Mesa board wants city aid for arts nonprofits | News

Emilee Geist

Mesa’s Museum and Cultural Advisory Board wants City Council to provide financial support to arts-focused nonprofit organizations to help them recover from the financial hit they took from COVID-19 pandemic. Noting that Mesa has already given small businesses stimulus funding, the letter asserts that it should extend similar aid to […]

Mesa’s Museum and Cultural Advisory Board wants City Council to provide financial support to arts-focused nonprofit organizations to help them recover from the financial hit they took from COVID-19 pandemic.

Noting that Mesa has already given small businesses stimulus funding, the letter asserts that it should extend similar aid to local arts nonprofits because they have a comparable positive impact on Mesa’s economy. 

“For all intents and purposes, these are small businesses, but they are fulfilling a greater good of arts and culture for our audiences,” board Chairwoman Alycia de Mesa said.

Vice Chair Nick Willis said during a recent board meeting that the proposed aid for nonprofits would total around $250,000 and could be drawn from the $2.5 million of the $93 million Mesa received in its federal pandemic-relief package.

 The city has to allocate this money somehow by the end of the year, according to Cindy Ornstein, city Arts and Culture Department executive director.

If the board’s request is accepted, then the funding could be divided among 15 to 20 independent, arts-focused Mesa arts nonprofits, such as Arizona Youth Ballet and The Millet House Art Collective, Ornstein said. 

The request was devised by a special task force of four board members, including de Mesa and Willis, that formed in July. 

They highlighted a 2015 study that determined that arts nonprofits generated $29.6 million in total economic impact for the city.

De Mesa said this figure derives “from small businesses – other types of small businesses – being impacted by tourism dollars that come along with the arts and culture.”

She also noted, “We’re developing a really great reputation as a city with an arts and culture emphasis.”

Despite this significance, only a few arts nonprofits have obtained aid from the city during the pandemic. These are the so-called founding resident companies, nonprofits connected with the Mesa Arts Center since its creation, that received $35,000 combined, Willis said.

One such company is the East Valley Children’s Theatre, which typically stages its yearly fundraiser in April. 

City funding covered some of the theater company’s rent and utility cost but could not substitute for lost revenue from classes, camps and performances that were canceled. 

The theater company held a digital auction, promoted with clips of kids explaining the importance of theater. It was successful, which surprised creative director Karen Rolston.

“Here we are in the pandemic, people are losing jobs, people don’t have any money to spend on things,” Rolston said. “Are they going to spend money on a children’s theatre? Is that important to them? But it was.”

East Valley Children’s Theater’s community wanted them to survive despite the circumstances, Rolston said. 

But the company currently has not ready to physically perform because the Mesa Arts Center remains closed indefinitely.

Museums have encountered their own challenges during the pandemic. 

They have lost revenue from admissions, fundraising and space rentals, according to Janice Klein, executive director of the Museum Association of Arizona.

Klein said those entities are not holding out much hope for more federal aid. 

“It’s probably not anywhere on the top 50 of the list of things that our federal representatives and senators are looking at,” Klein said.

Mesa’s other two city-owned museums, the i.d.e.a. Museum and Arizona Museum of Natural History, plan on soft reopenings later this fall.

 Sunnee O’Rork, executive director of the i.d.e.a. Museum, said the board will likely help promote the museum as it tests its reopening plans, which include timed ticketing and one-way routing. 

The museum also is in the process of modifying or replacing high-touch exhibits in the i.d.e.a. Museum’s ArtVille section.

Judy Wood, a mixed-media artist and i.d.e.a. Museum “volunteer extraordinaire,” complimented the advocacy for the arts nonprofits.

“They’ve been this undergirding support,” said Wood, who frequents local museums with her granddaughter. “They probably do some funding for various projects that are going on behind the scenes that we’re not even aware of.”

A volunteer herself, Wood also feared that arts programs volunteers might be considered nonessential – a concern that de Mesa has where the nonprofits themselves are concerned.

“When it comes to funding of arts and culture, people look at it as a ‘nice-to-have. It’s a ‘nice-to-have’ thing, versus something that actually has a direct economic impact,” de Mesa said. 

“Where we’re coming from is that, in supporting these nonprofit organizations… we have the opportunity to have a very direct impact on an actually more speedy and more efficient recovery for the city of Mesa overall.”

In the meantime, Ornstein said large part of her department’s effort to is to support K-12 education and that she and her staff continue to speak with teachers and schools to see how they can support them this school year. 

 The department also is working with vulnerable populations through its Arts in Service and Creative Aging programs and is exploring other ways to engage with older and isolated adults and those in senior living facilities.

Arizona Museum of Natural History has a full complement of virtual resources that support family/individual well-being, learning and entertainment, Ornstein said, and is launching a new natural history course this fall that will have two classes per week for eight weeks. 

The i.d.e.a. Museum also has a broad array of virtual content for a variety of audiences and will add virtual Girl Scout workshops this fall.

All Arts & Culture institutions created content for Together in the Desert, a part of the Wednesday Family Take Out Night, that featured family-friendly artmaking activities that make up a larger community art project and promoted Downtown Mesa restaurants. 

Each institution is also exploring ways to build community at this time.

One program in exploration right now is a Downtown Mesa exhibition of Ray Villafane’s works to celebrate the opening of Alice Cooper’s Solid Rock Teen Center in Downtown Mesa later this year. 

The department is also exploring “yarn bombing” and drive-in concerts. When things improve, some outdoor activities that the city plans to reopen include Mesa Grande and stage events at Mesa Amphitheater.

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