Arts Orange County Working to Get Public and Private Money Into Local Artists’ Hands

A section of "In the Waning Days of the Solitude" by Paul Bond. Original is 22 x 50 / oil on canvas. He created this piece during the COVID-19 quarantine. Bond is a recipient of a $750 grant from the OC Arts & Culture Resilience Fund managed by Arts Orange County.

Richard Stein’s dream is finally coming true. Now he hopes this nightmare will end.

Stein is president and CEO of Arts Orange County, the county’s designated arts agency. Since 1995, it has served as the networking, information and advocacy hub of the county’s arts community. One of its key roles is connecting artists to those entities that allocate grants and other public funds for the arts.

Photo courtesy of ArtsOC

Rick Stein, CEO of Arts Orange County

But in the past couple of months, it’s been doing something new: helping to decide where that money goes.

In July, Arts Orange County partnered with Orange County’s District 3 board supervisor Don Wagner to be the distributor of $500,000 money of CARES Act relief money that Wagner’s district set aside from its one-fifth share of the $75 million the county received for its Emergency Small Business Relief program. But Arts Orange County isn’t just dispensing the money – it is the primary reason why the money is even available.

Before Stein appealed to Wagner and the other members of the board of supervisors to consider extending the small business relief program eligibility, nonprofit arts agencies weren’t on the list.

Combining the $500,000 from District 3 with the funds the other four districts have allotted for nonprofits, plus $500,000 of CARES Act money from the City of Santa Ana, Arts Orange County helped to make approximately $1.4 million available to eligible arts nonprofits and individual artists.

In addition to the county money, Stein’s organization also partnered with the Orange County Community Foundation and Charitable Ventures to create its own fund, the OC Arts & Culture Resilience Fund. The newly created fund has already dispersed $159,000: $750 grants to 70 individual artists, as well as 19 grants for nonprofit arts organizations ranging from $1,000 to $14,000 each. It is through this fund that the District 3 and city of Santa Ana grants are being managed.

Wearing a New Hat

Granting the money it has raised, or re-granting money from other sources, is a new hat for an arts organization that has worn many in its 25-year history. And even though it took a crisis to make it happen, Stein hopes that when (or if) all this passes, Arts Orange County might be a step closer to what it has wanted to be.

“We have always been behind the scenes, sharing information and resources, but our dream has always been to get the county to do what every other major county or city comparable in size does: to get funding not just for our organization but to [allow us to help] re-grant (public arts funding) countywide,” Stein said.

Places like Los Angeles and Alameda counties, and cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, have departments within their infrastructure that primarily focus on regranting public money to arts organizations in the community, Stein said.

Orange County does not. Instead, the county works with Arts Orange County, which is a nonprofit and doesn’t receive funding from the county. So, like every other arts organization, it has to raise its own money to pay its bills, either through grants, through consulting, or even contracting to manage projects such as Newport Beach’s outdoor sculpture garden.

That lack of an in-house department on the county levels, coupled with the fact that Orange County, and most of its cities, do not build into their budgets financial support for the arts, makes it difficult in the best of times to help local arts organizations get what they all need: outside financial support.

In times like these, that support becomes absolutely critical.

“A lot of businesses have been able to re-open, and even restaurants and bars have (opened) with limited or outdoor seating. But in the arts, most (venues) are entirely shut down,” Stein said. “And if the word came out tomorrow that they could re-open, how many people are going to feel comfortable sitting in an enclosed space surrounded by other people? So many (arts organizations) are looking at not being able to fully reopen until the late spring of 2021, and that would mean they will have been closed for nearly a year. There are not many businesses that could survive that long.”

Hungry for Outside Funds

Arts groups are always hungry for outside funds, either through government or corporate grants, fundraisers or private donations. In COVID-19 era, they are starving for them.

Take one of the county’s greatest success stories, the Chance Theater. It started in 1999 in a tiny storefront in the flat part of Anaheim Hills and now has a $1 million budget and national recognition. For 2020, it planned its revenue at 54 percent earned income (ticket sales, concessions and classes) and 46 percent contributed income (fundraisers, donations and grants). Considering most of that 54 percent has been wiped away, the theater is now looking at a loss of income of over $500,000, Oanh Nguyen, the Chance’s artistic director said.

HEIDE JANSSEN, Voice of OC

The box office at Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills is closed indefinitely as they await the loosening of statewide restrictions for gathering publicly indoors.

Unlike many countries, public funding for the arts is a tough sell anywhere in America. In July, the UK announced a £1.57 billion emergency support package for the arts. In contrast, the National Endowment of the Arts, the designated arts organization of the U.S. government, received $75 million in the CARES act.

The lack of public funding is related in part to the perception that arts organizations aren’t real businesses. That is why Stein wasn’t surprised when he learned that the CARES Act money Orange County had reserved for small businesses didn’t include nonprofit arts organizations. So, he decided to bend some ears, meeting with supervisors and informing them of the results of an April survey Arts Orange County conducted with 42 local arts organizations.

“They needed to know what was going on with the arts community and how bad it was, “Stein said.

That survey reported that nearly a million admissions would be lost and 62 percent of arts organizations anticipated a severe financial impact from the crisis. As the shutdown has progressed, these numbers are likely to grow.

It took some time, and each of the county’s five supervisors set different parameters, but as of last week, all five county districts will include nonprofit arts organizations on their eligibility lists for small business relief funds.

Helping Individuals

That’s one success Arts Orange County has achieved this summer.

Another is the OC Arts & Culture Resilience fund, which is geared for artists and groups that are suffering dire financial losses due to COVID-19. It launched June 22, and in two weeks, raised $159,000 with amounts ranging from a $25,000 gift from the Larry and Helen Hoag Foundation to as small as $25.

Of the 140 individual applicants, half received grants. Part of the process was to explain how badly their finances had been impacted. While every story was different, Stein said, they were all in “dire financial straits. They didn’t have the money to make ends meet, couldn’t make rent, didn’t know where money was coming from. Some had filed for unemployment but were yet to receive a single check.”

Photo illustration courtesy of Paul Bond

Paul Bond

Paul Bond, 56, a full-time oil painter who lives in San Clemente, was one of the recipients.

Though he’s painted since his early 20s, it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that he believed his work had reached a level of maturity that he could devote to it full-time. About 60 percent of his total income derives from selling his work at two art festivals: the Laguna Beach Festival of the Arts and the San Diego Festival of Arts – both of which were canceled this summer..

Bond is fortunate in that he has enough savings to tide him through so far, but “if this lasts a year, who knows?”

And what did he spend his $750 on?

“One of the questions is what would I do with the funds if I were to receive them,” he said, “and what I said seemed to make the most sense was to leverage the money to create more inventory to hopefully make money. I do prints of my works, so I purchased some additional material to make more.”

Like Bond, Sheri Cohen, a jewelry maker who lives in Laguna Woods, wasn’t on the edge of homelessness when she and her husband, Brian Gibererson, who work in mixed media, applied for individual relief grants (they were each awarded one). But neither received their first unemployment checks until May and with their primary exhibition venues drying up, they began worrying when any money would be coming in.

But while the combined $1,500 the couple received helped pay bills and went toward groceries and needed supplies, Cohen said the amount of money was less appreciated than the emotional lift.

“Oh, my God, we were so shocked when we learned we had received anything,” she said. “I spent hours and hours on my computer applying for everything and heard nothing. That really wears on you. The most important thing about it is that we felt like we mattered, that someone thought of us. But not just us, but the rest of the arts community … that you thought enough of us to put this out for artists.”

The resilience fund is an ongoing grant program, and Stein said he’s optimistic about a significant donation coming in relatively soon. He said the fund will continue as long as there’s money in it and a need for that money.

Getting money into the hands of artists and organizations in such a traumatic time is one of the few rays of light for the O.C. arts community in a gloomy five months. But Stein, a long-time theater director and producer, knows that unless it’s a Chekov play and there’s a gun in the first act, no one knows what the final act will look like.

And he’s hoping that the lack of art in people’s lives will help deliver a twist at the end of the COVID-19 chronicles: “It is a hard time but we also feel that when we all come out the other end of this that hopefully there will be a newfound respect for the role that public support for the arts in our community [can play], the value of our arts ecology and a desire to explore how we can work hand in hand to secure and increase arts funding.”

Joel Beers is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at jobeers@hotmail.com.