Rebooting In-Person Arts

The post-pandemic cultural sector needs public support to thrive, and attorneys can help

sculpture breaking apart
Illustration © Getty / 3DSculptor

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the cultural sector of Washington’s economy and the arts community both financially and spiritually. Artists, venue owners, and associated businesses have faced dramatic loss and challenge with ingenuity and courage. With a new wave of the pandemic, however, the foundation of the cultural sector remains unsettled. Support for the arts by attorneys, who play a prominent role in public life, can help preserve the health of the cultural sector coming out of the pandemic and for years to come. 

The Cultural Sector Redefined—Space and Equity

Ellen Walker, executive director of Pacific Northwest Ballet and vice president for the board of Inspire WA, a coalition dedicated to advocacy for science, heritage, and arts access statewide, stresses that the arts and cultural sector in Washington is at a crossroads: “We are facing seismic shifts.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an overwhelming effect on revenue, employment, and opportunity in the cultural sector. Challenges to recovery efforts were set in motion, pre-pandemic, by years of funding cuts, real estate appreciation, and cost-of-living increases in urban regions. The status quo is set impossibly low in terms of funding for cultural development. For example, in the 2017-2019 biennium, ArtsWA, the Washington State Arts Commission, lost nearly $700,000 from its budget.11 In 2019, only six states invested less in arts and culture than Washington, despite arts and culture contributing an estimated 53.2 billion dollars to the economy, representing 8.7 percent of the state’s GDP.22;

In Seattle and the surrounding region west of the Cascades, social and economic trends were already displacing artists, venues, and organizations pre-pandemic. Manny Cawaling, executive director of Inspire WA, remembers that “in the 1990s, the barrier to create was very low because space was cheap. We don’t have that now.”33

The success of major local employers in the South Lake Union area of Seattle has transformed it and surrounding districts into a thriving tech campus with offices and living spaces for thousands of new residents, but development has not been equitable. Artists, venues, and cultural organizations that lack connections to private funding have been priced out, and the work-from-home transition that appeared to be growing during the pandemic has not materialized into increased availability of space in central Seattle. 

One example is Tula’s, the last local-only jazz venue in Seattle, which closed for good in 2019.44 The closure left the local jazz community without a way to maintain the mentorship and practical training relationships that build on academic education gained from colleges.55 The authors note that as of September 6, 2021, Calluna in the Ravenna neighborhood of Seattle has started booking local jazz acts to perform in a restaurant setting. Seattle Jazz Fellowship founder Thomas Marriott believes that jazz, like many art forms transmitted through oral traditions, needs a space where masters can work with junior artists directly. He notes that Seattle does maintain opportunities for residents to enjoy jazz at more than one world-class space that books national acts. Unfortunately, “for local jazz musicians that can’t book a night, the best opportunities to grow and mature are found outside the Pacific Northwest.” 

Marriott had hoped that work-from-home could open up a space in Seattle “for musicians to rebuild the culture of local jazz in this city.” What he found, though, was that landlords are reluctant to rent out their spaces, out of concerns over noise and late hours.

“Jazz isn’t a 2 a.m. scene, more like a 10 p.m. scene, but still landlords don’t want people standing outside or going in and out after 6 p.m.,” Marriott said. “They want something that will keep their places busy during the day.” 

For the performing arts, the segment of the arts sector that has arguably been hit the hardest, the issue of space is especially crucial. Ample space is essential for dancers to train, practice, and flourish. Actors and musicians need stages and audiences, making the trade-off between price and accessibility keenly felt. Finding spaces for the arts is key, and where space is in limited supply, who gets the space raises critical equity issues. A rare silver lining from the pandemic is the spotlight its effects has shone on the need for racial equity in the arts sector. An early response, in December 2020, was the creation by the City of Seattle of the Cultural Space Agency, a real estate development company, with the goal of supporting culturally focused community spaces that provide arts and culture creation opportunities for the city’s communities of color.66

Organizations across the sector are crafting responses. “There is no [arts and culture] organization that is going to leave this experience without a centering on diversity and accessibility issues,” says Walker. In 2020, PNB used the “pandemic pause” to restructure and revitalize its cross-functional IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Accessibility) Committee to reenergize the organization with a focus on accessibility throughout its operations. For Thomas Marriott and the Seattle Jazz Fellowship, in-person accessibility is a key concern. “We are focused on finding a space that is transit accessible, not just for musicians, but also for the audience. Jazz shouldn’t only be heard in clubs and recital halls. We believe that music belongs in a space that you can get to by bus, train, or in your neighborhood, where you don’t have to buy a drink to listen.” 

The Pivot to Online: a Stopgap, not a Solution

When Gov. Jay Inslee issued the first stay-at-home order in March 2020, arts venues immediately shut their doors. The performing arts sector turned out to be “first to close, last to open,” according to Walker. As with other businesses that found a way to reach customers at home, the arts community turned to online programming. The sector rallied quickly to address the social isolation felt by the community, offering online programming that not only served to keep organizations operating but provided inspiration and connection at a time of extreme need. 

Acclaimed hip-hop and ballet dancers started giving weekly classes on Instagram Live. Renowned artists like Mo Willems gave daily doodle lessons on YouTube. Local art stars created unique social media content to stay connected, and organizations started planning for digital subscription packages. This reimagined digital access was transformative. Where no one had previously conceived of taking a ballet class online, in an instant a student in Washington had the option to virtually attend classes from anywhere in the world or from down the street. 

While this broader reach has increased access to the arts, it may also pose challenges for retaining a devoted local audience. Consolidation is a serious concern, as local organizations compete with globally recognized companies for subscriptions. The Pacific Northwest Ballet, deciding to stream its annual Nutcracker performance in 2020, competed with companies in New York, London, and Paris for audiences in Washington. Organizations also recognize the limitations of streaming, which doesn’t fully evoke the magic of in-person attendance. “So our work became very human centered,” explains Walker. “We are constantly asking, ‘How do we still deliver to our patrons?’ There’s a relevance that we still have to maintain.”

The performing arts sector turned out to be ‘first to close, last to open.’

llustration © Getty / 3DSculptor

Online programming alone could not mitigate the effects of the pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, ArtsFund, Washington’s largest aggregator and distributor of private donations to the arts, monitored impacts of pandemic restrictions using organizational survey data. At the pandemic’s first peak, over 70 percent of respondents had either laid off or furloughed employees; earned income budgets for 2020 were 65 percent less than pre-pandemic numbers; personnel expenses were budgeted to be 30 percent lower for 2021; and revenue losses for the cultural sector were projected to be over $135 million.77

Impacts on individual artists have been equally severe, as industry losses inevitably translate to individual losses. Artists who already had a difficult time maintaining studio space continue to lose work due to lack of available space. Artists who were already struggling to work in urban areas with rising rents have decided to pack up and relocate cross country. These losses become our own. 

The shift to digital and online streaming has had a variety of operational and legal impacts on the sector too, especially in the traditionally in-person and performing arts. Cawaling explained that frequent questions in the community include “how do we monetize an online virtual experience, handle privacy issues on Zoom, and protect our artistic works from digital copying?” Individual artists and organizations are grappling with new models and costs associated with creating digital content, which include skills like search engine optimization, video and sound editing, and social media promotion, in the face of “extreme online viewing fatigue.” 

Washington Lawyers for the Arts, founded in 1976 to support the arts community, has seen a dramatic increase in demand for its free legal clinic, as well as a shift in the focus of advice, once it moved its clinic operations fully online in March 2020. When consultations were made available online, rather than in person, in the evenings, in South Lake Union, the number of consultations increased from around 10 artists per month to an average of between 30 and 40 per month. Geographic, demographic, and socioeconomic representation broadened greatly. Artists from over 60 cities and towns in Washington have made use of the clinic services since the shift. Issues of online privacy, copyright in digital streaming, and contract breach grew to outnumber intellectual property help. Early in the pandemic, artists were more likely to request help with insurance, COVID-19 liability waivers, or forming an entity with a liability shield rather than registering a trademark.

Michael Greer, CEO of ArtsFund, observes that with organizations exploring different distribution methods, such as online or via public outdoor space, “different populations are engaging.” While these avenues of outreach should be celebrated, Greer notes the challenge now shifts to maintaining these additional methods of engagement, instead of a simple return to pre-pandemic activities. Maintaining a digital distribution, so valuable for accessibility and equity, adds another monumental task to what arts organizations were already struggling to achieve. “It all comes down to funding,” says Greer.

What’s Next? Public Funding is Critical

In July 2021, Seattle mayoral candidates held a forum to discuss post-pandemic recovery for the arts and culture sector. Candidates offered a host of possible solutions, from a focus on affordable housing for artists to creating more public art creation opportunities to integrating art into the green economy.88

The common thread was that public investment is critical. Greer points out that for every public dollar spent on the arts, $3 go back into the surrounding community. Losing artists and cultural opportunities means lost opportunities for further economic growth in Washington. 

Greer argues that despite severe financial impacts to the cultural sector, we have yet to see widespread permanent closures, and that’s because of public funding. The “Payment Protection Program (PPP) was the key element to preventing a full collapse of the sector” he explains. The first round of PPP loans offered nearly $5 billion directly to arts, entertainment, and recreation. Although PPP loans helped stave off complete disaster, Nate Omdal, lead organizer at American Federation of Musicians Local 76-493 and chair of the Advocacy and Economic Development Committee at the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, clarifies that funds provided by the PPP did not reach all artists, noting that “many of the government subsidies were for companies that had properly classified W2 employees, leaving out institutions or employers hiring self-employed performers.” Omdal advocates for a way “to modernize the way the state and other municipalities interact with long-tenured working musicians, who are the original gig workers.” 

Cawaling also emphasizes the importance of public support during this time when even for-profit businesses are soliciting donations to survive. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program (SVOG), created by the Economic Aid Act passed by Congress in December 2020, specifically earmarks $16 billion for live music venues, museums, and performing arts organizations. ArtsWA distributed nearly $4 million through CARES Act funding in 2020, and King County will distribute $20 million from the American Rescue Plan Act through grants to theaters, music venues, clubs, and other cultural spaces.99 Nationally, the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 flagged nearly $500 million of its $1.9 trillion stimulus package for cultural organizations.1010

Advocacy efforts at the state and national level, like those of Cawaling, Walker, and Greer, have proven successful. “Trillions of dollars are coming in for recovery efforts … but things are still messy,” says Greer. Many organizations are still not looking at full reopening until 2022 or beyond. Organizations are preparing their future budgets and despite the relief funds, are continuing to anticipate significant hardship. Earned income reductions are expected to remain around 60 percent and total personnel expenses 30 percent lower. With such lingering uncertainty, public funding remains critical to the survival of an entire sector of Washington’s economy.

As Walker notes, “there is no world-class city that doesn’t have a robust arts and culture community. If we want to have these assets in our cities, we have to show up.” 

The first step for attorneys—who have a long history of contributing time and expertise for the public good, and who know how to advocate for public support for arts and entertainment—is simple: let’s show up. 


How to Get Involved


Offer time and leadership by joining boards of arts organizations.

Donate if you are able and inclined.

Support legislation related to public investment in the arts.


Join advocacy groups to stay involved and informed. For example:

Washington Lawyers for the Arts (WLA)

Inspire WA

Inspiration League of Inspire WA


About the Author
About the Author

Erin Vivion is a member of the board of Washington Lawyers for the Arts and an associate at Coates IP. Her practice focuses on U.S. and international trademark prosecution, enforcement, and portfolio management. She also assists tech industry clients with domain name, trademark, and copyright matters through federal litigation, UDRP support, licensing, and ICANN involvement. Before law, Vivion was a professional ballerina with the Houston Ballet and Ballet West.

About the Author
About the Author

Leron Vandsburger, Ph.D., is a member of the board of Washington Lawyers for the Arts and an associate at Christensen O’Connor Johnson Kindness PLLC. He focuses his practice on patent prosecution and counseling in the areas of materials, engineering, and electronics. Representative technology experience includes, AI/machine learning, materials chemistry, optics, computer vision, and AR/VR systems.