Grants will help Kalamazoo area arts groups through period when there's no income from live events

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series and our ongoing COVID-19 coverage. If you have a story of how the community is responding to the pandemic please let us know here.

The Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo is offering county arts organizations a bridge to help get to the other side of the pandemic.

The 2020 COVID-19 Bridge Fund for Arts Organizations grant program will offer up to $10,000 to non-profit organizations. It's funded by seed grants from the Irving S. Gilmore Foundation, The Dorthy U. Dalton Foundation, and the Susanne U.D. Parish Foundation.

"We are still locked in our houses, and we are still not able to have live art," Arts Council executive director Kristen Chesak says. The future is unclear -- for example, the Arts Council's Concert in the Park series has been canceled for June, and now is tentatively set to begin July 12.

Organizations that depend on an audience and patrons are "in the same boat as the service industry, the foodservice industry, is in," Chesak says. "People are not patronizing the arts, and the arts have no earned income to speak of to keep their doors open or to keep their staff on the payroll."

A lot of arts organizations have tried to get a virtual audience online, "but a lot of art is meant to be experienced in person. So we're hopeful that can start to happen in the next few months."

The new grant "is about bridging -- and that's why we call it the Bridge Fund -- this is more about bridging this time," she says. 

Its goal is the same as the federal Payroll Protection Act, "to try to keep people employed, try to keep people's rents paid for a couple of months until we can start to come in contact with each other again, and have some in-person arts and entertainment, whatever that's going to look like." 

The Arts Council has reached out to all current members organizations, and around 35 non-member organizations. "You don't need to be a member to receive this grant funding," she says. "If you can think of it, we've tried to contact them." Examples include Theatre Kalamazoo, museums from the Gilmore Car Museum to the Air Zoo, and the Kalamazoo Nature Center.

"The funding is finite," she says. But it may grow. In addition to the three foundations, "I know there are a couple of other foundations in town that are looking at also contributing to this fund, but they have not had the chance to have their trustees meet to make their decisions." 

Chesak says she was asked not to disclose how much money is in the pot. But she can say that "we hope to fund between 25 to 40 organizations." 

Organizations receiving the grant will have to attend a non-profit business best practices and sustainability workshop hosted by the Arts Council in conjunction with ONEplace.

"So this grant not only comes with caps, which is important, but also comes with the opportunity to do a little bit of peer learning with the other arts organizations in the program, and talk about best business practices, and helping each other through this recovery process," she says. "I'm actually really grateful that this is part of the program. It's not just about giving folks money to get them through, but also to offer this idea of development recourses as well, so there's a little bit of support going on throughout the recovery process."

When it's time to leave our homes, "It's going to be a new reality." Organizations will have to make their venues safe, and make sure their audiences can feel safe. 

Workers in the arts and entertainment community are rarely thought of as "essential workers." Chesak laughs and says, "No, we aren't! But I'm glad somebody thought of us as important to our mental health and wellbeing as we start to reemerge from the other side of this pandemic." 

Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.
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