Business & Economy

$800,000 from CARES Act to come on line for arts groups

Poet Chard DiNord of Westminster shows a painting by Eric Aho, who was honored with the 2016 Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts. Vermont Arts Council photo

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Two of Vermont’s most prominent arts organizations will distribute $800,000 in federal emergency funds to Vermont artists in a program that starts this week.

The Vermont Council on the Arts and the Vermont Humanities Council are dispensing the state’s share of the $75 million for the arts that was included in the CARES Act, the emergency Covid-19 relief bill that was passed by Congress in March.

Each has received $400,000, and they will pool the money in a joint grant program that launched Thursday, said Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council.

After Gov. Phil Scott declared a state of emergency, closed businesses and then issued a “stay home/stay safe” order to Vermont residents in March, the Arts Council used emergency reserves to set up its Rapid Response Artist Relief Fund, which provides $500 grants for artists who are in financial need because of job loss or cancellation. As arts venues canceled concerts and businesses closed, the fund got 183 requests for emergency relief, awarded 164 grants worth about $64,000, and then ran out of money.

On April 14, the New England Foundation for the Arts awarded $47,000 to the Vermont Arts Council to distribute to artists in need. The council also has about $2,000 donated by individuals since the crisis began, and it recently started a fundraising partnership with the Vermont Community Foundation to keep money coming in for artist grants.

The $800,000 in federal funds is to be used for one-time grants to nonprofit organizations including arts organizations, local arts agencies and other organizations, according to guidelines from the National Endowment for the Arts. The money can also go to salaries, artist fees and facilities costs such as rent and utilities.

“Frankly, it’s going to disappear pretty quickly,” said Mittelman, who plans to run the grant program through June 30 or until the money runs out.

Artists make up about 9.3% of employment in Vermont, according to the Arts Council, with 40,000 jobs, higher than the national average. But they often don’t make a lot of money, and many don’t have much saved for emergencies, Mittelman said.

“Most artists, from most surveys I have seen, don’t have more than one month’s savings in the bank,” she said. “And also, because it’s Vermont, they’re living in remote places and may not have great internet connections. A lot of them don’t have websites up and running, so they don’t have a way to transition their business to the virtual realm.”

An economic impact study from Americans for the Arts published April 9 estimated that the nonprofit arts sector had lost $4.5 billion nationally as of April 6. AFTA estimated that 94% of arts organizations nationally have canceled events, 29% have used financial reserves and 34% have reduced their workforce of creative staff.

More than one-third expect the crisis to have an “extremely severe” impact on their organization, according to AFTA.

A large proportion of Vermont artists are self-employed, surviving on occasional work like 10-day teaching artist residencies at schools, or are concert musicians who have seen their series canceled.

“Arts and culture are going to be essential when we are looking to heal and build and restore our communities,” said Mittelman. “People are going to be looking at arts and culture as places where they can come back together to help restore our communities.”

Karen Mittelman, executive director of the Vermont Arts Council. Courtesy photo

The crisis has closed about 30 craft stores nationwide where Montpelier artist Lochlin Smith has made a living selling his bronze jewelry for decades. Now Smith is looking at online marketing for the first time,with help from his son.

“I have done Facebook and Instagram, but have not been a great fan,” said Smith, 72, a board member at the Artisans Hand craft store in Montpelier. “It’s very complex and requires a real effort to learn how to do it right.”

Help is also on the way from the state. For the first time, self-employed artists are eligible for an unemployment insurance program that is expected to be up and running this week through the Vermont Department of Labor. Self-employed Vermonters who qualify for state unemployment will also be eligible for a weekly $600 check from the federal government through the CARES Act.

Mittelman said the Vermont Arts Council is trying to make artists aware of this opportunity. The unemployment insurance is retroactive to March.

“We have four different Covid-19 websites that provide resources for individual artists and organizations,” she said. “We’ve been sharing information on social media to try to help point people in the right direction to get the relief they need.”

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