Author: Brenna McCallum
To understand the evolving impact of Covid-19 on the state’s arts network, the North Carolina Arts Council sent a survey to all 2021-22 grantees. We asked many quantitative questions and were also interested in learning about the less measurable aspects of Covid-19’s effect on how organizations do their work. We received 200 survey responses, with many organizations indicating they had a unique story to share about unexpected opportunities or innovations that arose from the pandemic.
As the Arts Council evaluated the data received from the survey, we also conducted group sessions to hear first-hand testimonies and reflections from organizations. From October 2021 and to January 2022, we held five such sessions and heard from nearly 40 organizations. Some themes rose to the top. North Carolina arts organizations described the following commitments:
♦ Supporting artists who were financially impacted by the pandemic
♦ Facilitating safe, innovative programming
♦ Engaging children who were experiencing the detrimental effects of isolation
♦ Delivering opportunities for healing experiences during a time when physical gatherings were impossible
The Sparks of Light series explores what the past two years have meant for the arts. The commitments just listed are a testament to the ways in which North Carolina arts organizations continue to exhibit resilience and dedication during a time of unprecedented struggle and darkness. The stories staff told when they met with us on Zoom over the past four months are important and inspiring. Sparks of Light will gather some of them and share them with you.
Before we dig into those stories in the coming posts, what did we learn from the survey?
We asked our grant recipients questions about changes in budgets, funding sources, revenue streams, staffing numbers, and new opportunities they realized in response to the pandemic. These data show that the experiences of arts organizations through the pandemic vary greatly. The most important lesson, in the Arts Council’s view, is this: North Carolina’s arts network is still here. We did not succumb to the grave fates predicted for nonprofit organizations early in the pandemic. We supported one another, got scrappy, and battened down the hatches.
Organizations with a decrease in overall budget by a quarter or more
Organizations with a steady or increased budget
While many budgets decreased, an almost equal number remained steady or increased.
While 38 percent of organizations surveyed had a decrease in their overall budget by a quarter or more, 38.5 percent experienced a steady or increased budget. The increases point to the number of relief funds that came onto the scene all at once, and with speed. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) provided funding that was distributed from the federal, state, and local levels. The Payroll Protection Program (PPP), Covid-19 Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL), and Shuttered Venue Operators Grants (SVOG) also injected funds into the field. Unfortunately, not all organizations were able to access relief funds; 6.5 percent of respondents said they were not able to access any relief funding.
Revenue losses from ticket sales and donations were pervasive, but many organizations experienced an increase in grants revenue.
Changes in revenue sources and patterns were somewhat predictable. Most organizations (77 percent) experienced decreased revenue from ticket sales. For 66 percent, corporate donations dropped, and 56 percent lost individual donations. The only revenue increases the organizations (55 percent of them) experienced came from grants, which points to the large influx of federal and state relief dollars dispersed through a wide variety of organizations acting as pass-through distributors of those funds.
Perhaps the most hopeful data in our view shows that despite early losses, North Carolina’s arts jobs are bouncing back.
When it comes to employment numbers, we saw an unanticipated but welcomed result: Between March 2020 and September 2021, 53 percent of respondents said they lost no positions. While 10 percent lost one employee, 10 percent gained one. Ten percent of organizations lost two employees, while 3.5 percent of organizations gained two. Thirteen percent lost three or more positions, while 3 percent gained three or more. Of the organizations that lost employees, 4 percent said they did not expect to be able to fill those positions any time soon. The rest—96 percent—said they had already restored and filled some or all of the positions they had lost. Those that still had some vacant positions said they expected to be able to fill some of those, or all of them, soon.
Organizations demonstrated agility and creativity in their innovations to serve constituents during the pandemic.
Last, we asked whether the pandemic had created any unexpected opportunities for the organization. Unsurprisingly, 87 percent of respondents mentioned increasing their virtual offerings; 83 percent of those said that, by moving online, they were engaging non-local guest artists and participants. For 61 percent, new opportunities meant new programmatic partnerships; 77 percent said they were using new technologies and tools. About a quarter of respondents said their programs were more accessible by disability communities and saw an increased interest from media outlets to feature the arts during the pandemic.
We should be proud of our collective accomplishments during these last two difficult years. While the work needed to facilitate and deliver public value through the arts never stops, the information gleaned from this survey leaves us optimistic about the health and resilience of North Carolina’s arts network. Stay tuned for the rest of the Sparks of Light series to learn more about how some organizations created light and hope during the pandemic’s uncertainties.
For more stories about how arts organizations have navigated the pandemic with strength and determination, check out the latest season of the North Carolina Arts Council's podcast, Arts Across NC, wherever you listen to podcasts.
BRENNA MCCALLUM is the research director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she coordinates internal and external research efforts and helps the Arts Council evaluate the impact of its grants and programs. With a degree in Art Management from Appalachian State University, she is interested in North Carolina's unique and rich arts and culture.