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Hard-hit culture and arts industries see hope after the COVID-19 pandemic

People tour the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
People tour the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s culture and arts industry lost over $77 million from the restrictions placed on the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a new report shows, but officials are holding out hope for a better year.

“When we closed the museum in March 2020 to help slow the spread of COVID-19, we thought we’d be dark for just a week or two. By mid-April, however, it was clear our temporary closure was anything but and we began to prepare for an extended shutdown,” according to Jason Cryan, executive director of the Natural History Museum of Utah.

According to the 2020 State of Utah Culture Report presented last week by the Utah Cultural Alliance and the Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, about $77 million in arts-related revenue was lost between March and November 2020. State data also showed more than 3,000 jobs in the culture industry were lost or affected by COVID-19, and about 22,000 independent contractors lost work.

Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton, who attended a news conference with the groups last week, called the numbers “staggering.”

According to the report, Utah is No. 1 in the nation for art creation and is third for attendance at live performances. The report says that Utah’s tourism industry owes 19% of its visitors to arts, entertainment, historical and cultural interests.

“A love for arts and culture is part of Utah’s DNA,” said Crystal Young-Otterstrom, executive director of the Utah Cultural Alliance.

People tour the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
People tour the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Many rural communities also felt the deep impact of COVID-19 on their arts industry.

“You don’t really have a community if you don’t have arts and culture. And we have felt their absence, over the last 12 months, as we’ve been dealing with this pandemic,” said Cameron Diehl, executive director of Utah League of Cities and Towns.

The report emphasized the importance that artistic businesses have on rural areas like Iron County, where the Utah Shakespeare Festival holds sway along with several other cultural fares, including museums and orchestras. Sales taxes from visitors are important to the bottom line in these communities.

The report said that seven counties and 32 cities in Utah generated over $54 million due to the recreation, arts and parks taxes in 2020.

“(These) taxes that come from people who are spending that money on the arts ... because they go to the restaurant and because they are picking up gas and they’re making a night of it,” said Deihl.

The Richards and Drollinger cousins tour the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
The Richards and Drollinger cousins tour the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Acclimating to the “new normal”

At the beginning of the pandemic the Natural History Museum of Utah had to furlough many of its staff to reduce expenses.

Cryan said the museum moved to reservation-based ticketing with limited capacity, required face coverings for all staff, volunteers and visitors over the age of 2, and instituted physical distancing and sanitization stations throughout the museum. The museum even provided a complimentary new stylus “that makes possible ‘hands-free’ interaction with many of our exhibits.”

The museum increased its digital presence by hosting Facebook Live events and posting the recordings on YouTube. The staff provides virtual tours for those patrons who don’t want to attend in person and put the popular “Behind the Scenes Reimagined” and “Polar Dinofest” on the museum website.

“The good news is that with tremendous support from the state and others, (the museum has) been able to bring the vast majority of those (furloughed) folks back to work,” he said.

Young-Otterstrom said though the numbers from COVID-19’s impact are disheartening “it could be a lot worse.”

She thanked lawmakers for the “shot in the arm” the Legislature provided last year by putting $29.75 million from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act toward the state’s arts and culture industry.

“Cities are in the quality-of-life business, and quality of life comes from those shared experiences, it comes from being able to go to shows together, it comes from singing together, it comes from having these types of community events,” Diehl said. “They may range from the Utah Symphony in downtown Salt Lake, CenterPoint theatre in Centerville ... but art and culture at their core (are) personal. That’s what makes the difference.”

House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, shared exactly how personal the arts can be, noting that if it wasn’t for the Utah Symphony, he probably wouldn’t be married to his wife, calling attending a performance a “pivotal moment” in his relationship with her.

“We’ve just got some great memories as a family from the cultural sector and the entertainment sector in our state,” said Wilson.

People tour the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
People tour the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Hope for the future

Wilson hopes to see more investments in the arts.

“Love of arts and entertainment in Utah is not just a way of life here, but it’s also something that’s good for business,” he said.

The governor’s budget proposed $100 million to “help those industries that are struggling” due to the impact of COVID-19. Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kirk Cullimore, R-Draper, is sponsoring SB202 to provide grants for small businesses while another bill wants to increase the film incentive program to lure more Hollywood productions to Utah. The bill passed the Senate on Wednesday.

Adams said the state’s arts industry would benefit most from COVID-19 vaccinations, noting that as older Utahns are vaccinated, the state’s death rate falls since that age group is most at risk.

“If we have ... a low fatality rate, we can open up the entertainment industry. We can open up the lights, we can actually go participate in those things that we’ve lost,” Adams said.

Gov. Spencer Cox announced this week there is a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, and the state has established criteria for easing of restrictions — including allowing people to sit side-by-side — based on vaccine distribution goals.

“That will be a very big deal as we make that transition to be able to gather in large groups, side by side with masks,” Adams said.

Young-Otterstrom said such a lessening of restrictions would be a big step for the whole industry.

“Our goal, like so many others, is to reopen and return to some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy. But we know that’s a process that can’t be rushed,” Cryan said.