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Carl Hoover: New year promises change for Waco arts

Carl Hoover: New year promises change for Waco arts

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Packaged within the $900 billion coronavirus aid package that Congress passed in the final days of 2020 was some potential good news for Waco venues that provide stages for music, theater and other live performances.

Inside was the Save Our Stages Act, coauthored by Texas Senator John Cornyn and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, that provides some $15 billion for music and entertainment venues, performance arts organizations and motion picture theaters whose revenue has been slashed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related protective measures such as closures and audience limitations.

The grants, administered through Small Business Administration, allow eligible recipients to cover up to 45% of their 2019 operational costs or $10 million. Those grants can be used to cover rent or mortgages; utilities; state and local taxes; regular maintenance; purchase of personal protective equipment; and capital expenditures related to meeting governmental social distancing standards.

The proof in the pudding, of course, lies in the details — who qualifies and how, when and where they might get their funds — but after a year where most of the performing venues in Waco have been without the audiences and ticket sales that normally support them, anything that helps to keep them afloat has to be considered good news.

Optimism comes with the territory of a new year and a lot of people in the arts, from music to visual arts, anticipate good news in the year ahead. One hates to say it can’t be worse than the one just past in the case that should come about, but the coronavirus pandemic has hit small businesses especially hard.

As most of the musicians, artists and performers, and the venues and shops that support them, are small businesses, it’s been a gut punch to the arts. We’ve had restaurants and some shops close over the last year, but many of the local artists and organizations that have fueled the arts and entertainment scene in Waco are still holding on, though I suspect we’re down to fingernails for some.

News of a COVID-19 vaccine is helping some breathe a little easier. A multi-billion dollar federal aid package helps, too, and the partial successes of some new revenue streams for some organizations are adding glimmers of hope for 2021.

As we repair the damage done to the arts over the last year, though, we don’t need to think we’re out of the woods yet. Far from it. It’s going to take months before we get significant numbers of people vaccinated in the community. Masking and social distancing rules will need to continue at least through the spring if not longer, and that means big concert and play audiences won’t be coming back for months, if not much of 2021.

As long as people feel fearful of contracting COVID-19 in public, a fear not helped by the protests of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers, they will stay away from performances and ticket buying. The infrastructure needed to mount concerts and plays — the behind-the-scenes people who run sound and lighting systems, the promoters who book concerts, the staff needed to sell tickets and merchandise, the marketeers who encourage concert attendance — has been crippled.

Necessity is the mother of invention goes the adage and we’ve seen some innovative responses from Waco artists and venues over the past year: plays and performances streamed online for the first time, works written specifically for online consumption, online marketplaces where local artists and craftspeople can sell what they’ve sold in person for much of their careers.

The trick as we go forward into a new year will be finding that balance between a return to how things have always been and new directions where audiences and customers may prefer. Traditional ways of selling physical tickets may not work as well for those who like buying online or prefer electronic ticketing through their phones. Venues accustomed to packing people in for live shows may find those live shows and tours not coming back as they used to.

And, going forward, it’s also becoming clear COVID-19 will be here to stay in some form or fashion. What will happen to future concert or stage productions where a company member contracts COVID-19, even in a world with a vaccine and high numbers of contracted cases? More performance-canceling quarantines that will disrupt seasons and revenue streams?

In a society damaged by political and cultural polarization, the arts can supply needed healing for a community, whether in the emotionally restorative qualities of music, performance or visual art, or in the communal experience and social bonding that those arts can provide.

Those qualities may be essential to a strong Waco of the future, one where economic and social distances can still be bridged, and we would be foolish to ignore the arts as we rebound and rebuild from the pandemic.

It’s a new year. Let’s provide help where we can and where it’s needed, yet keep an open mind for innovations and new ways that keep the arts — and ourselves — alive.

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