‘We get to keep existing’: Pandemic relief fund could be lifeline for concert venues and promoters

The Fireweed Dance Theatre held their annual company performance in Sitka, but remained fully masked and allowed only a limited audience. April 24, 2021. (Berett Wilber)

Throughout the pandemic, Alaska theaters and concert halls have remained empty. Orchestras, choirs, storytellers and actors did not take the stage — or if they did, it was without a live audience.

It has led to some serious financial strains, including at the Fairbanks Concert Association, said Anne Biberman, the executive director. The association hasn’t had a live performance in more than a year.

“In the midst of 2020 we had about four months when we had negative numbers, because we were doing ticket refunds,” Biberman said. “One month we refunded $13,000.”

Now the association — and concert venues and promoters across Alaska — can apply for a new pandemic relief fund called the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. The Small Business Administration is helping promoters apply for the grants, and is also distributing them.

The grants come from a pot of $16.2 billion from the federal Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits and Venues Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.

Applicants may qualify for funds equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue.

If the Fairbanks Concert Association gets the relief money, it will be the biggest grant it has ever received, said Biberman.

“We’ll get about $84,000 if we get it,” she said.

It would prevent the organization from closing.

“We get to keep existing,” she said. “We have a very, very small operational footprint. Most of the money we put out goes into the shows we put on. This money will really shore us up.”

The concert association has been a non-profit subscription service for 73 years, and — in a typical year — it hosts music and dance events in the in Hering Auditorium, a 1,200-seat theater in Fairbanks.

“We are really reliant on people buying tickets in advance,” Biberman said. “You can’t offer a season if you don’t know if any of the components of that season will happen or not.”

The concert association canceled the last concert of spring 2020, then its entire 2020 to 2021 season.

Biberman said the organization may try some outdoor performances this summer, if they can arrange the artists and venues around Fairbanks’ finicky summer weather.

“Live is different. You hunger for it. Come together, hear it, feel it, experience it, share it. All together. It is not something you can get from a virtual event,” she said.

But with only half of Alaskans vaccinated against COVID-19, she still doesn’t know if she will be selling tickets for concerts in Fairbanks’ largest auditorium this fall.

“I don’t think our patrons are going to be ready to file into Hering and sit cheek by jowl, even with a mask on,” she said.

For now, she and other concert and dance agencies say they’re frustrated and waiting for more people to be vaccinated.

The following organizations can apply for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant:

  • Live venue operators or promoters
  • Theatrical producers
  • Live performing arts organization operators
  • Museum operators
  • Motion picture theater operators (including owners)
  • Talent representatives
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