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Local cultural councils and COVID-19

  • Jack Golden performs to an automobile encased audience beneath an evening sky atop Greenfield's parking garage, an Eggtooth Production Thursday evening. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Jack Golden performs his one man act beneath an evening sky atop Greenfield's parking garage Thursday evening. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

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    Performer Jack Golden just prior to his first performance "Under the Stars" atop Greenfield's parking garage Thursday evening. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

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    Performer Jack Golden wears a partial mask in the opening scene of "Under the Stars" atop Greenfield's parking garage, an Eggtooth production Thursday evening. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

  • Memorial Hall on Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls. The arts space has been closed since the pandemic began. Staff Photo/Paul Franz

Published: 9/17/2020 9:06:52 AM

As the arts industry faces a string of constraints during the lasting COVID-19 pandemic, local cultural councils have continued working to help their arts communities remain active, all while preparing for this year’s grant application cycle.

The Athol Cultural Council was in the middle of a grant cycle in mid-March, when the state went into partial lockdown to subdue the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Chair Robin Brzozowski explained council members reached out to grantees and gave them options. Some artists elected to perform virtually, while others postponed shows and exhibits until the pandemic is over. Some canceled their applications and said they would reapply in the future. In Athol this year, just more than 25 percent of grant recipients had their program or event occur prior to the limiting of public gatherings.

“Our council members have really worked hard to connect with the people who had grants that were active during the period of time that (the lockdown) happened,” Brzozowski said. “Our goal is to continue to fund arts programs the best way that we can and make them available to the community.”

Members of Shelburne’s council met via Zoom in late August to discuss, among other items, strategies for helping artists and organizations in the time of COVID. Shelburne Local Cultural Council Chair Connie Clarke said part of the cultural council’s mission is to make sure that audiences remain connected to, and can find enrichment through the arts.

“For sure, this year we all are fine-tuning priorities to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “How do we encourage people not to be discouraged, for one thing? These are tough times for arts and culture, but we are determined to be innovative and supportive because we make a difference.”

Clarke said venues will need to be virtual or outdoors, noting that Memorial Hall Theater, the largest hall in West County, has been shuttered since March. Before the COVID-19 pandemic began, Clark said the Memorial Hall Association was meeting with groups to discuss use of the venue for future programs and events. Now, members are not even allowed upstairs and Pothole Pictures programming, operas and more have been put on hold.

“We’ve lost our traditional venues. We always assumed Memorial Hall would be open and available,” Clarke said.

In this new era of uncertainty, arts organizations have been forced to adapt or temporarily close.

“Some grantees have figured out a way to present COVID-safe offerings in an adjusted way, for what they received their grants for,” said Greenfield Cultural Council Chair Linda McInerney. “Others have postponed and said they’ll do what they were granted for as soon as they’re able to. And some are just unable to do their programs.”

While there are still a lot of unanswered questions around when they will return to full audiences and indoor venues, McInerney said it’s been “exciting” to see the ways area artists and performers are keeping the arts alive. Her own production company, Egg Tooth Productions, has continued to work to present pandemic-safe performances and events. Earlier this summer, Egg Tooth Productions put on a one-man show atop the parking garage in Greenfield.

In this, Clarke said she’s been “blown away” by some of the ways artists have connected with their audience. Unfortunately, she said they just don’t know what will happen to certain programs or events that don’t easily adapt to outdoor or virtual venues. She also noted outdoor programs will all come to a halt when the weather turns.

“People are trying to figure out what to do in COVID, but it is not easy,” McInerney said. “These challenges will be with us for a while, and we’re meeting new challenges on a daily basis.” 

The state’s grant cycle for local cultural council programs normally begins Sept. 1. It has been moved back one month this year; grant applications will be available Oct. 1. Cultural council across the region expressed that it’s unknown as to what to expect for funding this coming year. A general consensus is that town allocations through the state's Local Cultural Council’s funding program will be considerably less than usual due to the havoc the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking on state and local budgets. 

Established in 1982, the Local Cultural Council is one of many initiatives supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council, which annually receives funding from the State Legislature and the National Endowment for the Arts. In total, there are roughly 329 councils serving all 351 cities in the state.

As much as possible, McInerney says the Mass Cultural Council has been supportive. For example, the state council has allowed for grants to be adjusted from their original applications to account for COVID-19 limitations. This offers an opportunity to apply funds to ways of keeping the arts programming alive during the lasting public health emergency. Local cultural councils have taken similar steps. According to Brzozowski, the Athol Cultural Council has offered reimbursement grants for artists and performers who schedule shows and exhibits that are free or low cost for the public to attend. These grants are available to artists in various media — from music to literature to sculpture to painting. 

“We’re really open to all kinds of things,” Brzozowski said, adding that musical performances and events featuring animals are particularly popular in Athol.

Brzozowski said the Athol council’s Fiscal Year 2020 grant cycle distributed $12,100 through 20 grants. According to Brzozowski, Athol’s cultural grants typically run between $200 and $1,500, which is the amount received by Tool Town Live, a summer concert series. The Massachusetts Cultural Council provides Local Cultural Councils with funding for the arts, humanities and interpretive sciences.

“Over the past several years we have seen a steady increase in the total allocation our community received, allowing us to provide our community with greater access to a variety of cultural events and programming,” Brzozowski said.

According to McInerney, Greenfield gets roughly $10,000 in state funding for the arts each year. She anticipates getting about half that this year. In Shelburne, Clark said the local council’s annual allocation is roughly $4,800. They spread its reach by giving grants of a couple hundred dollars to more than a dozen organizations, artists and programs that encourage innovation and community collaboration. Clark said the highest grant they gave in 2020 was for $300.

“Even though it’s a small amount of money, it’s a lot to them,” Clarke said.

Often, Clarke noted, artists and programs will apply to multiple area towns for a few hundred dollars each; the towns give knowing they will all help kick in for the funding. To ensure funding for certain programming in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and this time of financial uncertainty, Clark said Shelburne and other neighboring towns will need to work in more direct collaboration.

In Greenfield, grants are often focused on programs that will also help benefit the city’s public schools, library and senior center. One thing that is “sort of unique” about Greenfield, McInerney said, is that the city doesn’t have an arts council of its own outside of the local cultural council. She said this disbanded in the ’70s or ’80s. Before COVID-19, McInerney said they had voted to re-institute an arts council, but now a timeline for this is unclear.

Funds for each fiscal cycle are awarded to reimburse project expenses after completion of the event, up to the full amount of the council’s grant, Clarke said. To be eligible, all funded projects must meet the Mass Cultural Council’s requirements and each town or city typically has its own set of guidelines.

More information on each town’s Local Cultural Council and the grant application process can be found at mass-culture.org and  massculturalcouncil.org.

Zack DeLuca can be reached at zdeluca@recorder.com or 413-930-4579. Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 262.

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