Artists and directors of Maine’s live performance venues are reeling after a government grant program seen as a lifeline has turned into a catastrophe.
For people like Brian Hinrichs, director of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, Thursday was a big deal. That was the day the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, a trove of money authorized by federal legislation in December, would open for applications. The program, hatched by Congress and run directly by the Small Business Administration, would supplement the loss of revenue suffered by performing arts organizations and live venues, whose livelihood has been crushed by the pandemic.
“We’re all prepared for this. We are eagerly anticipating this going live for the last three months,” Hinrichs said. “And it was a total disaster.”
When the magic hour came, Hinrichs — along with the directors of roughly 15,000 other arts organizations and venues nationwide — began filling out the application. He didn’t get very far. Tech glitches spiked his documents off the site, miring him in the opening forms and unable to continue. After a few hours, the whole thing crashed.
“We apply for grants all the time, I’ve never seen anything like this,” Hinrichs said.
As first designed, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, or SVOG, would grant money to arts organizations that could verify that 70 percent of earned revenue came from ticket sales — a way to prioritize eligible entities — like venue operators, film and stage theaters, performing arts organizations, talent reps and some museums and zoos — over small bars and clubs that made most of their money at the bar.
But as the date approached, Hinrichs noticed that a Frequently Asked Questions document on the agency’s website would mysteriously update with contradictory information. By the week before it opened, eligibility criteria had changed wildly. Now, venues were to show that 70 percent of total revenue came from ticket sales.
Under these new definitions, Hinrichs was no longer sure if the Bangor Symphony Orchestra qualified for the grant. In 2019, the symphony’s revenues are split more equally between ticket sales and charitable donations. The bulk of revenue at for-profit venues, such as the State Theatre in Portland, rely more heavily on ticket sales. An abrupt change in qualification criteria drastically affects who would be eligible in a program that prioritizes total revenue to determine grant size.
At a national level, lobbyists from both nonprofit and for-profit arts organizations have jockeyed for position on this issue. Hinrichs, a nonprofit director, thinks it makes “total sense” that hard-hit for-profit businesses are prioritized. But the SBA’s shifting criteria has made it impossible for anyone to figure out.
Ticket revenue at the Bangor Symphony Orchestra is down 75 percent over prior years. Some of that has been countered by increased charitable donations during the pandemic, but that kind of support isn’t sustainable.
“Having this money would allow us to proceed with a plan to return our employment levels among the orchestra to close to pre-pandemic levels,” Hinrichs said. The SVOG grant would make up for that revenue difference in ticket sales for in-person attendance at the Collins Center for the Arts, a 1,435-seat venue which has been capped at 300 due to pandemic-related health restrictions.
“We’re just in this really weird territory of not knowing if we qualify anymore, not knowing when the portal will go live, and not being able to talk to any humans from the SBA,” Hinrichs said.
The grant program was suspended indefinitely. For those who work in the arts, it could mean another lengthy wait. The Small Business Administration blamed “a technical issue” as the official culprit for the botched launch of the program, but Hinrichs is not the only one who sensed doom as the launch approached. On Wednesday, a day before the program’s launch, the federal Inspector General’s Office issued a warning saying the program was ripe for fraud.
“It’s just a mess,” said Martin Lodish, finance director at Portland Stage Company, a nonprofit theater organization. “And this is something they’ve been working on since December.”
For places like Portland Stage, Lodish said, the wobbly criteria around earned vs. total income sets up a sticky situation. Depending on which information they have, too many venues are in the position where “if we say no, we can’t continue; if we say yes, we’re lying.”
Bangor Symphony Orchestra and Portland Stage can wait out the agency to rebuild the program, both Hinrichs and Lodish said. Smaller venues aren’t as well equipped to do so.
“Yesterday was a difficult day for us and thousands of others,” said Meg Shorette, a talent buyer with the Bangor Arts Exchange and the executive director of Launchpad, a nonprofit arts development organization. Bangor Arts Exchange is a collaboration between Launchpad and the BSO.
Independent efforts like Shorette’s are “prime candidates for assistance,” she said, and have been “anxiously awaiting” the relief while they’ve weathered mandated closings and anticipate reopening at severely reduced capacities.
“We remain optimistic that this relief will find its way to those of us who need it most,” Shorette said.
Lodish called the ordeal a shame.
“Finance departments in the arts are really taxed at the moment trying to keep everything moving,” Lodish said. “When you plan for things like this and they don’t happen, it’s just emotionally devastating. This was supposed to be about keeping the arts alive.”