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Artists paint a Passion Works mural in Athens, Ohio

COVID Recovery & Resilience in Ohio’s Arts Sector: Grantee Survey Findings

Special Report

Ohio Arts Council Deputy Director Dan KatonaArts stakeholders are continuing to learn about the ongoing effects and profound challenges of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The broad outline is well-understood: Beginning in early 2020, as the pandemic and resulting lockdowns and restrictions took hold, national spending on arts events fell sharply, and creative sector unemployment spiked—most acutely in the performing arts, although all subsectors suffered. From the earliest days of the crisis, artists and arts organizations have continually sacrificed and innovated by reconfiguring spaces, adding virtual programming, moving outside, and making a host of other adaptations. Significant state and federal resources (the CARES Act, Save Our Stages, American Rescue Plan Act, the National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Midwest, private foundations, and so many more) have helped tremendously, but there is more to do, and the arts sector’s hope to return to pre-2020 levels remains just that—a hope.  

Against this backdrop, the Ohio Arts Council (OAC) was keenly interested in the big picture of how Ohio’s arts leaders viewed the last 12 months for their organizations. Despite the turbulence, were things getting back to normal? How were their finances? Were revenue reductions offset by expense reductions and relief funding, mitigating some of the negative financial effects? In other words, are we resilient? Similarly, how was staff morale? And most importantly, from their perspectives, what comes next?

Beginning in March 2021, the OAC began conducting a quarterly constituent survey to help better understand the pace and progress of the Ohio arts and cultural sector’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey’s focus was perceptual. Rather than rehashing revenue or employment projections, survey response items instead examined arts leaders’ intuitive sense of their organizations at key moments. We wanted to know how Ohio’s arts sector was actually feeling about its stability. After all, who would know better than the leaders of Ohio’s institutions?

Surveys were conducted online, with links sent quarterly to about 700 current OAC organizational applicants and grantees in March, June, September, and December 2021. Survey questions remained the same throughout the year, and responses were anonymous, ensuring respondents knew their feedback would have no bearing on present or future funding opportunities. The survey ultimately collected more than 1,400 responses from organizations of all sizes and types across 74 Ohio counties, with response rates averaging 50 percent. This broad reach across geography, respondent budget size, and arts genre gives us great confidence that results are highly statistically significant for our diverse grantee pool.

OAC COVID-19 Constituent Survey Chart 1 tracking organizations' overall financial health.Respondents reported (Chart 1) that their organizations’ overall financial health steadily improved throughout 2021. The combined percentage reporting their organizations were either “growing and expanding” or “flat but stable” increased each quarter the survey was conducted, reaching 78 percent in our Q4 survey. Those indicating their organizations were “experiencing some decline” fell each quarter, from 33 percent in Q1 to 21 percent by Q4. Those reporting the most dire financial position—“depleted; barely hanging on—never rose above 2 percent and ended 2021 at just 1 percent.

Conclusion: The relative positivity of this data reflects the resilience we hoped to find in the creative economy. Although arts employment continues to lag, the general financial health of arts-sector organizations was a welcome finding. It seemed that lower expenses and relief efforts may indeed be helping to keep arts organizations afloat, despite earned income shortfalls. Although our survey did not drill into this level of data, perception matters; policymakers often prefer to “bet on winners” and hesitate to make substantial investments in industries that cannot sustain themselves. Chart 1 renews the OAC’s faith that public funding for the arts, as managed by our agency and inclusive of relief funding, has aided arts organizations in weathering the negative economic impacts of the pandemic. Coming fiscal years will be critical to restoring employment and programming in the arts sector, but Ohio’s arts foundation remains strong and represents a sound investment for policymakers.

OAC COVID-19 constituent survey chart 2 tracking financial health by organizational budget sizeWe also compared the financial health of organizations with larger annual budgets to those with smaller budgets (Chart 2). Overall, larger organizations with annual budgets above $250,000 (who made up 62 percent of respondents) saw more rapid and sustained positive movement than did smaller organizations with annual budgets under $250,000 (who made up 38 percent of respondents). Larger organizations reported financial improvement that was steady and saw no real backsliding, while smaller organizations saw both forward and backward movement throughout the year in their perceived financial standing.

Also of note: no organization with a budget larger than $250,000 reported themselves in the most critical “depleted” category in any quarter of our survey last year. All such responses—16 total for the year, from 11 Ohio counties—came from smaller organizations.

Conclusion: In brief, one could conclude that larger organizations have demonstrated better financial wherewithal to endure one of the most difficult operating environments ever known to Ohio’s arts sector. Smaller and mid-sized organizations, however, face more of a challenge in finding their footing, as might be expected. Our state’s arts ecosystem depends on both types of organizations to truly thrive, but it will be important to be mindful of organizations with smaller budgets going forward as the OAC looks toward future funding.

OAC COVID-19 constituent survey chart 3 tracking normalcy of current operationsThe survey asked respondents to look beyond finances. Organizations were asked to describe how close to “normal”—however they defined it—their operations currently were. Chart 3 shows that although the percentage of organizations operating “exactly as (they) normally would” remained below 3 percent throughout 2021, the percentage whose operations were “mostly normal” more than tripled, from 22 percent to 69 percent. Conversely, the percentage believing operations were “mostly workarounds with some normal moments” or “not at all normal” declined from a combined 78 percent in Q1 to just 30 percent by Q4. As in Chart 1, respondents consistently rated the normalcy of their operations more positively with each passing quarter.

A closer look at how organizations from different artistic genres saw their return to normal operations revealed some differences (Chart 4). Organizations identifying themselves as belonging to the music genre (25 percent of respondents) or theatre/dance (21 percent) were the least likely to report their operations as either “normal” or “mostly normal” OAC COVID-19 constituent survey chart 4 tracking genres reporting normal or mostly normal operationsthroughout the year (even though they, like other genres, reported consistently positive movement toward normalcy from quarter to quarter). Visual arts organizations (17 percent of respondents) reported the fastest leap in a return to greater normalcy, with multidisciplinary (21 percent of respondents) and other types of organizations (including interdisciplinary, literature, humanities, design arts, media arts, and folk and traditional arts organizations, making up a combined 15 percent of respondents) rounding out our findings.

We also wanted to know how the pressures of the pandemic were affecting staff morale at our constituents’ organizations (Chart 5). In contrast to the changes in financial health and operational normalcy, survey respondents reported stability throughout 2021 in the morale of the staff and volunteers who run their organizations, with only minimal fluctuations from quarter to quarter in the overall balance between “optimistic, energized” and “measured, resilient” on one end, and “anxious, concerned” and “disheartened, exhausted” on the other.

When asked which issues their organizations would be focusing on in the coming months, organizations had the same top three responses in each quarter: “long-term strategic planning & program evaluation;” “addressing diversity, equity, or inclusion issues;” and “encouraging participants to return to in-person programming.” Some focus area options, including “hiring staff or contractors to fill vacancies” and “innovating/advancing artistic excellence,” generally rose in prioritization during 2021, while others, including “creating additional virtual programming” and “adapting physical spaces to accommodate social distancing,” generally fell.

OAC COVID-19 constituent survey chart 5 tracking morale of organizational leadershipConclusion: The data in Charts 3-5 provide some limited insight into what may come in future years in terms of arts sector employment. Operations are normalizing gradually—or organizations’ definitions of “normal” are evolving as the effects of the pandemic stretch out—but it may take prolonged normalcy to ensure a shared recovery within the arts workforce. Fortunately, organizations have indicated greater focus on resuming in-person programming and hiring, which may go hand-in-hand.

Closing Conclusions and Next Steps
Like all OAC feedback and information-gathering work, these data will help staff and board craft future policies around professional development, agency investment, and other offerings. Knowing which sizes and types of organizations continue to report the most troublesome financial positions as the pandemic moves into its next phases will help inform future agency grantmaking. Better understanding how different organizations are returning to normal—or not—will help the agency know how to position its offerings, where to target additional help and resources, and how to talk to policymakers about the arts and cultural sector’s overall needs. Knowing constituents’ most urgent priorities will ensure that our own professional development content—videos, webinars, the Arts Impact Ohio conference, and more—remains relevant. These and other important findings will also help the agency craft its next 18-month strategic plan and related initiatives.

More than 1,400 responses from 74 counties tell a fairly clear-cut story: Ohio’s arts leaders remain hopeful, and the vast majority of the organizations they run—especially those with larger budgets—are on a positive trajectory both financially and operationally. Though there is more to do, a full, fair look at the entirety of Ohio’s nonprofit arts sector reveals that while the COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on every corner of the state’s arts and cultural sector, its resiliency and strength are leading it back.

The OAC is proud of the historic investments it has made during the pandemic, upending decades of traditional practice to speed funding to grantees, lessening administrative burdens, enacting new initiatives, and reaching organizations it has never funded before. Together with the leadership of Governor Mike DeWine and the Ohio General Assembly, as well as federal funders and policymakers, we have proven that public funding of the arts matters during challenging times and that we’re all in this together.

As the pandemic continues to evolve in the coming weeks and months, we look forward to continuing to be responsive to the needs of all the state’s arts and cultural organizations, artists, teaching artists, and others in the creative community. If we can do more to serve your organization or community, please reach out to us and let us know how we can continue to help.


Article by Dan Katona, Deputy Director
Featured image: Photo courtesy of Passion Works Studio

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