for arts relief funding that has cropped up. Bookstores and art galleries are struggling, and have laid off staffs, but they can sell things online. Venues can't, beyond some t-shirts.
And unlike bars and restaurants, they can’t swing back immediately. Tours are booked months in advance. Steven Severin says the venues he runs, Neumos and Barboza, will have a “hell of a party” upon reopening. Then: “We’re dark. Because all of our tours are gone. They started getting pushed back to the summer, but that’s getting wiped out.” Booking for mid-size venues like his is getting pushed back to March and February of 2021. Local bands will get on stages, but national tours won't.
This week the Clock-Out, Neumos, and 34 other venues across the state announced they’d formed a coalition, the Washington Nightlife and Music Association (WANMA). They came up with five necessities: “Cash assistance (not loans!), rent forgiveness and reduction, financial payments and assistance for the workforce, tax relief, insurance relief and revisions.” They’re asking music fans to petition state representatives like senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
Venues have gotten help in small ways, so far. Both Severin and Ecklund said their landlords had been good—Ecklund’s offered $500 to $1000 off until the Clock-Out can reopen—but without a mortgage freeze, landlords owe too. (The Stranger has been reporting on the viability of a rent and mortgage freeze. In short, city council endorsed it, symbolically. Inslee hasn’t. And it’s on rocky constitutional ground.)
Venues qualify for small business loans under congress’s $2 trillion CARES Act, but owners are leery of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, since full forgiveness is predicated on paying out 75 percent as payroll. And the $10,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loans (EIDL)? Severin says it wouldn’t even cover a month’s insurance. Some venues have already closed for good but not announced it publicly. The timeline for Ecklund and Severin is less certain. Maybe a month, maybe two.
Those in WANMA are sounding the alarm: The loss of venues means the loss of music. Bands make most of their money playing shows. A night headlining the Clock-Out might equal a year’s worth of Spotify streams. Ecklund says most of her staff plays in bands and she’s especially worried about all the individual artists and employees.
In late February, Seattle author Ijeoma Oluo started having her speaking events canceled. Then her partner, a musician, mentioned a DJ he knew had lost gigs and had trouble paying rent. Oluo had created fundraisers in the past, including one for last year’s snow storm, so on March 9 she started the Seattle Artist Relief Fund Amid COVID-19—a way to quickly send money to people in need. Within four days, the GoFundMe raised nearly $100,000 and had over 200 applicants. By March 26: $300,000 (including $50,000 from the city) and over 1,800 applicants, so many it had put newcomers on a waiting list. Funds are still coming in, $50 here, $250 there, but Oluo says giving has slowed as need rises (the goal is now $1 million). “We were getting some larger donations, but the truth is—the beauty and the hard part is—people were giving whatever they had.”
That is, of course, the nature of short term relief. It’s heartening and invaluable for those it reaches, but it dries up. ArtsFund, which has directed around $2 million toward relief, estimates that Oluo’s fund, a similar Artist Trust fund, and offerings from 4Culture and the city have gathered about $5.5 million total—a salve, not a cure. For the city, that’s kind of the point, says Randy Engstrom from the Office of Arts and Culture. “I mean, 9000 people applied for the small business mitigation fund, for which we had 250 awards with $2.5 million,” he says. The federal relief is far greater than what the city can manage and it’s now working on longer-term approaches, like potentially redeploying people from the arts or restaurants in different capacities. As for the immediate relief funds the city provided: “I think it’s important to do the short term, to prove to the community that we're listening, that we're responsive, and that we care.”
Kevin Sur immediately focused on struggling artists. His Artist Home, a nonprofit that puts on events like Timber! Outdoor Music Festival, launched a series of streaming concerts where musicians could seek support. It helped get music teaching jobs to out-of-work musicians. When he began hearing about need from venue owners, he helped to organize WANMA and connected disheartened venue owners with people in the Office of Arts and Culture to help them figure out a path forward. He figures they’re the biggest piece of infrastructure in the music economy here. “A music venues go,” he said, “our entire music industry here in Seattle goes.”
He’s hoping that the arts community will overcome. But he’s seen the other side. Sur left San Francisco about 15 years ago, where he’d watched the community fade away—musicians leaving, venues closing. “I moved to Seattle because I saw this infrastructure,” he says. Now he’s facing “a very accelerated version” of what he left. The economic vice had already been tightening on venue owners and artists here. Now the pandemic is “making what took 10 years in San Francisco happen in two months.”