Early last spring, Haw River Ballroom director Heather LaGarde began to hear that cultural disruptions from the virus would be anything but brief. She immediately made a COVID crash landing: closing the venue, turning off the phones and internet, and letting her entire staff go.

“We had to do some really painful calisthenics to make it survive,” she says of the ballroom. “If we didn’t, there’d have been no way we could ride it out.” Even though LaGarde and her partners own the building, keeping things afloat, she says, “has been a really close call. We’ve had to do a lot of work to make it last this far.”

Having lost what LaGarde calls “a year of everything,” the ballroom made the top tier of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants, a federal emergency aid program for the performing arts. That tier is reserved for groups that have lost more than 90 percent of their gross revenue during pandemic months last year.

The news should be a lifesaving boon. So why is LaGarde struggling to schedule the ballroom’s season after its September 8 return with Julien Baker?

Much of the answer lies with the Small Business Administration, which has just blown its second promised deadline to inform grant recipients that they’re actually approved for funding equivalent to 45 percent of their lost gross revenue. Without that fact in writing, LaGarde feels like she’s spending ghost money.

“Booking is scary when you don’t know what your funds are,” she says. But if presenters like her are going to have any fall season at all, “no one can wait any longer.”      

The Chelsea Theater has also had it tough. Executive director Emily Kass had bought the theater in March of 2018 and run it as a non-profit for less than 2 years before the pandemic hit.

When the theater was forced to temporarily close last spring, she used it as an opportunity to give the 30-year-old arthouse cinema a systemic facelift, reaching out to subscribers and supporters to fund upgrades to the theater’s sound systems, screens, and seating, along with its bathrooms and lobby. But as the months of closure continued, the theater burned through its cash reserves “and more.”

The theater reopened in April, but audiences have stayed small.

“We’re living on a loan we have to make payments on,” says Kass. “It’s a very tense and frustrating time.”

The SBA’s assessment reflects that. It puts Kass in SVOG’s second tier with groups who lost over 70 percent of their gross revenue between April and December of last year.

By any measure, the SVOG, which was part of a larger economic aid act that Donald Trump signed into law last December, is a historical federal aid package for a constellation of arts industries in the U.S. Its origins began with grassroots efforts by live music venue owners across the country, who came together in April of 2020 to form their own advocacy group, the National Independent Venue Association. NIVA enlisted top-drawer advisors from the country’s largest lobbying group by revenue, Akin Gump, to promote a proposed bill called “Save Our Stages.”

“The key was that, in every state, there’s at least one club that people love, and those venues had some political clout,” says Cat’s Cradle owner Frank Heath. A subsequent “50-state blitz” to rescue live music slowly gained traction.

“We knew we were getting places when some Republicans started putting their names on it,” Heath recalls. Lindsey Graham was an early advocate, and Texas Republican John Cornyn became the bill’s co-sponsor.

“Then it was expanded to include performing arts organizations, for-profit and nonprofit,” says Arts NC executive director Nate McGaha. “Broadway was in it; symphonies, theater companies, and museums were included in the end.”

The SVOG’s $16 billion price tag easily makes it the largest federal arts subsidy ever, almost 100 times bigger than the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Adjusted for inflation, it’s also 30 times the size of the largest previous comparable program in the nation’s history: the famous Federal Project Number One, which endowed artists including John Steinbeck, Zora Neale Hurston, and Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre in the 1930s under the WPA.

The legislation’s final version also targeted performing arts groups, movie theaters, and talent representatives in danger of closing permanently, by restoring 45 percent of their gross revenue lost during the pandemic, up to an individual grant cap of $10 million.

For an entity like PlayMakers Repertory Company which, according to producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch, lost nearly $1.2 million in ticket sales last season, a $540,000 subsidy could enable the company to rehire furloughed staff.

PineCone executive director David Brower checks his online SVOG account several times a day. After submitting an 85-page application in April for his Shuttered Venue grant, PineCone was placed in the third and lowest qualifying tier for support, among groups who lost only more than a quarter of their earned revenue during the pandemic.

Still, he has faith in the grant’s possibilities.

“The funding will help preserve the country’s arts infrastructure,” he says.

But to do that, the money has to first reach its recipients. After the SBA first missed a mid-May deadline to release the funds, SBA administrator Isabel Guzman told a House committee, last Wednesday, that grants had started rolling out.

But Triangle arts organizations, already stressed by five months’ delay in emergency funding, are still waiting. At this late date, none of the local arts contingent even knows if they’re being funded, or when they might be.

“Lots of venues were—and still obviously are—hanging on by a thread,” says Frank Heath.

He cites a chaotic January transition between presidential administrations and calls the delay “inevitable.”

But other factors clearly lead to the hold up.

“It took a long time for the SBA to wrap their head around how to administer this grant, and they kept getting it wrong,” McGaha says.

Brower is reluctant to blame the bureaucracy. “Imagine what it was like when they handed out $26 billion to the airline industry. It was much less complicated; you could probably fit all their representatives in the same conference room.”

Instead, he thinks the SVOG effort “exposed just how much [of a] hodge-podge the performing arts industry is.” Devising a comprehensive rubric for a field with so many different, and often idiosyncratic, business models would be daunting, adds Burning Coal Theatre’s artistic director Jerome Davis, who says the SBA has been “working to make the thing as accessible as possible to as many as possible.”

Still, even arts administrators accustomed to intricate grant applications have been daunted by the vagaries in the SVOG process. “The instructions changed at least three times,” LaGarde says. “And usually on a Friday, so everyone’s weekends were spent trying to unravel them without guidance,” Benesch adds.

Compounding the stress, arts organizations had to quickly collect a lot of information they had never tracked before. Executive director Heather Strickland found herself having to prove that Raleigh Little Theatre was a performance venue.

“Rather than asking about our mission and history, they said, ‘Show us you have a public address system and a lighting rig. Show us that you market shows for ticket sales.’ But how? Do we take pictures of our microphones? Do we find the receipts?”

The process was even more fraught for people not accustomed to government grants. “It was complicated, terrifying, and time-consuming,” says Pinhook owner Kym Register. “It would really make a lot of people not want to apply.”

Speaking off the record, a local venue owner who hasn’t completed the process calls the online form a “suicide application: you get it right or you get it wrong, and there’s no appeal at all.” According to American Dance Festival executive director Jodee Nimerichter, “it felt like if we did it wrong, we weren’t going to be considered.” Strickland frets, “I’m still worried I’m going to get an email that says you did it wrong and not get any money.”

Apprehensions like this have discouraged artists like choreographer ShaLeigh Comerford, who doesn’t plan to apply for the funds.

Kass, who has had seamless interactions with government funders in the past, concludes, “The process does not appear to have been managed well.”   

With warmer days and mask and social distancing restrictions on the wane, long-frustrated concert goers are just starting to demonstrate the economic power of pent-up demand.

When musician Waxahatchee’s October 7 show at Haw River Ballroom sold out in less than two days, LaGarde felt rejuvenated. “It was the first time we felt reassured that people felt safe and comfortable coming back to the Ballroom: a major shot in the arm for feeling like music would return.”

Still, many of the region’s top presenters caution audiences against expecting an immediate return to business as usual at their favorite venues. “You can’t just flip a switch and have the same bands planned,” Heath says. He expects a full year before the Cradle can get back to a pre-pandemic schedule.

Davis is scheduling two small-cast productions at the start of his upcoming season: shows “that would not put our company out of business if they had to be canceled or postponed.”

Other groups anticipate a longer timeline for a comeback. PlayMakers Rep, which has canceled its PRC2 second stage and taken one mainstage production off the books for next year, estimates three to five years to return to pre-COVID levels of production.

If Raleigh Little Theatre gets the funds it anticipates, it might take two years to rebuild what they had going into the pandemic; without them, closer to five. Even with its pandemic makeover, Kass anticipates two to five years for the Chelsea to repay its loans and “get back to whatever normal means.”   

For now, though, she and some 13,000 other applicants from across the country are still waiting, anxiously, for any word that help is finally on the way. 

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