Why This Matters: The nonprofit cultural sector is among the first to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to be among the last sectors to recover due to its function of providing in-person experiences that educate, entertain and enrich lives.
By Bernie Petit
The doors were open at Carolina Raptor Center. But, little by little, folks stopped showing up.
Schools started calling in early March to cancel or postpone scheduled field trips. By mid-March, no one was coming out to the environmental education and rehabilitation center for birds of prey.
As fear over COVID-19 crept closer to home, the Raptor Center—like cultural organizations across Charlotte-Mecklenburg—closed to visitors out of an abundance of caution and before local, state or federal officials issued self-quarantine guidelines.
“Overnight the majority of our revenue shut down,” said Raptor Center Executive Director Jim Warren. “For a lot of institutions, this is peak season from a visitor standpoint.”
Spring is when many cultural organizations host most of their school field trips, major community events and fundraisers.
Now, instead of bringing in about $400,000 during what traditionally is its busiest time of year, the Raptor Center projects to clear just shy of $100,000.
“This whole quarter is our Black Friday,” Warren said. “This would be the time of year to make enough cash to carry us through the summer.”
An Immediate Impact
Charlotte and Mecklenburg County’s cultural community was among the first locally impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. The toll has been felt by arts, science and history organizations and creative individuals alike.
As of April 1, data from an ongoing COVID-19 impact survey, conducted by ASC, shows that more than 90 percent of artists have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. The biggest impact is related to event cancellations (87 percent). Nearly 80 percent have experienced a loss of artistic income—meaning a total loss of income for some—and more than 75 percent expect COVID-19 to severely impact their artistic business.
“I am concerned that many artists…will not get some temporary help even though we are on the front lines of immediate and potentially catastrophic impact,” said Charlotte glass artist Carmella Jarvi.
It is why ASC recently launched the Mecklenburg Creatives Resiliency Fund to provided $500 grants to eligible artists financially impacted by COVID-19. The fund, established with an initial contribution from ASC, is also accepting donations from the public.
Jarvi said she’s lost nearly all the contracts she had secured this year due to the coronavirus outbreak and that once-promising leads look dim.
“I’ve been through very lean times as an artist,” she said. “But not like this.”
For performers that rely on the restaurants, venues and other public spaces that are now closed, “everything came to a screeching halt,” said local jazz singer Nicci Canada. “Our craft revolves around being around people.”
In 2016, Canada started Dapper Street Productions, which offers jazz concerts, outreach and educational programs. Its previously scheduled programs have been postponed.
“There are musicians that depend on me or others, to feed their families,” she said. “I can’t provide that right now. I hate that I’m not able to give that to people right now.”
Financial and Personal Tolls
The widespread coronavirus-related layoffs and furloughs seen in industries across the U.S. is also happening in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s cultural sector.
Discovery Place was forced to temporarily lay off 75 percent of its employees while Charlotte Ballet furloughed its contract staff and ended all dancer contracts (though dancers will receive the pay they were promised), according to The Charlotte Observer. ASC suspended some of its education initiatives, furloughed staff members who support those efforts and significantly reduced the salaries of its leadership.
In detailing the financial ramifications of COVID-19 on the cultural sector, the Observer reported:
- Blumenthal Performing Arts expects to be impacted by more than $1 million a month
- Charlotte Ballet estimates it will lose $1.45 million
- Charlotte Symphony foresees missing out on at least $1 million in ticket sales for the concerts it has postponed or cancelled through April 12
- The Mint Museum believes it will lose at least $1 million
- Opera Carolina stands to lose $130,000 in ticket sales
- Tosco Music expects to lose over half of its $420,000 annual budget
Beyond the loss of revenue cultural groups are experiencing is the strain it is putting on their staffs and volunteers.
“We’re all organizations, but who are those organizations? They’re people,” Warren said. “We’re still members of the community with families and loved ones that we care about.”
Despite the hardships, cultural organizations and creatives know they’re not alone, as the pandemic is affecting millions across the globe.
They’re doing their part to help, from producing cloth masks and face shields for medical personnel on the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus to creating virtual experiences to engage online audiences.
“We say all the time to support the arts,” Canada said. “I think people are starting to realize how important the arts are now that we don’t have access to them.