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Arts venues welcome COVID grant program to get through 2021

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A Broadway theater with a locked gate amid coronavirus restrictions. Between April and July last year, the fine- and performing-arts industries lost about $42 billion in revenue, according to one estimate.

Between April and July last year, the fine- and performing-arts industries lost about $42 billion in revenue, according to one estimate. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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Arts organizations are hoping they will be more of a priority for the new administration of Joe Biden. For now, there’s $15 billion in grants for struggling venues in the latest COVID relief bill.

The money will go to smaller places, like concert halls and theaters. Businesses and venues whose revenue dropped by more than 90% will be first in line.

Chris Johnson would qualify. He owns 15 movie theaters in Illinois and Wisconsin.

“We’re down 99.5%,” he said. “We’re waiting to get back open.”

All of Johnson’s theaters are closed now. He’s hoping to reopen in February or March with the new “Tom and Jerry” movie, followed by Marvel’s “Black Widow,” if it’s released by then. In the meantime, Johnson will continue opening his theaters for private events. Last year, a dance school showed a video of a recital that parents would normally watch live.

“Actually, it was kind of funny ’cause they got to watch it in recliners,” Johnson said.

He is also charging up to $250 a day for personal messages on his theaters’ marquees: ” ‘Happy birthday,’ ‘love the kids,’ or whatever it is, and people are doing messages to their dogs.”

But Johnson said he still needs a grant for things like rent, payroll and utilities.

Audrey Fix Schaefer works for I.M.P., which owns several live-music venues in the Washington, D.C., area. All have been closed since March, and she has no idea when they’ll reopen.

“If I had a crystal ball, it would be in shards of glass at my feet right now,” she said.

Schaefer is hoping for some outdoor shows this summer, moving indoors by the end of this year. But even after live venues are allowed to reopen, she said, it’ll still take a while for them to book bands.

“There’s so many intricacies in it that it’ll be three to five months,” she said.

During that time, they’ll keep losing money. Colorado State arts management professor Michael Seman said that would be a continuation of last year.

“Just for fine and performing arts, we estimated between April and July of 2020, there was about $42 billion that was lost,” Seman said.

He called the $15 billion in COVID grant money a great start. But the arts business will need more federal help to survive an uncertain year.

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