Boston Arts Venues Cheer Stimulus Bill, But It's Too Late For Some

The ONCE Lounge and Ballroom on Highland Avenue in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The ONCE Lounge and Ballroom on Highland Avenue in Somerville. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A scrappy lobbying effort by a coalition of independent performance venues has finally paid off.

President Trump signed into law the Save Our Stages act on Sunday, providing $15 billion in relief to live music venues, independent movie theaters and other cultural organizations that have been forced to close during the pandemic. The act is part of a $900 billion stimulus package, which also extends unemployment benefits to freelancers and the self-employed, many of whom are cultural sector workers.

Boston-area venues greeted the news with relief.

“This is going to help us figure out how to survive, and pay the rent and pay the taxes and pay the employees and all the rest, as we remain dark, with no income,” said Joe Spaulding, president and CEO of the Boch Center, which manages the Wang Theatre and the Schubert Theatre in Boston. Both have been shuttered since March.

When Congress voted to pass the legislation, “I literally cried,” Spaulding said.

The passage of the act is the product of aggressive lobbying by the National Independent Venues Association, or NIVA, a grassroots alliance of 3,000 independent venues that formed in response to the pandemic.

“We were the first industry to shut, and we are going to be the last industry to open,” Spaulding said. “[We] have had absolutely zero in earned income. Zero. And we’re not expected to reopen our venues until maybe next September.”

Save Our Stages enjoyed broad bipartisan support. The act was sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) and Rep. Roger Williams (R-TX). Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer was a vocal proponent.

The legislation allows live performance venues, movie theaters and other cultural institutions to apply for grants covering 45% of their gross revenue from 2019, with a cap of $10 million per grant. The money may pay for expenses such as payroll, rent, personal protective equipment (often called PPE), insurance and utilities.

Businesses that have lost more than 90% of their income will be given priority, though details of the application process have yet to be finalized. Publicly traded companies, businesses with more than 500 full-time employees and other large entities are not eligible.

“At this point, anything helps,” said Club Passim managing director Matt Smith. The nonprofit club, he said, was “essentially working at a loss” despite generous donations and private grant funding. Smith said Passim will likely use the stimulus money for maintenance and some minor renovation work, and potentially to help expand its virtual programming.

But not everyone greeted the bill with enthusiasm.

"If we get it (we are still looking into eligibility) the actual impact for us is going to be minimal," said Karthik Subramanian, managing director of Company One Theatre in Boston. "The act doesn’t seem to account for organizations like ours that typically have to rely on contributed income" like grants and donations.

Subramanian also criticized the legislation for failing to consider the particular needs of organizations led by and serving people of color, like Company One.

"We have to go beyond the narrative of saving the sector," he said. "We need to be a lot more intentional about who gets funding and eligibility criteria has to account for BIPOC-led and BIPOC serving organizations that have been historically under-funded and under-capitalized well before the pandemic."

In addition to arts organizations, freelance cultural workers and individual artists stand to benefit from the stimulus bill, which extends unemployment benefits for contract workers and the self-employed, this time with an additional $300 per week, as opposed to the additional $600 provided under the CARES act. A “mixed earner” benefit will extend benefits to freelance workers who also earn part-time regular employment, remedying a problem in the original legislation that rendered many contract workers ineligible for aid.

But the relief comes too late for some. A number of small music and performance venues in the Boston area have closed permanently in the pandemic, including the Milky Way in JP, Machine in Boston and Once Lounge and Ballroom in Somerville, which announced its closure in December.

Once owner JJ Gonson said the club might have survived had the legislation been passed sooner.

“I’m not sure how long for,” she said. “I think more than anything, it would have given us hope. And hope goes a long way.”

Still, Gonson plans to apply for a grant to support virtual performances under the Once brand. She hopes one day to re-open the club in a new location. The loss of brick-and-mortar venues, she said, has had a clear impact on the city.

“The neighborhood went dark when we went dark,” Gonson said. “When you walk on Highland [Avenue] now, the life of it is gone.”

This article was originally published on December 28, 2020.


Amelia Mason Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for WBUR.



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