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Latest Pandemic Relief Package Includes Help For Cultural Venues


Possibly the last place you would want to be during a pandemic is a small, sweaty club, pressed up against a couple hundred strangers, all yelling towards a stage. And because of that, small music venues were among the first to close in the early stages of the pandemic, and it looks like a long while until they will be able to open again. But there is help for them in the COVID relief bill, as NPR's Andrew Limbong reports.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: In the before times, Audrey Fix Schaefer worked for a company that ran a handful of music venues in the Washington, D.C. area, including the 9:30 Club.

AUDREY FIX SCHAEFER: And so we made the really tough decision on March 11 to have that one last show, and then we shuttered all of our venues.

LIMBONG: They're still shuttered. So now she's the spokesperson for the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA, which has been lobbying for some form of aid to help support struggling clubs. Schaefer estimates that more than 300 have already closed. NIVA was one of the organizations that lobbied for the Save Our Stages Act. It's a $15 billion grant program run by the Small Business Administration.

FIX SCHAEFER: Which means that we will be able to use the money to pay off all the bills that we've been accruing since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

LIMBONG: Previous relief efforts, like the Payroll Protection Program, focused on employees. But with those employees furloughed, the bills hanging overhead for venues are now rent, utilities, insurance. The amount of money a business is eligible for will be based on its 2019 revenue with a $10 million cap. There are also other protections in place to prevent large companies from taking advantage the way some did with the PPP.

FIX SCHAEFER: You must be independent, meaning that you're not part of a publicly traded company. You can't have operations in more than 10 states, and you can't be in more than one country.

LIMBONG: Access to the money will also be tiered, so it benefits businesses that have been hit hardest, says Senator Amy Klobuchar.

AMY KLOBUCHAR: In the first two weeks, venues that have lost over 90% of their revenue from the year before get to go first. And then the second two weeks, it goes down to over 70%.

LIMBONG: Klobuchar, a Democrat, introduced the Save Our Stages Act over the summer, along with Republican Senator John Cornyn. She said it was important that this was a bipartisan effort because a wide range of venues need help.

KLOBUCHAR: And we kept the coalition together. That's what was so key from beginning to end - and all of this because of a grassroots effort from a group that really hadn't worked together before.

HANA SHARIF: Live performance venues, museums, movie theaters, comedy clubs.

LIMBONG: Hana Sharif is the artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

SHARIF: Basically, anyone who sells tickets for performing artists or live events, commercial and nonprofit, are eligible for some relief in this grant.

LIMBONG: The math works out slightly differently for nonprofits like the Repertory Theater. Its grant would be based on last year's ticket sales and doesn't take into account foundation support, donations and contributions. Elsewhere in the giant 5,000-plus page relief bill, there's other support for arts. The Kennedy Center will get its annual appropriation. The bill also establishes two new Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. - the American Women's History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino. But support for arts establishments doesn't just help those places, says Audrey Fix Schaefer of the National Independent Venue Association. It helps nearby bars, restaurants and stores, all of which will suffer as arts establishments close.

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.


Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.