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The Long Strange Year: “Artists Are Second Responders”

WRITTEN BY Stepahnie Hunt


Kerri Forrest, Lowcountry program director of the Donnelley Foundation, has a front-row seat when it comes to observing the pandemic-related struggles of local arts organizations, including Public Works Art Center in Summerville (pictured here), one of the foundation’s grantees.

Artists, dancers, and actors generally possess a certain unflappability, because, as they say, despite nerves, illness, bleak finances, or backstage drama, “the show must go on.” But COVID-19 had other plans. As the realities of the shutdown fell like a heavy curtain call, stage fright suddenly took on a new meaning. Spoleto Festival USA canceled its extensive 17-day program for the first time ever. Charleston Stage, the Footlight Players, PURE Theatre, and others went dark. Museums and galleries closed. YouTube became the only concert stage. Talk about improv. And all when we needed art and inspiration the most.

Nonprofits across the region suffered symptoms from the COVID shutdown, but according to a report by Together SC and the College of Charleston’s Joseph P. Riley Jr. Center for Livable Communities, arts organizations were hurt the most severely. Survey responses from 566 charitable organizations across the state revealed that while every nonprofit faced pandemic-related hurdles, Lowcountry arts organizations, which bring in $250 million in annual revenue, were hit on every front. They topped the list in terms of loss of overall revenue, loss of earned revenue (i.e. ticket sales), staff layoffs, and loss of foundation funding.

“It was startling to realize our arts organizations are that vulnerable,” says Kerri Forrest, Lowcountry program director for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, a leading arts and land conservation funder. Part of that vulnerability stems from a dearth of arts funders, she notes.

“The arts are a major tourism draw, vital to our cultural and economic livelihood. But somehow they’re missing from the funding conversation.” —Kerri Forrest, Donnelley Foundation

The survey and report confirmed what Forrest and others suspected, that in times of crisis people understandably donate to social services organizations, but “don’t necessarily think about their local theater and how those folks are going to put food on their table.” Yet while the arts might not seem as urgent as food, housing, or health care in times of crisis, “artists are second responders,” Forrest suggests. “We’re all going to need the arts to help us process the pandemic and last summer’s social unrest on the back end. So the question becomes, how do we keep these organizations viable between now and then?”

In response, the Donnelley Foundation accelerated their grant funding to some 40 Lowcountry arts organizations in their portfolio and reviewed and streamlined their own internal processes to approve grants more quickly. Additionally, they provided emergency funding to organizations lacking cash reserves (fewer than one-third of Donnelley’s grantees had six months of cash reserves). “They needed breathing room,” says Forrest, who also collaborated with the South Carolina Arts Commission and the SC Arts Alliance to offer organizations strategic planning assistance anticipating best- and worst-case scenarios.

Some grantees needed guidance on renegotiating leases and applying for PPP loans, while others on triaging budget and/or staff cuts, for example. The SCAC also advocated for arts organizations to receive state relief funding. “Fortunately, they were successful, and about 39 percent of all SC Cares Act funding awarded in December went to arts organizations statewide, but many small groups were missing from the list,” explains Forrest.

The upside was that many arts organizations discovered how dedicated their audiences are, she adds. When PURE Theatre took the risk to offer their plays virtually, people tuned in. “They’re hungry for the engagement, the interaction. The dedicated audiences are still there,” Forrest says. The challenges going forward, particularly with revenue still down, include how to expand audience reach and access after live performances resume, and equally, how to expand public funding for the arts.

While corporate dollars help sustain large organizations like Spoleto Festival USA, smaller arts groups have far fewer funding resources, Forrest points out. “It was frightening that Donnelley, which provides only $750,000 annually in grant funding to Lowcountry arts organizations, was the only place most of them could turn to. In Charleston, where art is happening 365 days a year, there should be a concerted effort to make sure all arts organizations are surviving and thriving, from largest to smallest,” she says, suggesting a need for more city and state support. “The arts are a major tourism draw, vital to our cultural and economic livelihood, and our communities. But somehow they’re missing from the funding conversation. How do we get that elevated?”

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