Coronavirus Cancellations Puts Michigan’s Arts Community At Risk

State and health officials have pushed arts organizations to cancel events and keep people at home under threat from the spread of COVID-19.

The spread of coronavirus, and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has led to a string of event cancellations

“It’s very frightening, and we have no safety net.” — Deb Polich, Arts Alliance

In the week since the first cases of the disease were detected in Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer suspended K-12 schools, temporarily closed dine-in bars, restaurants and other establishments, and ordered a cancellation of events and assemblages over 250 people (meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended events of over 50 people be suspended.)

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The cancellations have affected every corner of public life, from religious congregations to stadium-filling sports events. But they may have an especially tough impact on the state’s arts and creative economy, often high investment activities that rely on temporary workers. 

“It’s devastating for the field,” says Deb Polich, President of the Arts Alliance, an umbrella arts organization based in Washtenaw County. “People are out of work, from the front-of-house staff who take tickets and sell concessions to ushering you into your seats, to the people who are on-stage, the performers, artists and stagehands, are out of work immediately. Those venues don’t know when they will be able to reopen, and they’ve already spent all the money  to produce and present these programs.”

“If we value these organizations and businesses, if we want them to be here when this crisis is over, they have to be able to pay their mortgage payments.” — Deb Polich, Arts Alliance 

Some cities, like Boston, have public funding and arts commissions who have put forward emergency funds for artists. Polich says organizations like the Arts Alliance have to fill the gap in Michigan by launching an emergency fund for artists.

“It’s very frightening, and we have no safety net,” says Polich.

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CultureShift’s Amanda LeClaire spoke with Polich about the challenges artists and supporting organizations are facing, proposals put forward by government officials and how cultural organizations are thinking about the pandemic.

Click on the player above to hear Arts Alliance’ Deb Polich on the impact COVID-19 is having on Michigan’s creative community, and read excerpts, edited for length and clarity, below.

Amanda LeClaire, CultureShift: Does anything like unemployment help in this situation? 

Deb Polich, Arts Alliance: If you’re employed by an organization, you can apply for unemployment. But if you’re a gig artist, if you’re a musician, an actor or stagehand, you don’t get paid by an organization, you get paid by the jobs that you do. You’re not paying in to unemployment, so you can’t apply for it. You don’t have anything to fall back on. Unless there is something that’s done from Michigan or from the nation, you don’t have that opportunity. It’s a big deal. 

Now, the President the other night had put forward some proposals to help hourly and other employees who maybe didn’t have paid time off. Would any of those measures, if put into place, help this issue?

It’s all going to be the proof in the pudding, and what exactly is set up. So when the president spoke about small business relief programs, frequently, non-profits do not fall within those, or are exempt from those. We have to make sure that we are not exempt in these cases. 

If we, the communities that value these organizations and businesses, if we want them to be here when this crisis is over, they have to sustain, they have to be able to pay their mortgage payments between now and that time when our society is back and thriving again. That’s going to be necessary. 

Can you talk to the huge amount that the arts play in Michigan’s economy? And how these cancellations may affect it at the end of the year. 

Here in Washtenaw, we have 208 non-profit organizations, cultural organizations. We just did an assessment of the revenues and the budget sizes: That’s $68 million in organizations, comprehensively. It’s actually even bigger than that, because those are the ones that actually report their revenues, 100 of those have revenues under $50,000. It’s a big business. That’s just the nonprofit. That’s not counting the individual artists and creatives, and that’s not counting the for-profit side of it. It’s a huge business. 

On a national level, it adds up to 4.3% of the gross domestic product. That’s a lot bigger than agriculture, it’s bigger than construction and it’s bigger than transportation. It is a huge part of our economy. It’s not a number that’s reported by the media on a regular basis. And in Michigan, it’s just as big in each of our communities. 

It’s not only about the economic drive, it’s about what makes your community livable. It’s what makes us human. It helps us understand each other. 

A lot of people are cancelling events over the next weeks. But then you see this week, the MoPop festival was announced at the end of July. Is there a safe zone that arts organizations are talking about right now, where they can not cancel something, or begin to plan something?

Everyone’s being cautious. So much of this is not in their control. Remember, many of these [events are planned] months and years in advance. Symphonies and theater companies, they’re planning months and years in advance. Other things can happen on a shorter timeframe. When it starts, there could be a lag. No one quite knows what the start moment is going to be.

Unlike 9/11, when we closed our doors for a period of time, because we had to, people wanted to get back together quickly, because they needed to be with each other. Right now, we’re being told that we need to be apart from each other. People generally, we’re communal. People want to be next to each other, they want to hang out together. It’ll be interesting to see if this virus goes the way that it is, how soon we want to reconnect and be with each other in those communal circumstances. But it may not be up to us as people, it may be up to this virus for awhile. 


  • Amanda LeClaire
    Amanda LeClaire is an award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. She’s a founding producer of WDET’s flagship news talk show Detroit Today, and a former host/reporter for Arizona Public Media. Amanda is also an artist, certified intuitive and energy healer, and professional tarot reader.