NEA widens pool of arts groups eligible for $80 million in pandemic relief

Sitar Arts Center announcement Photo: Facebook @sitarartscenter

The National Endowment for the Arts announced Wednesday, June 23, 2021, that it will make $80 million in pandemic relief available to more arts and cultural organizations, including first-time applicants and those that have never received support from the federal arts agency.

The relief funds will also support local arts agencies that will distribute the federal dollars to grass-roots organizations in their communities. The NEA hopes to significantly increase access to federal funds with this more inclusive approach, said Sonia Chala Tower, NEA director of public affairs and strategic communication and one of four officials President Joe Biden appointed to the agency in January.

“We know that arts organizations large and small have been impacted by the pandemic. The arts sector was hit extremely hard. This funding will be critical. It will be a lifeline,” Tower said. “The goal is to really make sure we are providing resources to the arts community. It’s about rebuilding the creative community.”

The grants are part of the $135 million that the NEA received in the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill passed by Congress in March. An additional $53 million is being distributed to 62 state and regional organizations and other NEA partner agencies, including the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The remaining $2 million will be used for administration costs.

The awards do not require matching funds, as most NEA grants do, and are intended to support everyday expenses, including salaries, facility expenses and other operating costs. The NEA will present workshops, question-and-answer sessions and other resources to help new applicants.

Individual arts and cultural organizations have until Aug. 12 to apply for $50,000, $100,000 or $150,000 grants. Officials expect to award 800 grants in this category. The grants to local arts agencies will be $150,000, $250,000 or $500,000. Applicants must be a unit of a local government or a nonprofit corporation designated by a local government to act on its behalf. NEA officials expect to make 80 grants in this category. The deadline is July 22.

The arts and cultural sector contributed almost $1 trillion to the economy in 2019, or 4.3% of the gross domestic product, Tower said. “We know the arts and culture sector are a major economic driver in many communities. We want to make sure we get the sector back,” she said.

She also noted that data shows more than half of musicians, actors, dancers and choreographers are unemployed because of the pandemic. However, individual artists are not eligible for these grants.

“We are supporting organizations, and the funds will eventually get to artists,” Tower said, adding that local arts agencies may support individuals. “That is really supporting the local communities very directly.”

In addition to first-time applicants, the NEA is encouraging small and medium-size organizations and those groups that “serve populations whose opportunities to experience the arts are limited by ethnicity, economics, geography, or disability” to apply, according to the agency.

“We are opening the program so applicants don’t need to be previous grantees,” Tower said. “We are working with partners at the state and local level to make sure we reach out to culturally specific populations, to groups who may not have engaged with the NEA before, to make sure we get everyone engaged.”

This second round of relief funds is almost double the $75 million provided by the Cares Act passed last year. The NEA awarded almost $45 million in $50,000 grants to 855 organizations, and to speed up the process it restricted the grants to organizations that had received an NEA grant in the previous four years. About 3,100 applicants from the potential pool of 3,700 applicants requested $157 million, more than three times the available funds.

The remaining $30 million in Cares Act funding went directly to state and regional arts agencies, including the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which used its $421,300 to support individual artists and smaller organizations. The commission awarded $3,000 grants to 29 organizations with budgets under $250,000 that had received grants that year, and $2,500 grants to 134 artists and humanities practitioners whose projects were disrupted by the coronavirus.

The Essential Theatre, an organization in D.C. that produces work focused on the African American experience, received $3,000.

“Whether it’s in-kind, hard cash, everything helps us,” founder and artistic director S. Robert Morgan said. The money paid for insurance and corporate filing fees, “basic things for a business to function in D.C.,” he said.

Morgan said his organization will consider applying directly to the NEA for support in this new program. It wasn’t eligible for last year’s program.

The D.C. commission received $748,638 as its piece of the American Rescue Plan. The agency will use this money to boost the amount of support it has already awarded to 30 organizations receiving facility and buildings grants and to 13 organizations receiving general operating support grants.

Sitar Arts Center received a $50,000 NEA Cares grant that it used to pay for staff and to help transition from in-person to virtual classes. “It was crucial,” Sitar Executive Director Maureen Dwyer said.

Dwyer was grateful for the swift distribution last year, but she said she supports the NEA’s shift to more and deeper access to its grants and appreciates the larger awards.

“NEA grants should be widely accessible to arts education and presenting organizations across the country. That’s right-on,” Dwyer said. “Many arts organizations are in dire need, and the more relief we can get, the more we are able to meet the needs of our community. The larger the grant the more impactful.”

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