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The global Covid-19 pandemic is exacting a heavy financial toll on Atlanta’s arts community, and more than half are in danger of permanently shuttering without relief from emergency Small Business Administration loans or other financial aid.

A survey conducted last week of 55 Atlanta area nonprofit arts groups — about a third of the region’s organizations — showed a loss so far of more than $10 million in income because of canceled performances. “There’s not a silver bullet, not a single solution,” said Lara Smith, the managing director at Dad’s Garage, who conducted the survey. “We have to get creative, find partnerships. I don’t think there’s a magic answer for anyone. The immediate thing is money, and everyone needs it.”

A national survey done earlier this month by Americans for the Arts showed $4.6 billion in losses to organizations to date. In metro Atlanta, respondents reported a collective loss of $10.6 million and that’s likely only a percentage of the true figure. “I’d say that is a really low number for the actual losses,” Smith said.

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which did not take part in the survey, announced Wednesday that it has lost more than $3 million in ticket revenue. Atlanta Ballet, which did participate, has said it will have losses of $1.5 million through June.

Lara Smith of Dad's Garage smiles for the camera.

Lara Smith, who conducted the survey, says arts groups will not go back to “business as usual” once the pandemic crisis is over.

The Atlanta questionnaire was sent to nonprofit arts groups last week to gauge where things stand. The survey includes responses from a wide range of organizations, from the High Museum of Art and the Alliance Theatre to smaller groups such as Actor’s Express, Core Dance and MINT gallery. 

In the survey, 19 percent of respondents said they aren’t sure they’re going to make it and may have to close permanently. Another 34 percent said they will only make it if they get Small Business Administration (SBA) loans or similar infusions of financial aid.

Of the respondents, 70 percent reported they have had to lay off or furlough staff or stop using independent contractors.

The surveyed organizations say they need a total of $7.2 million in loans or unrestricted grants, and many are concerned that they will not receive emergency SBA funding. “We’re already seeing the SBA funds running out,” said Smith. “I was surprised at how much short-term loans didn’t bear fruit, and most are now looking toward long-term loans.”

The health of Atlanta’s arts community is a key factor in the health of the city’s overall economy, according to Josh Phillipson, who manages arts and culture for the Atlanta Regional Commission and helped devise the survey. “That sector is a $719.8 million industry in metro Atlanta — one that supports 23,514 full-time jobs and generates $64.5 million in local and state government revenue,” he said in a press release.

But public arts funding is also a convenient whipping boy for fiscally conservative politicians. Congress, for example, received criticism from some corners for including a modest $300 million in emergency funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in its initial stimulus package. And Georgia ranks dead last in the nation in terms of government funding for the arts, spending just 14 cents per capita.

Smith said it is vital that financial relief packages include provisions for arts and culture groups. “Cutting arts organizations and artists out would be a mistake; our sector is central to building a strong economy,” she said. “Arts and culture organizations have a symbiotic relationship with many other industries, such as tourism, hotels and hospitality, travel, restaurants and nightlife.”

Woodruff Arts Center President and CEO Doug Shipman told ArtsATL earlier this month that arts leaders hope to persuade the city of Atlanta to set aside money to help. “A quick recovery will be very beneficial to the city,” Shipman said. “We’ve seen such tremendous growth in the arts. And we’ve kept many artists here who used to leave. It’s created a huge number of jobs. I hope Atlanta — both through philanthropy and the city — will think hard about a specific package for our arts and culture.”

Shipman has said arts organizations need to collectively hire an advocate to advance their cause to the public and to elected officials. That concept was discussed at a recent meeting of Atlanta arts leaders.

“Covid-19 has underscored the need for an advocate for arts organizations,” Smith said. “One of my hopes is the survey will raise the flag and help arm the arts community with a unified message.”

The wild card is uncertainty about the future and when a sense of normalcy will return. Experts say another strong wave of Covid-19 could emerge starting in September, just when many organizations are beginning their financially critical fall seasons. Many wonder whether audiences will feel comfortable going to public gatherings until a vaccine is created, which is expected to still be a year away.

Shipman has said it may be 2021 before things return to any sense of normalcy.

Numerous arts and culture organizations have turned to live streaming as a way to generate income in the interim. Smith said Dad’s Garage shifted online early in the pandemic, and is making enough money from it to cover its costs.

She said an overwhelming number of survey respondents want educational assistance to explore digital options and to rethink their business models. “There’s an awareness that we’re not going to come back to business as usual after this,” Smith said. “The world is going to be quite different.”

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In times like these, when we are separated by necessity, ArtsATL is needed more than ever. Please consider a donation so we can continue to highlight Atlanta’s creative community during this unprecedented time.

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