On Thursday of last week, Second Gentlemen Douglas Emhoff and senior Biden administration officials coordinating pandemic relief grants for arts organizations met with local arts and cultural leaders for a conversation on the stage at the Ebell of Los Angeles.
Shelly C. Lowe, Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Isabella Casillas Guzman, United States Administrator of the Small Business Administration, and Ayanna Hudson, Acting Deputy Chair for Programs and Partnerships at the National Endowment for the Arts, joined Mr. Emhoff in a discussion with federal grant recipients Betty Avila, Executive Director of Self-Help Graphics, Jacqueline Stewart, Chief Artistic and Programming Officer at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Danny Feldman, Executive/Artistic Director for the Pasadena Playhouse, and Stacy Brightman, Executive Director of the Ebell.
Mr. Emhoff, who was in Los Angeles as part of the Biden administration contingent for the Summit of the Americas, has been traveling the country talking to arts organizations recovering from pandemic shutdowns. The listening sessions allow Emhoff to hear first-hand how federal assistance provided a lifeline to keep the organizations going following the shutdowns ordered during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I am a longtime supporter of the arts,” said Emhoff, an entertainment lawyer by profession. “My children are both in the arts, as well as other members of my family. I love having the opportunity to meet arts professionals. Listening to Tonality (a vocal ensemble that rehearses at The Ebell and was invited by Stacy Brightman to perform for the visit), you realize you cannot get that experience online.”
Emhoff noted that California receives a large number of federal grants for arts organizations and said he was delighted to sit down with four senior leaders of local arts organizations to hear first-hand how their organizations navigated the pandemic shut downs.
Betty Avila, Executive Director of Self-Help Graphics, a community arts organization founded in 1973 that supports Chicana/o and Latinx artists, said the federal assistance provided by the CARES Act allowed her to stabilize her organization and avoid falling back. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, is a $2.2 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by the 116th U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump on March 27, 2020.
“We could keep our staff employed, which has a huge impact on our community,” said Avila. “While we all experienced the collective trauma caused by the pandemic, we are not experiencing it in the same way.”
Communities of color have been disproportionally negatively affected by the pandemic, she noted. On the positive side, Avila said that “pandemic relief really blew wind into a lot of sails of organization that were just getting by. If we had not received the funds, it would have taken us an exponentially longer time to recover than our counterparts.”
“We add to your stories too. Our theatre would not be here today without Cares Act, Shutter Venue Operators Grant (SVOG), all of it,” said Danny Feldman, Executive/Artistic Director for the Pasadena Playhouse, who served as moderator for the conversation. “It was traumatic to worry about our families and then on top of that as leaders of cultural arts organizations we were facing the possibility of closure.”
Shelly Lowe, the twelfth chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the second woman, and – as a Navajo – the first Native American to hold the post, said she is often asked “what humanities is, it sounds so academic, so complicated.”
In response, Lowe cited the title of the recently published Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry by Joy Harjo, U.S. Poet Laureate, and her colleagues: “When the Light of the World was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through.”
“This is what humanities is. It is how we use our culture and our understanding of the world to get through these dark times,” said Lowe.
Lowe said she was pleased that NEH has been able to support a wide coalition of arts organizations around the country, which she said were so important to bringing our citizens together to share our stories and strengthen our democracy. She said the humanities have often been used as a tool to erase stories, but they can also be used as a tool to bring them back. As an example, Lowe said she was pleased the NEH could support a comprehensive exhibit on Black cinema that will open soon at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures…and she invited Jacqueline Stewart, Chief Artistic and Programming Officer at the Academy Museum to share highlights of the exhibit.
“This is one of the most ambitious exhibits assembled. It is the first of its kind—a research-driven, in-depth look at Black participation in American filmmaking,” explained Stewart. “Regeneration: Black Cinema 1898 -1971” will open August 21, 2022.
Ayanna Hudson, Acting Deputy Chair for Programs and Partnerships at the National Endowment for the Arts, said her organization is proud to support the work of arts organizations around the country, including many who had received grants for the first time. Chair Lowe agreed and said she wants to make sure to keep these doors open and has begun working on how NEH can make smaller grants available to organization that don’t have the capacity of large organizations.
Feldman said he views arts organizations as “second responders.” “We are putting our community back together, often to right the wrongs,” he said. While he is hopeful that the pandemic has shown how essential arts and culture organizations are and they are getting more support, he noted that funding still pales in comparison to funding allocated elsewhere in the federal budget.
“Military marching bands have a larger budget than the NEA!” said Feldman.
SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman said her 13,000 organizations have received assistance through the SBA pandemic relief programs and she is proud of the work her agency has done to help set standards for applications and outcomes that will help keep organizations from falling so deeply into debt their work in the community would be forever lost. Guzman said she believes funding for the arts is essential to helping the country realize its potential.
Mr. Emhoff agreed, saying his visits around the country have allowed his to see how funding for arts broadly affects communities beyond the arts organizations themselves. All four officials reiterated the Biden administration’s commitment to continuing support.
In closing, Brightman said the pandemic was a “broken moment,” but that she hopes that something wonderful would come out of it – a true commitment of support for arts and cultural organizations across the country. Brightman also secured a shuttered venue grant for The Ebell just before the program ended, and said the funding has allowed the organization to stabilize after suffering a dramatic drop in earned income.