More than six hundred arts professionals are calling for New York City to provide disaster relief to nonprofits, artist-run exhibition spaces, and commercial galleries that have had to cancel events and other programming, postpone exhibitions, and shut their doors in accordance with the precautionary measures set by the city to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Since the first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed in New York on Sunday, March 1—a woman in her thirties who had recently returned from a trip to Iran—the city has declared a state of emergency and banned large public gatherings. On March 15, the United States Centers for Disease Control recommended capping gatherings and in-person events at fifty people for the next eight weeks, and earlier this week, President Donald Trump released national guidelines stating that no more than ten people should congregate at one time.
As the restrictions on American life increase, the US economy is paying the price. Businesses have been forced to make layoffs, the number of unemployment claims is surging, and experts are predicting an economic slowdown more severe than the Great Recession. While the hospitality and retail sectors have been some of the hardest hit by the sudden economic downturn, the culture sector is also suffering.
Cultural behemoths the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera House are projecting losses in the millions. The Met, which expects to be shut down until July, is attempting to set up a $50 million emergency fund. Most arts venues are not capable of such a feat and now face an uncertain future. Among the most vulnerable are small to mid-level galleries and project spaces dependent on freelance and contract workers such as art handlers, writers, photographers, and web designers, which is why hundreds of people are now banding together to appeal to Mayor Bill de Blasio to act now on their behalf.
A petition organized by the New Art Dealers Alliance reads: “Without the financial support of the local, state, and federal government, these businesses will not be able to pay their employees, support the artists that they represent, pay their bills, and pay their rents and/or mortgages on the spaces in which they operate. If no action is taken, these businesses will not survive and many artists and art workers will be left without a system of support.”
While de Blasio announced the launch of two initiatives for small businesses, the NYC Employee Retention Grant Program and the NYC Small Business Continuity Fund, their eligibility requirements—which include demonstrating a 25 percent decrease in revenue and employing between one and four people—prohibit galleries and businesses that do not have a steady revenue source and that rely on freelance labor from applying for support.
The signees of the petition are demanding that the city take their circumstances into account and respond by developing additional relief initiatives for galleries and small businesses that have similar structures, including companies that don’t have employees, are not incorporated, and are unable to show proof of losses immediately. They are also urging the city to instate emergency Medicare for all; approve insurance, utility, and rent forgiveness for commercial tenants, which could be offset by a property credit for landlords; and freeze mortgage payments.
“Like many independently owned local businesses, art galleries are an irreplaceable part of the cultural landscape of New York City,” the petition reads. “Through their exhibitions and events, these spaces provide a free public service for many communities throughout the city. As common places for culture, they contribute to New York’s reputation as an exciting destination for tourists to visit, and help make the city a competitive option for businesses of every sector in search of new locations to compete.”
As of Thursday March 19, there were 3,954 positive cases of COVID-19 citywide and twenty-six fatalities—1,042 cases in Queens, 1,038 in Manhattan, 1,195 in Brooklyn, 496 in the Bronx, and 179 in Staten Island.