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ARTS ON THE EDGE

‘Everybody is exhausted.’ Galleries and art centers scramble to keep income flowing to employees, artists.

"Today we are wholly focused on surviving the devastating financial impact caused by COVID-19," said New Art Center Executive Director Emily O'Neil.
"Today we are wholly focused on surviving the devastating financial impact caused by COVID-19," said New Art Center Executive Director Emily O'Neil.Blake Nissen/The Boston Globe

It didn’t take long for Emily O’Neil, executive director of the New Art Center in Newton, to see the writing on the wall for her small nonprofit. On March 20 — three days before Governor Charlie Baker issued a stay-at-home advisory for Massachusetts — she sent out an e-mail blast.

"It’s hard to believe that only a week ago the New Art Center was focused on strategic planning. Today we are wholly focused on surviving the devastating financial impact caused by COVID-19,” the e-mail read.

The economic shutdown spurred by the outbreak has hit small art presenters like a tsunami. Commercial galleries are on hold. Directors of nonprofits are trying to stay afloat and keep their staff on the raft.

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Avoiding layoffs at a time of dire unemployment is a good leader’s job, but there’s another reason to do it. They are eyeing the Paycheck Protection Program, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, the federal government’s stimulus package, as a lifeline.

The Paycheck Protection Program will help small companies and nonprofits maintain their payrolls and other expenses such as rent and utilities for up to eight weeks. The low-interest loans may even be forgiven if nobody is laid off. New Art Center has seven full-time and two part-time staff and close to 50 faculty members who might be covered by a PPP loan.

“We’re hoping to qualify, and keep people employed,” O’Neil said.

Nonprofit art centers depend on earned income from renting their facilities and class tuition; fund-raising events and grants make up contributed income. On both fronts, many nonprofits are gazing into an abyss.

“This pandemic has put the pause button on all of our strategic planning and highlighted our vulnerabilities,” O’Neil said. “We have relied on deferred revenue. We enroll students for spring classes with the intent of using that tuition to pay operating costs.”

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Spring tuitions at New Art Center would have brought in $180,000, she said, and fees for April school vacation programming, now canceled, would have amounted to $140,000.

The center is reimbursing tuitions. Some students are simply donating those fees to help. Since O’Neil’s e-mail went out, checks have come in amounting to $31,000.

“Donors are being generous,” she said. At the same time, refunds for canceled classes are outpacing the donations.

“We’ve been like mice in a wheel, running, trying to figure out how to manage this, but without full answers,” O’Neil said.

But there are partial ones. New Art Center quickly launched an online learning site, New Art At Home, where students can take video lessons from faculty and sign up for remote classes. Of roughly 100 spring offerings, 26 are available there, with more to come. Forty have been canceled.

“To date, we’ve had 60 fewer students than this time last year,” O’Neil said. “We’re at a $75,000 loss already.”

The first thing Stella Aguirre McGregor, founder and executive artistic director of Urbano Project, aimed to do when everything closed was to keep funds available for the 15 teens in Urbano’s Youth Artists program, who earn stipends.

“We decided to close March 13. We had paid and gotten the midterm stipends for the kids,” she said. “We surveyed them. What were their needs, when were they available? What was their access to tech?”

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Then McGregor started thinking about the rest. “We’re trying to keep everybody intact,” she said of her staff. Two employees had just left when COVID-19 hit; Urbano Project was down to the director and two part-time workers.

Even with the reduced payroll, McGregor is watching the bottom drop out. She indefinitely postponed a fund-raiser she hoped would raise $50,000 to help meet operating costs by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. She worries about rent and management expenses, which she said run to nearly $6,000 a month.

“We might have to give up the space,” McGregor said. “It’s an unknown how we’re going to come out of this.”

A recent exhibition at Urbano Project featured work by artist Rachel Allen.
A recent exhibition at Urbano Project featured work by artist Rachel Allen.Faizal Westcott/Courtesy Urbano Project

Even pinning her hopes on the federal stimulus, she has run into roadblocks. First, she had trouble even getting someone on the phone at the bank where Urbano does business.

“When they did call back, they said 'we’re not sure we’re participating, we’re wait-and-see right now,’” McGregor said. “By the time we figure out who will give us the loan, the money will be gone.”

She’s not the only one. Marie Craig, director of Fountain Street, a member gallery in the SoWa district, was heartened when Mario Nicosia, developer of GTI Properties, waived April rents for retail tenants. But when she went to the gallery’s bank to apply for stimulus funds, she was told the bank had been overwhelmed with applications and had stopped accepting them.

There’s no paid staff at Fountain Street, but Craig worries about supporting the gallery’s member artists, some of whom have lost jobs. Fountain Street supports itself through sales and membership dues; with doors closed, posting on social media has been a way to keep the art visible and provide moral support. As for dues, Craig says she’s open to reducing or deferring them for members in need.

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“If there’s something I can do to make sure a member is still with us, I will do what I can,” she said.

The Boston Center for the Arts has laid off four of its 20 staff members and temporarily cut down the hours of others, including the two co-executive directors. The nonprofit still intends to apply for stimulus loans including the PPP, according to co-executive director Emily Foster Day.

For the BCA, whiplash comes from loss of rental income, including Cyclorama bookings and monthly rents from the nonprofits and restaurants on campus. Day said the BCA is cutting corners in order to support artists — developing virtual programs that will pay them to connect with the community and partnering with the city on the Boston Artist Relief Fund, which provides small grants. So far, the fund has raised $75,000.

There are two people on staff and 15 faculty at Motherbrook Arts and Community Center in Dedham, where all classes and theater rentals have been shut down. The nonprofit’s private artist studios are still open to tenants.

“We have some revenue,” said executive director Jean Ford Webb. “We’re scrambling to find a way forward.”

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“Right now, other nonprofits I’m talking to are paying nothing but their payroll,” she said. She and other arts leaders lament asking for money at a time when the need is so great everywhere. Webb composed an email asking for help, but she hesitated for more than a week before sending it.

“I have three sons,” Webb said. “One is an ER doctor. Another is working in a grocery store. Both are on the frontlines. I worry about putting a plea out. But I want to protect our cultural institutions, too.”

She hit send on April 1.

At New Art Center, O’Neil is looking ahead, even if the lockdown continues for the unforeseeable future. Unlike some others, she was able to get a PPP application accepted.

Either way, she and her staff are making it up as they go. “At this point, everybody is exhausted,” ” O’Neil said.

“There was no guidance,” she added. “I’ve never gone to a seminar about planning for a pandemic.”

NEW ART AT HOME

For current class offerings, visit www.newartcenter.org

BOSTON ARTIST RELIEF FUND

To make a donation, visit www.bostonarts.org


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.