The Crushing Impact COVID-19 Has Had On the Arts

Kristin Sakoda, Director of the LA County Department of arts and Culture, Jose Luis Valenzuela, Artistic Director of LA Theater Center

Life has changed for all of us since the arrival of COVID-19. We pause before leaving the house, we put on a mask before stepping outdoors, consider how many people may be “too many” to socially distance from when needing to get groceries or carry out simple tasks. 

Now, much of our lives have been lived through a computer screen. We get notices about virtual conferences, Zoom meetings and sometimes a virtual performance. We worry about the sustainability of our jobs and what the future holds for our kids.

So many of the things we were accustomed to doing, to give our minds a little respite, we can no longer do.  Making plans to see a  concert, going to the theater to see a movie or a play now appear to be a long distance away. While we take in the work of entertainers, musicians, actors, visual artists every day, right now  it’s especially hard for those who bring us that entertainment. 

For artists who have chosen an already challenging profession, this pandemic has stalled their exhibits, stage plays, filming and musical performances, and many of the estimated five million artists nationwide now find themselves among the unemployed.  

“COVID hit the arts sector quite hard. You might recall that even before there was a ‘stay-at-home’ order, performances, films, movie theaters, cultural venues, had to stop and shut down right away in March,” said  Kristin Sakoda, director of The LA County Department of Arts and Culture, during a news briefing held by Ethnic Media Services. 

The county department Sakoda describes supports 480 diverse organizations ranging from theater, dance, and media to museums, and many of them have deep cultural ties to local  communities. Among them are the notable Japanese American National Museum, the Skirball Cultural Center, Cornerstone Theater Company, the Pan African Film Festival, and the East West Players.

“The impact on the arts and culture sector nationally has now reached almost $12 billion of lost revenue and unanticipated expenses,” Sakoda said.   

While the county Department of Arts and Culture is using $10 million of CARES Act funds to distribute as grants to small and mid-size arts venues, the numbers of those deserving support is vast. 

After all, Los Angeles — known as the entertainment capitol of the world — is home to more than 200 museums and art galleries of every size that attracts major tourism and also offers opportunities to artists.  

There are also many independent homegrown art galleries nestled in small communities that have been started by  local artists. And Los Angeles is home to 300 theaters and live music venues.

Over the last six months, since the pandemic hit, these art locations have lost $20 million in revenue.  

When the pandemic hit, Jose Luis Valenzuela, artistic director of the LA Theater Center (LATC), was rehearsing a play about immigration with students from colleges. While much work had already been invested, they couldn’t go forward to either produce or perform it. The well respected theater known for producing plays relevant to the Latino community was forced to shut down.

Live performances were among the first things to be shuttered once news of the pandemic broke last March.  

The loss is much more than an inconvenience to those who are patrons of the arts. Los Angeles theater companies like LATC  bridge the arts with the local community; it’s a place where many young people in underserved communities experience theater for the very first time. 

“Theater is a place where people see themselves, hearing words they can relate to. We can talk about their issues, talk about their dreams, and give them some sort of cultural relationship to the world,” Valenzuela said.  

“Of the Latino theater companies, we may be one of the most established companies here with a bigger budget. The effect [COVID] has had on us — we’ve had to cancel everything,” said Valenzuela, of the 35-year-old company.

“We are [now] experimenting with digital programming — whatever that means. Somebody was asking if that makes money — that makes NO money. It’s worse than live theater,” Valenzuela laughs.

“We don’t even make money when we make live theater, forget digital.”

With no way to plan for or even anticipate when restrictions will be lifted, and it is deemed safe to gather and sit closely together in a theater, Valenzuela said simply taking a performance off of a stage and figuring out a way to present the work virtually online isn’t going to help their bottom line.  

“My concern is that many of the small theater companies won’t survive this crisis — just because we don’t even know when we’re going to be able to open, to do work together,” he said. “And like I said, doing digital work is great to engage the community, but it really makes no money at all.”

Many have turned to PPP loans and emergency grants, but it’s just not enough. “I’ve got a $10,000 a month lighting bill at LATC,”  said Valenzuela, who shared that they have received one loan for $22,000. That won’t cover their mounting expenses or 14 staff members. “We will have to let them go.” 

Valenzuela isn’t alone. Half of the arts organizations in the country have had to furlough or lay off staff, noted Sakoda. It was a struggle for many of them even before the pandemic.

“A lot of community based organizations or smaller budget organizations that really reflect and serve communities of color often don’t have the same access to donors or to large amounts of capital,” Sakoda said.

While many think of the arts as “unessential,” the opposite is true for those who have studied the issue. There is much evidence that young people involved in the arts do better in school, and communities with arts programs have better health outcomes and public safety.  

“We can’t turn away from art,” said Sakoda. “We need the arts to be part of our recovery efforts.”

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