Maine's arts organizations haven't yet seen the benefits of a federal grant program

·3 min read

May 7—PORTLAND, Maine — When a long-awaited federal loan program meant to bail out the performing arts industry burned through its launch date in April, Lauren Wayne was stunned.

The general manager of the State Theatre, one of Portland's eminent concert halls, had prepared for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant for 11 months. But on April 15, she and thousands of arts industry professionals watched in horror as the government agency's website rejected her application, then crashed indefinitely.

Two weeks later, the application portal is apparently fixed, but the process hasn't inspired much optimism for the arts industry. Wayne applied for the Small Business Administration grant last week, but she hasn't heard whether the State Theatre's application was approved, and doesn't know when funds would be available.

"It's been a really clunky and inefficient process," Wayne said. "We're thankful for the opportunity but the fact that we've been waiting so long and they're still delaying the approval process is frustrating to say the least."

Maine's arts and live performance industries, along with the rest of the country, have been ravaged by the pandemic. After waiting a year for targeted relief from federal grant programs, which were authorized by Congress last December, additional delays are now pushing into the tourist season, making it difficult for venues that live by the tourist season to plan ahead.

Brian Hinrichs, director of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, is also anxiously awaiting a response from the Small Business Administration. The agency's lack of response to his application was "nerve-wracking," he said, but he's trusting the process, encouraged that the major obstacles of the initial launch appeared to be solved.

The State Theatre can hold on, but delays could affect smaller venues who have been waiting over a year for targeted assistance. For Wayne, it's doubly frustrating to see the Small Business Administration execute a Restaurant Revitalization Fund much more quickly than its shuttered venue grant. Venues, mostly unable to operate at all, have lost a greater share of revenue than restaurants.

Securing a federal grant could be a lifeline for the State Theatre, helping Wayne to rehire furloughed staff and restore payrolls to pre-pandemic levels. But it wouldn't make a lot of difference if the state can't ease coronavirus restrictions. Wayne won't reopen the 1,870-seat venue — which hosted concerts by such artists as Angel Olsen, Kamasi Washington and Danzig in recent years — under 6-foot social distance restrictions. She wants full capacity.

For that to happen safely, Maine's vaccination metrics need to climb, Wayne reasons. Other states have tied reopening plans to their vaccination rates, but Maine's reopening plan for large capacity gatherings still remains to be seen.

For Wayne and others in the music industry, that date can't come soon enough. Wayne recognizes the need for coronavirus restrictions, but thinks a public vaccinate rate could help incentivize Mainers — especially younger people — to get vaccinated, ushering in the so-called return to normalcy that could bring struggling industries back.

A state plan tied to vaccination rates is like saying, "Hey public, if you want to do this, go get your vaccine," Wayne said. "Maybe that's going to encourage people. We need something to look forward to so we can plan our seasons."

While they wait for word about the grant funding, the State Theatre is producing a public service announcement in the coming weeks, hoping to spur people to get their shots. With tourist restrictions lifted in Maine, Wayne says time is of the essence.

"It's going to be a busy season," she said.

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