Entertainment venues across NH eager to apply for federal aid program
After initial launch sputters, Shuttered Venues Operating Grants applications begin again
The initial stay-at-home order issued by Gov. Chris Sununu in March 2020 required The Music Hall in Portsmouth to shutter completely. The 142-year-old theatre in downtown Portsmouth hosts concerts and performances, literary events and other entertainment. But due to the pandemic, the gathering people in large or even smaller crowds was impossible.
In 2020, The Music Hall lost about 90% of its earned revenue, said Monte Bohanan, director of communications and community engagement.
They immediately laid off all of part-time workers. By September, 40% of the full-time staff was laid off as well. Although the venue has been able to schedule outdoor and indoor events for this spring and summer, pandemic restrictions still limit audience capacity and accompanying ticket revenue.
The Music Hall has been able to operate by using funds provided by the federal and state government. They planned to apply for a Shuttered Venues Operators Grant (SVOG) through the U.S. Small Business Administration the week of April 8. But due to technical difficulties, the portal was forced to shut down, leaving organizations across the country like The Music Hall to wait a few more weeks for funds initially promised in December.
The SVOG program is a $16 billion program included the coronavirus recovery plan passed in December 2020 at the end of the last Congress. It is designed to help live venue operators, theaters, museums, movie theaters. Eligible applicants can receive a grant equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue, or a maximum of $10 million. A portion of the aid, $2 billion, is reserved for businesses with no more than 50 employees. The portal reopened Saturday, April 24.
“It wasn’t surprising that there were problems with the portal,” said Ginnie Lupi, director of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. “This is a big program and the first of its kind for the Small Business Administration.”
Lupi said funding is needed by performance and other venues across the state. All businesses have substantial regular costs that include payroll, rent, utilities, licenses, insurance and general building maintenance, to name a few.
“One of the things we have learned is that buildings don’t like sitting empty,” said Nicolette Clarke, executive director of Capitol Center for the Arts. She mentioned an increase in building maintenance issues like broken hinges and running toilets at the organization’s Chubb Theatre and Bank of New Hampshire Stage.
‘We need a long runway’
For many venues, hosting concerts, plays, comedy shows or movies in a way that resembled pre-pandemic times will be an additional financial feat.
An event has many moving parts, all of which have been disturbed by the pandemic. Artists and other touring groups aren’t touring, and there’s a lot of uncertainty around whether audiences will come back even if a venue can secure a performer.
“Artists don’t want to tour until they can be reasonably assured that they’re going to make enough money to cover their expenses,” said Andrew Pinard, founder and manager of the Hatbox Theater in Concord. Unlike some other industries, it is hard for venues to revise how they do business and still make a profit. Some organizations tried virtual concert events, but many spent a lot of time and effort on a virtual concert that nobody went to, said Pinard.
“We need a long runway to take off and get our airplane off the ground, and that’s what these funds are going to help us do,” said Clarke of the Capitol Center. She anticipates that many shows the facility will produce early on will end in a net loss, as there will not be enough ticket sales to make up for down payments and other artist’s fees. The organization plans to use SVOG funds as a stopgap until larger-scale events start to pick up.
“We’ve seen companies close. We’ve seen venues closed, and we’re going to see even more shut down if they don’t get the shuttered venues funding. You know this is kind of the last hope for some organizations,” said Pinard.
In addition to the unexpected shutdown of the portal, some organizations faced problems with SVOG. Anderson said the application’s vague wording and length made the grant inaccessible to smaller venues that might not have enough time to complete the application thoroughly.
The size and breadth of the program also leave some organizations out.
Courtney Perkins, the Prescott Park Arts Festival’s executive director, said that the SVOG model potentially disqualifies it from receiving full funding. “Because we don’t charge for tickets and have a suggested donation model, we didn’t receive the live venue relief funds, and we might not receive full SVOG,” said Perkins.
The SVOG funds would be in addition to money already received through other federal programs, including the Paycheck Protection Program and Save Our Stages.
Trip Anderson, grant manager at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester and chair of the board of the advocacy group Arts4NH, said that without the funding many organizations wouldn’t be thinking of reopening this spring and summer.
Anderson is happy that lawmakers both nationally and in New Hampshire are seeing the importance of the arts.
“It is critical that the arts stick around,” he said. “The arts have helped people through very dark and difficult times, and they have led the way and provided hope and healing for a lot of anxiety and pain.”