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Banding Together

East Bay cultural organizations unite to lobby for aid

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In July, the American Alliance of Museums announced the results of a spring 2020 national survey with this warning: “One out of every three museums may shutter forever as funding sources and financial reserves run dry.”

Lori Fogarty, director of the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), was not surprised.

“The need is just huge,” she says, referring to the fiscal crises cultural organizations are facing due to ongoing pandemic-induced closures.

The crisis isn’t limited to museums. Theaters, zoos, dance companies, science centers, symphonies: Every cultural institution that functions by bringing audiences together in shared space to access ideas, art, or hands-on learning is suffering draconian losses, upended budgets, staff cuts, and the disabling inability to serve their audiences in usual ways during shelter-in-place.

In this crucible, a roster of notable East Bay cultural organizations are forging a new alliance to try to save one another from peril. While the alliance is still nascent, without so much as a formally approved name, it has already identified an initial course of action: advocate for aid from Alameda County, a potential source of support that has been largely untapped by cultural organizations to date.

“We need to help county leadership see that the arts and culture are deserving of their support and financial resources as regional employers, as economic drivers, and also as stewards of the community and as a place of refuge when we are able to open again,” says Susie Medak, Berkeley Rep’s managing director of nearly 31 years. Medak and Fogarty are loosely co-chairing the alliance (working name: East Bay Cultural Alliance), which is currently made up of 21 Alameda County organizations. “We are a vital part of the East Bay’s civic fabric,” Medak adds, “and without help, there is a very good chance that many of us will not survive the pandemic.”

As members of the emerging alliance brainstormed possible avenues of support over Zoom this spring, they were surprised to learn that none of them had previously advocated significantly with Alameda County. This was partly due to the fact that “there has just never been a mechanism for the county to support arts and culture,” says Fogarty. (There is an Alameda County Arts Commission, but its grants are modest: $800 to $2,300 per grantee, with a total disbursement of $71,700 divided among 43 organizations in 2019.) Now, the county is one of several regional decision-making bodies responsible for allocating relief funds from federal and state aid packages, such as the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed by Congress in March.

Says Fogarty, “Part of our realization was, we need to get on the county’s radar! We felt, ‘Why would they think to respond to the needs of arts organizations if we haven’t made those needs known?’”

The alliance sent a letter to all county supervisors in April requesting aid for hard-hit cultural organizations. They included specific suggestions for avenues for relief, from direct funding to extension of lines of credit to delay-of-debt servicing. The letter was signed by leaders of 21 current alliance members plus Roberto Bedoya, Oakland’s manager of cultural affairs.

To date, the alliance has received no response from the county.

EBX reached out repeatedly, over the course of seven days, for comment from Alameda County Supervisors Keith Carson and Wilma Chan, who represent the districts in which the bulk of the alliance’s members are located. Neither responded, although a representative for Carson’s office did request that the alliance’s letter be re-sent to her.

Alliance members are sympathetic to the county’s burdens during the pandemic, but plan to continue trying to get their message across. “[Supervisors] have an incredibly complicated job right now,” says Kymberly Miller, director of alliance member Children’s Fairyland. “But we need them to understand that our sector is in danger, to recognize that we support the community in major ways, and to make sure cultural organizations are included in their plans to support businesses, which in turn supports individual members of the workforce.”

The county is not, of course, the sole resource cultural organizations are pursuing for support. Many are now running special individual-donor fundraisers, such as Fairyland’s “Bring Back the Magic” and Berkeley Rep’s “Resilience Campaign.” They’re also seeking support municipally, to limited effect. “We know the cities don’t have more money to give,” says Fogarty. “Oakland is taking a huge hit with all of this [coronavirus disruption], and they had minimal funding for the arts to begin with.” Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff is looking to Congress for help; in May she cosigned a letter with 22 other mayors from across the U.S. requesting more federal aid from the NEA and NEH for artists and cultural organizations.

Berkeley made grants of $24,000 to many Berkeley-based alliance members in April, followed by additional grants of close to $10,000 in July. That support is both meaningful and a drop in the bucket compared to losses. Jeremy Geffen, executive and artistic director of alliance member Cal Performances, estimates his organization has lost at least $2 million in ticket sales since March. That number will climb as Cal Performances’ reopening has been pushed to Jan. 2021 at the earliest.

This brings the alliance’s focus back to the county. When the group wrote to supervisors in April, Fogarty says, “We thought we might need a couple months of relief to get us through to summer. Now the reality is that this is going to be a much longer game, and the situation for many of these organizations is much more dire.”

Undeterred by the county’s initial lack of response, alliance members are surveying cultural organizations throughout Alameda County to quantify the impact of pandemic closures on employment and community engagement. When the data is compiled, the alliance will request a meeting with supervisors Chan and Carson. The goal, says Fogarty, is “to help our legislative bodies understand the importance of our sector not just in terms of the many jobs we supply...but to understand that these organizations define our region, define what our city values, and what our residents and businesses value about being here.”

Medak agrees. “We need our legislators, and the public, to imagine what this community will feel like if we lose our cultural resources. Large or small, we are all vulnerable right now.”

As they deal with the present and plan for the future, leaders of cultural institutions are living in cognitive dissonance, bracing for organizational carnage and clutching at silver linings such as the emergence of the alliance itself.

As of this writing, the alliance includes 21 varied Alameda County institutions: two symphonies (Berkeley, Oakland), a ballet company (Oakland), one zoo (Oakland), five theaters (Aurora, Bay Area Children's, Berkeley Rep, Cal Shakes, Shotgun Players), six UC Berkeley institutions (BAMPFA, Cal Performances, Lawrence Hall of Science, Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, UC Botanical Garden), the Oakland Museum and five additional educational/cultural institutions (Chabot Space & Science Center, The Crucible, Fairyland, Freight & Salvage, Kala Art Institute).

While some alliance members had in the past engaged in targeted cross-programming or promotional collaborations, the new group and its scope of input is unprecedented. “Just getting all those people on a call before would have been impossible,” says Cal Performances’ Geffen. “Crises do unite people.”

In addition, says A. J. Fox, media relations manager for alliance member BAMPFA, “Joining together specifically for advocacy is a new and important development. Having a unified front is going to be so helpful not just for navigating through COVID, but for everything that will come after.”

Without sufficient aid, of course, it remains to be seen how many East Bay cultural organizations will have an “after.”

“If shelter-in-place continues as long as we are realizing it might, it will shutter a lot of our companies,” says Medak. And yet, she adds, “Creating the alliance, engaging in it, putting energy into it is an act of optimism. It says that at the other end of this we want to be, we plan to be, we will be stronger.”

What can you do?
● If you’re in a position to donate, check the website of your favorite East Bay cultural institution for information on how to give.
● Contact your county supervisor and ask them to include cultural organizations in the county’s next COVID-19 relief package. Identify your district and find supervisors’ contact at acgov.org/board/.

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