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ArtsFund hopes grants will help arts groups bounce back from pandemic woes

caption: Michael Greer, executive director of ArtsFund
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Michael Greer, executive director of ArtsFund
Devin Munoz

Arts organizations statewide are still trying to bounce back from pandemic-induced shutdowns.

The local nonprofit arts advocacy organization, ArtsFund, recently distributed $10 million in awards through its Community Accelerator Grant program.

The awards support arts organizations statewide and aim to boost the financial health of Washington's art sector.

Judith-Kate Friedman is the founder and executive director of Songwriting Works Educational Foundation in Port Townsend.

Songwriting Works uses songwriting and singing to help seniors combat memory loss.

“We've worked with elders and with families in whatever context possible using the power of music,” Friedman said. “The power of music to connect us, to tell our stories, to bring out not only memories, but also imaginations.”

Friedman works with seniors on the Olympic Peninsula who depend on her program not only to keep themselves mentally sharp, but also for the opportunity to build community.

But during the COVID shutdown, financial hardships threatened the survival of the programs.

“All of our work in the community was hands-on and in-person working with the most vulnerable populations and making music right there on the spot,” Friedman said. “Music, breathing, the thing that you don't want to do during the pandemic.”

Now that people are able to come together, arts organizations across the state are trying to bounce back.

Friedman said funding opportunities, like ArtsFund’s unrestricted grants, are critical.

“Unrestricted funding for any organization is like an infusion of life," she said. "Because it allows everything that you hope that you'll be able to do. And if it's a large enough amount of money, which this funding is, it can allow you to plan.”

In partnership with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, ArtsFund was able to provide grants ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 to 671 arts nonprofits in 35 out of the 39 counties in the state.

ArtsFund Executive Director Michael Greer hopes the no-strings-attached style of the awards will allow organizations to decide for themselves how best to spend the money.

“So that means that they could use these funds for payroll, rent and to keep the lights on, or they could use it to develop some new innovative programming for the community,” Greer said. “At the end of the day, both ArtsFund and the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation really wanted to make sure that organizations had the ability to design themselves how to get the most impact out of this [award].”

Jessyca Murphy, executive director of Make.Shift Art Space in Bellingham, who received an Accelerator Grant, agrees.

“A huge part of it is going to go towards general operating expenses,” Murphy said. “It allows us to then focus on improving our programming and upgrading some things in the space.”

For example, Murphy said Make.Shift will use ArtsFund grant money to buy new speakers for its PA system.

“These are small things, but they mean a lot to artists," Murphy said. "We were able to buy subs for the PA system in our venue. That was huge.”

It is clear that unrestricted funding is critical to small arts nonprofits. Their needs extend past the programs themselves, and into just keeping the doors open.

Manny Cawaling is the executive director of Inspire Washington, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting communities statewide through arts advocacy.

“A theater company does five shows a year, right,” Cawaling said. “They know they're going to do a show, they know what they're raising money for. It made sense. But then 2020 happened and the rug was pulled out from all of our organizations and unpredictable things happened. And we had to spend money on things we never knew that we would ever have to spend money on.”

Organizations were forced to quickly pivot from in-person programming to virtual, and they had to buy safety equipment and PPE.

Even now, with in-person programming being allowed, audiences and participants have not made it to pre-pandemic numbers.

“Like any business, you need some flexibility,” Cawaling said. “Can you imagine getting a paycheck and being told by your boss, you can only spend this on rent and food? And then, all of a sudden, your phone breaks, and you're like, ‘Oh, man, I'm hungry. And now I got food, but I really need a phone.'”

Flexibility is central to the Community Accelerator Grants. But these one-time unrestricted awards are not the only goal for ArtFund's Michael Greer.

“We want this program to serve as an example for others,” Greer said. "And we really want to make sure that everyone in the community understands that $10 million is significant, and it makes a difference, but there are more organizations across this state than we touched in our 671 [awardees].”

Greer hopes more philanthropists will step up to join ArtsFund in supporting the arts in Washington.

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