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Cultural Organizations In St. Louis Region Seek Lifeline From Federal Funds

Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
BB's Blues, Jazz and Soups in downtown St. Louis usually benefits from the foot traffic generated by Mardis Gras and events at nearby Busch Stadium. Much of that activity will be absent this year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cultural organizations hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic could soon find a lifeline in $15 billion that Congress recently appropriated for the arts sector.

For months, theater producers and owners of live music venues in the St. Louis region have reduced the number of their shows or paused them entirely, because of limits on public gatherings and other restrictions local authorities enacted to slow the spread of the virus. Several went out of business in 2020, and others are struggling to keep the lights on.

The relief grants are part of the Save Our Stages Act, which Congress folded into the $900 billion stimulus package passed in late December. Museums, talent agencies and movie theaters with no more than 500 employees are also eligible to apply. Lawmakers reserved $2 billion for organizations with fewer than 50 employees.

“I think it’s impossible to overstate how important this type of relief support is across the board,” said Hana Sharif, artistic director at the Rep.

The federal Small Business Administration will run the program, which is similar to the Paycheck Protection Program established in March. The Save Our Stages funds will have fewer strings attached, with recipients not required to use the money for salaries.

The grants could help venues like BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups, which has operated in downtown St. Louis for more than 40 years and has continued to offer live music during the pandemic. But with capacity restrictions and other safety protocols in place, owner John May has reduced his full-time staff from 15 to five.

“As owners, we’re tapping out our pockets, our resources, and hocking everything we own just to keep rolling,” May said. He said he received $75,000 from the Paycheck Protection Program, but that relief lasted only about two months.

The federal government will begin releasing application details for the new grants in coming weeks.

The National Independent Venues Association has estimated that 90% of independently owned venues would go out of business during the pandemic without any federal relief.

“The whole industry was on the precipice of a massive collapse,” NIVA spokesperson Audrey Fix Schaefer said. “That may sound dramatic, but it’s exactly what the situation is.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin.

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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