Rachel Johnson

Rachel Johnson, vice chair of the Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission, gave a grim portrayal of the pandemic’s impact. 

Phoenix City Council last week upped its pandemic relief for arts organizations and individual artists, adding $600,000 to an initial $2 million appropriation.

The money – from the $293 million the city received under the federal Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security Act – will be distributed in grants of $5,000 to $50,000 to 21 arts organizations and in grants of up to $1,500 to scores of artists.

Ahwatukee Councilman Sal DiCiccio was one of two members who voted against the $600,000 increase, arguing that Council could simply divide the initial $2 million appropriation between organizations and artists.

“I’m not favorable toward adding any more to this because you’ve got other organizations and other businesses out there that are struggling as well,” DiCiccio said.

Saying he supported helping the devastated arts community, he said, “adding any more would be problematic for me.”

“I would be supportive of upping that amount of the $2 million going to the small local artists that have applied,” said DiCiccio. “It makes logical sense because the whole idea was to fund them and get them through this hard time.”

The increase in arts relief climaxed a jockeying by some of DiCiccio’s colleagues as some lobbied for more money for various parts of the city and others for giving more money to individuals rather than large arts organizations like the Phoenix Symphony.

In part, that jockeying reflected their awareness of the vast economic distress created by the pandemic in comparison to the federal funds the city has been given to help those who have been impacted. 

City officials have divided the $293 million in CARES Act funding into three separate categories.

It is devoting $75 million for “community investment,” including $5 million in aid to businesses; $6 million to “microenterprises,” or one-person operations; $1 million to help restaurants reopen and $1 million to small businesses at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

Of that $75 million, another $30 million will be divided between $24 million to households for help in paying one month’s rent and three months’ worth of utilities and $6 million to help businesses with three months’ worth of city water bills.

The businesses and households under any of the programs must document their disruption by the pandemic as a result of job loss or state-mandated closures.

Another $75 million of the overall CARES funding will go toward city-related expenses such as virus tests for first responders and all other city workers and sanitizing city offices and other facilities.

Administration officials also told Council they hoped to begin community virus testing this month, although they did not indicate if this, like state-driven tests, would be open only to people who qualified  through a screening.

The city is holding $143 million in reserve in case of a coronavirus resurgence in the fall – or in case Congress relents and lets local and state governments make up for some of the staggering income tax, sales tax and other revenue losses they face.

The CARES money – which must be spent by Dec. 31 – currently cannot be used to fill revenue gaps, which could total more than $100 million for Phoenix.

During a hearing May 12, arts community representatives detailed the devastating toll that social distancing and the economic downturn have inflicted on large and small arts organizations and artists.

“This is a critical time to help support the cultural sector,” said attorney Rachel Frazier Johnson, vice chair of the Phoenix Arts and Culture Commission. 

“Many businesses will reopen this week and try to get back on their feet after being closed for a couple of months,” she said. “Unfortunately, the arts and culture sector won’t reopen. Many closed their doors, canceled their performances, exhibitions and school programs before the stay-at-home order took effect because of the nature of their businesses.”

Johnson said the city’s arts and culture sector “is an essential industry,” generating $401 million in total economic activity with 12,000 fulltime-equivalent jobs representing $285 million in household income and $44 million in local and state taxes.

The pandemic’s hangover likely will last for months. Many performing arts groups won’t even reopen until late summer and plan reductions in offerings in the 2020-21  season, according to both Johnson and Mitch Menchaca, executive director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture.

“The arts and culture sector is in peril,” Menchaka said, noting the National Endowment of the Arts estimates that nationwide, arts organizations already have sustained $5 billion in losses and 304,000 lost jobs.

 Over 65 percent of all Phoenix arts organizations have cut their payrolls, he said.

Of the artists who work outside jobs to earn extra income, he said, nearly half have lost their jobs and another 32 percent have had their hours or pay reduced.

At the start of the pandemic in March, he said, the Phoenix Office of Arts and Culture partnered with the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Arizona Community Foundation and the Arts Foundation of Tucson to create an emergency relief grant program for individual artists and arts professionals.

“Individual artists documented a loss of $1.5 million in canceled contracts from March 1 until now,” he said. “The wage income loss is likely five to 10 times greater given the fact that the artists were only asked to substantiate immediate lost income up to $1,500.”

Menchaka proposed spending $46,000 to $195,000 on $750 grants for anywhere between 62 and 260 individual artists, $1.8 million to $1.9 million in grants ranging from $5,000 to $50,000 for 21 arts organizations such as the Phoenix Symphony and $15,000 for technical assistance.

Noting that the city had contributed only $8,500 to the initial relief fund set up in early March, he said 500 artists applied for help in eight hours.

But Councilwoman Laura Pastor wanted to up the total number of artists who would receive grants to 1,000 – a proposal DiCiccio favored but only if Council kept the total relief for the arts to $2 million.

Mayor Kate Gallego said she and other big-city mayors across the country had recently discussed urging Congress to devote more money to saving the arts from the pandemic’s impact.

“We have great institutions in Phoenix and there are great institutions throughout the State of Arizona and we cannot do it alone,” Gallego said.

That prompted Pastor to not only move to increase the pool of artists eligible for grants but raise their amount to $1,500 – which Gallego called “a great motion.”

That in turn prompted Councilwoman Laura Guardado to ask that more money go to artists and groups in West Phoenix, saying, “We need to put a little bit more emphasis on the west side because at the moment it doesn’t seem that there’s much for that part of the district.”

At that point, Councilman Michael Nowakowski said large arts organizations “have professional fundraisers and individuals that are advisors to their committees that are fundraising on a daily basis. I think we really need to look at helping out the smaller non-profit organizations, those after-school programs at our city facilities and our schools.”

Councilman Carlos Garcia then wondered if large arts organizations were getting funding from other sources, implying money could be diverted from them to individuals.

That brought kudos from Johnson, who said:

“We are working so hard for equity, diversity and inclusion in how we distribute those funds. And so now we are trying to be much more sensitive to artists who have been sort of off the grid and have not been applying for grants previously. It can mean that much more to them, especially given this unprecedented time.”

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