Artists and cultural organizations were financially hit especially hard early on during the pandemic. Their lost revenue is still piling up due to cancellations of in-person exhibitions, concerts and shows.
Reina Katzenberger isn’t immune from that trend. She’s a mixed media artist who grew up in the Roaring Fork Valley. In 2014, she opened The Project Shop in Carbondale.
“We’ve got an antique letterpress that’s more than 120 years old, and screen printing, a big etching press,” she said of the space, which provides hands-on arts opportunities for emerging artists. That all changed when COVID-19 hit.
“I shut down the shop right away, and we haven’t really opened it back up to artists just as far as public safety as a shared space,” she said.
Katzenberger has experience in web and graphic design, so she’s been able to continue some of her work online since then. However, it’s been a slower-than-average summer.
“I won’t lie, it’s really hard,” she said. “Some days I feel like it’s ridiculous, it’s self indulgent, I get scared of being out of resources. Financially it’s very difficult.”
Katzenberger didn’t qualify for unemployment. The Project Shop doesn’t have payroll, so she wasn’t eligible for loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program either. Her situation highlights some of the fragility that comes with freelance work, and it’s a familiar story that’s playing out for other artists in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“I’ve applied for, I think, 4 or 5 grants. There’s just so many artists applying for these so I know they’re crazy, crazy competitive,” said Teresa Booth Brown, a collage artist in Aspen.
Booth Brown is also a teacher and the artist programs coordinator at the Aspen Art Museum; she hasn’t received a single grant she’s applied for.
“That’s hard because I do have thousands of dollars invested in materials and framing that I was hoping to recover by some sales, but that’s not going to be the case,” she said.
Normally, Booth Brown would be in Alberta, Canada at this time of year for an artist-in-residence program. She’s also typically part of the summer faculty at La Napoule Art Foundation in southern France. Both of those opportunities were cancelled due to the pandemic.
She currently has work on display as part of an exhibition at Michael Warren Contemporary, an art gallery in Denver, but there’s concern there, too.
“I’m just not sure how many people will see it, or what that year-long investment of creating paintings and prints for that show what that will end up looking like,” she said. “Artists work for long periods of time, and I’m no exception to that.”
A study by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts found that Katzenberger and Booth Brown aren’t alone. The organization surveyed 10,000 working artists in April, and found that two thirds of respondents said they were newly unemployed due to the pandemic. Of the study’s respondents, 95% said they’ve lost out on income due to the pandemic; that missed yearly income amounts to $24,000 per artist on average.
“I’m hoping that people will realize what a large investment artists make in getting their work into any venue or even just creating it in their own studio,” said Booth Brown.
She adds that being an artist is a financially vulnerable profession, and that many artists barely break even or make minimum wage when factoring in their costs. However, arts organizations and independent artists bring in a lot of money for their communities. Back in 2004, Aspen’s economic impact study found that $17 million came from direct spending on arts and cultural organizations and events. Another $10 million was pumped into the city from indirect spending on those same events.
“There’s just such strong support from the people who live here when it comes to the arts,” said Karen Harrington, Aspen’s director of quality, of the windfall.
Her office works with Aspen’s City Council and municipal departments to ensure public money is going to programming that meets community values. She also oversees citizen outreach initiatives to gauge community interest in arts and cultural events.
“It just makes it that much more important to help them get through this rough spot,” Harrington added.
As part of that effort, Aspen’s set aside $396,000 as part of its new Arts and Cultural Arts Recovery grants as part of the city’s more than $1.5 million that’s earmarked for arts organizations in 2021. Downvalley governments and local nonprofits have also started their own artist relief funds.
“There’s amazing programming out there for creatives especially in this valley with all the nonprofits that really stepped up,” said Katzenberger.
Online exhibits have helped some too, explained Katzenberger. She’s used this time to experiment with different platforms that take some of the uncertainty out of artists’ income. The Project Shop’s Quarterly Club, for instance, delivers local art to paid subscribers and puts money into artists’ hands up front. While it’s not the same as seeing art in-person, Katzenberger said the value of experiencing art can’t be understated—whatever the medium.
“Obviously, it’s my life’s work, but for everyone it comforts us and it pushes us out of our comfort zone at the same time,” she said. “I think that’s a remarkable thing.”
Katzenberger was recently tapped to co-design a mural for Carbondale’s new City Market that’s set to be unveiled in the coming months. She hopes the design brings together the community in times of COVID and beyond. Artists like Katzenberger hope that thought creates financial support for arts programming in the future as the economic fallout from COVID-19 continues.