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Home / Pandemic grants help the show go on at Iowa arts venues
The process of applying was difficult, but the rewards of winning federal grants to aid arts venues shuttered amid the pandemic were worth the hard work, directors of area presenters say.
They are among 115 Iowa arts and entertainment organizations receiving a total of $44,537,369 in federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grants to help them recoup losses from COVID-19 shutdowns.
In Eastern Iowa, the awards range from $1,460,466 for Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City and $1,555,967 for Gallagher-Bluedorn Performing Arts Center in Cedar Falls to $578,437 for Theatre Cedar Rapids, $417,706 for Orchestra Iowa and $550,868 for the Englert Theatre in Iowa City, as well as $32,826 for smaller operations like Giving Tree Theater in Marion.
“It’s life-changing, or business-changing,” said Jamie Henley, who with his wife, Andrea, owns Giving Tree Theater. “It really keeps us being able to move forward.
“It would have been really hard for us to keep going long-term, especially since the pandemic’s not ending,” he said, echoing the sentiments of his colleagues worried about what the resurgence might mean for their planned programming. For now, Giving Tree and others are moving ahead, while keeping a close eye on the situation.
These Eastern Iowa organizations received Shuttered Venue Operators Grants for the amounts listed:
• Old Creamery Theatre Company: $437,843, theatrical producer
• C.A.R.E Hageman Enterprises: $205,854, live venue operator or promoter
• University of Northern Iowa: $1,555,967, live venue operator or promoter
• Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony: $16,076, live performing arts organization operator
• Jim McDonough Productions: $86,083, live performing arts organization operator
• Orchestra Iowa: $417,706, live performing arts organization operator
• Theatre Cedar Rapids: $578,437, theatrical producer
• Coralville Center for the Performing Arts: $179,126, live performing arts organization operator
• DeWitt Opera House Theatre: $76,177, motion picture theater operator
• Bell Tower Productions: $72,335, live performing arts organization operator
• Dubuque County Historical Society: $940,247, museum operator
• Dubuque Symphony Orchestra: $62,087, live performing arts organization operator
• City of Dubuque: $241,387, live venue operator or promoter
• Legion-Aires Drum and Bugle Corps: $449,823, live performing arts organization operator
• The Grand Opera House: $180,492, live performing arts organization operator
• Akin Ventures: $457,843, motion picture theater operator
• Silver Screen Magic: $530,730, motion picture theater operator
• Fairfield Arts & Convention Center: $208,604, live venue operator or promoter
• Strand Theatre: $165,147, motion picture theater operator
• FilmScene: $243,272, motion picture theater operator
• Gabe’s Oasis: $259,915, live venue operator or promoter
• Hancher Auditorium: $1,460,466, live performing arts organization operator
• Riverside Theatre: $36,451, live performing arts organization operator
• The Englert Civic Theatre: $550,868, live performing arts organization operator
• Willow Creek Theatre Company: $5,933, theatrical producer
• Moore Entertainment: $63,996, motion picture theater operator
• Castle Theatre: $15,852, motion picture theater operator
• Codfish Hollow Barnstormers: $85,918, live venue operator or promoter
• Collins Road Theatres: $711,602, motion picture theater operator
• Giving Tree Theater: $32,826, live performing arts organization operator
• Midwest Central Railroad: $109,849, museum operator
• Midwest Old Settlers and Threshers Association: $677,687, museum operator
• The Grand Theatre of Oelwein: $63,079, motion picture theater operator
• Williams Center: $33,031, live venue operator or promoter
• Toledo Community Theatre Guild’s Wieting Theatre: $46,794, motion picture theater operator
• The Palace: $36,795, motion picture theater operator
• Three Cows: $37,610, motion picture theater operator
Source: Small Business Administration
This government assistance, based on 45 percent of an organization’s 2019 gross earned revenue, is casting light in the shadows looming large from more than a year with little to no revenue-generating programming.
“Margins are really thin in any type of small business. It really makes a huge impact on what we’re able to do,” Henley said. “It keeps the doors open and allows us to continue to do the things that we want to do. It continues to allow audiences to come in and see shows, and have this opportunity in Uptown Marion.”
Grant program still open
Nationwide, the grant program has awarded $8.4 billion to help get more than 10,800 cultural institutions back on track, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.
The funds can be used for such everyday expenses as payroll, rent, utilities, mortgage and debt payments; worker protection expenses; insurance; administrative costs; state and local taxes; and a portion of the cost for producing live events.
“It’s for just keeping the facility alive,” said Andre Perry, executive director at the Englert Theatre. “Like so much of other funding, it's to make sure that we stay here and that other organizations like us stay here.
“So when I think about our partners like FilmScene, when I think about Riverside (Theatre), when I think about Hancher, this funding is ensuring that these organizations don't leave their communities — and just multiply that across communities across all 50 states in our country,” Perry said.
“It’s an enormous reprieve for the organization,” Orchestra Iowa Chief Executive Officer Jeff Collier said. “It gives a little bit more stability over the course of the next year, when we’re unsure about how quickly people will return to a live performance. It makes an enormous difference in our expectations and planning going forward.
“This likely represents some of the most substantive government support of arts and culture in United States in decades, if not ever,” he added.
Dave Lentell, public information officer in the Small Business Administration’s Iowa district office in Des Moines, said pretty much every small business has been impacted by the pandemic.
“Among the hardest hit was the live entertainment and venue industry. These venues were among the first to close and among the last to open,” he said. “Congress recognized the impact of COVID-19 on this sector and created the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program as part of the American Rescue Plan to help this hard-hit industry.”
The submission portal for grants isn’t closed. Qualifying arts venues, theatrical producers, performing arts organizations, talent representatives, movie theater owners and operators and museum operators have until Aug. 20 to apply for this emergency assistance.
Supplemental assistance up to 50 percent of the original award also is available for entities that need more money to tide them over until they can reopen. And by invitation, organizations can appeal their initial funding decisions, which Giving Tree Theater plans to do. The Henleys bought the business during 2019, and feel the full year’s revenue wasn’t figured into the funding formula.
According to the Small Business Administration’s website, the grant program was established by the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits, and Venues Act, and amended by the American Rescue Plan Act.
Approved by Congress on Dec. 27, 2020, the program authorizes more than $16 billion in grants to shuttered venues, to be administered by SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance. Awards are based on grossed earned revenue, and may equal 45 percent of that figure.
“It was a very thorough application process and it did take a lot of time,” Perry said. “And all those things are anxiety-inducing, but I think it's what they needed it to be in order to have the level of fraud protection that it had to ensure that all of the organizations applying were legitimate, and were intended for this funding that Congress set aside.
“And so I respect that process. I spent many days getting prepared for it. But, you know, it was a really great opportunity that's helping us survive, so I'm happy to do the work,” he said.
At the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium, Executive Director Chuck Swanson said, “We’ve never applied for a more complicated grant. So many staff members were involved in this.” They also called upon the UI’s Division of Sponsored Programs to help them navigate the requirements and documentation needed.
Orchestra Iowa was facing a 90-percent loss in earned revenue, so staff members began gathering materials as soon as the program was authorized, Collier said.
Giving Tree’s Henley was grateful for his information technology and grant-writing background from his day job as chief operating officer at Community Health Free Clinic in Cedar Rapids.
“A lot of the pieces I had at least heard of,” he said, calling the process “very complicated,” as it asked for “a lot of tedious information.”
“It was a lot of work,” Henley said, “but in the end, it’s obviously worth it, to be able to participate in a grant program like that.”
The process wasn’t without difficulties on the other end.
In April, the SBA’s online portal crashed the first day, from the sheer volume of people submitting applications. It was fixed toward the end of the month, and organizations contacted by The Gazette said they found out about their grant awards in early- to mid-July, with most reporting their funds were deposited around the end of July.
“Unfortunately, any time you try and implement something new on such a scale as we did with the Shuttered Venues Grant portal, there are challenges,” Lentell said.
Survival is the key force driving this funding.
“We were closed for over a year. We didn’t have any revenue coming, but the expenses continued to come,” Hancher’s Swanson said. “This is bringing us back to par.”
While close to the $1.5 million Hancher will be losing as the UI phases out financial support for the performing arts venue, the one-time grant funds are in a completely separate category, intended to help Hancher reopen its doors this fall, Swanson said.
This federal grant will help defray operational expenses incurred during the pandemic, he said. Expenses like the internet, phones, box office equipment maintenance, computers — the everyday behind-the-scenes costs that would have been covered by building rental and box office service fees in a normal year.
“It’s bringing us back to being prepared to open again this fall, which we’re all really ready for,” he said. “It was tough for us to even think about the future and future programs. And this gave a real boost.”
Giving Tree’s grant will help cover basic operating expenses, and allow the Henleys to pursue an expansion plan they shelved when the pandemic struck. They hope to create a balcony for the intimate venue, adding 25 seats and increasing the audience capacity from 88 to 113.
The theater was closed for three months at the beginning of the pandemic, then reopened at 30 percent capacity, gradually worked up to 50 percent capacity at the start of 2021, and went back to full capacity full capacity in July. Giving Tree also added different kinds of entertainment, like game night, comedy and karaoke to expand the audience reach, even at greatly reduced capacity and revenue.
For all of these organizations, “it’s really about lost revenue replacement,” said Katie Hallman, executive director at Theatre Cedar Rapids. During the pandemic, “we just stopped. It just stopped everything. We’re normally a $2.4 million operation, and it cut our operation in half.”
Staff furloughs followed, so the grant funding will be channeled into “people and programming,” she said.
“For so many of us, (the grant) provides the runway for reopening. That was the big challenge hanging over all of us as venue operators. Your earned and contributed revenue feed right back into your mission constantly,” she said. “Everything is so circular, and when one goes away, how do you have the revenue to get back up on your feet and get going? And this is how.”
The grant program’s reach begins with the arts presenters, but reaches outside their walls and into their communities.
“Initially, it means helping those specific entities weather the impact of COVID-19 on their venue,” the SBA’s Lentell said. “Keeping the doors open is really the biggest impact, helping them stay in business.
“But it really goes beyond that. If you look at entertainment venues and what they bring to the table, they anchor our neighborhoods. They play an important role in our economy. They fuel travel, they fuel tourism, they bring people into communities, which bolsters the local restaurants, the local hotels, the local retail establishments.
“So the program isn’t just about helping these venues weather the impact of COVID-19 themselves,” he said. “It’s about helping the overall economy for our state and for our nation.”
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