Virtual Briefing: Local Cultural Organizations and the COVID-19 Pandemic

In early April, we launched a survey that asked humanities organizations to share the challenges they are facing due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Museums, historic sites, and historical societies told us that closing their doors and canceling major events has led to major financial stress, leading them to face lay-offs and the possibility that they won’t survive as organizations.

Cognizant that organizations across the cultural sector are facing similar challenges, last week we teamed up with Americans for the Arts, the American Alliance of Museums, and the Federation of State Humanities Councils to host a virtual briefing for congressional staff. Congressional staffers heard from speakers from across the country, representing a range of arts and humanities institutions. Collectively, the speakers underscored that cultural institutions are community anchors, particularly in rural and underserved areas, whose financial collapse would not only add to the growing unemployment crisis but also have ripple effects throughout their region.  

Sue Deyoe, executive director of the Talkeetna Historical Society & Museum in Talkeetna, Alaska, highlighted the existential financial challenges her organization is facing without the summer tourist season, which normally brings 1,000 visitors a day to Talkeetna. As the only historical museum in the region and a regular destination for school trips, its closure would significantly compromise access to local history and educational opportunities in the surrounding areas. Dr. Frances Levine, president and CEO of the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis spoke of the financial challenges of pivoting to serve communities through virtual means even as the organization experiences severe financial stress due to closure. As a crucial source for educational materials for schools and communities, the Missouri Historical Society faces an uncertain financial future even as demand for its programming remains high.

The following two speakers offered a city- and county-wide perspective on the challenges to the cultural sector and what would be lost if organizations downsized or even failed. Alex Guardiola, director of government affairs and public policy at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, represented one of 140 chambers of commerce that sent a letter to Congress encouraging increased investment in the NEH, NEA, and IMLS to ensure the survival of local cultural organizations. He emphasized the role museums and theaters play in encouraging Worcester’s recent revival and the appeal they have in persuading many of Worcester’s 30,000 college students to stay in Worcester after graduating. Richard Stein, president and CEO of Arts Orange County, meanwhile, gave a county-wide perspective on the losses the arts sector has endured since the beginning of the COVID crisis—more than $16 million in the first two months of shutdown. He anticipates far more devastating losses to come given that most organizations will not be able to open to the public until Spring 2021.

When it came time to discuss policy solutions, staffers heard from representatives from the host organizations. Together, they explained that the CARES Act provided relief funding for these types of institutions through the NEH, NEA, IMLS, and the Paycheck Protection Program. That funding, however, will cover only a fraction of the need, and the representatives from each of the host organizations conveyed the need for increased funding in subsequent relief bills. 

A recording of the full briefing can be found here.

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