One hundred and ninety-five live venues in New Jersey pummeled by the COVID-19 pandemic received a combined $116 million in federal relief from the Biden administration.
That’s part of 9,884 establishments across the nation that have been awarded a combined $7.6 billion by the U.S. Small Business Administration under a relief program known as the Shuttered Venue Operator Grant program.
The Biden administration set up the SVOG – a $16 billion pot of money – to assist establishments like theaters, museums, concert halls and performing arts centers that had to close their doors during the pandemic, and then adhere to months of capacity restrictions after reopening. They depend on ticket sales and large turnouts to generate a profit, but a months-long stay-at-home order and virtual state of lockdown, followed by limits on non-essential retail and indoor dining further slammed arts, culture and tourism, causing those profits to crater.
“The situation was dire, and our research showed 90% of independent venues would be shuttered forever without this relief,” reads a June 1 statement from Rev. Moose, who heads the National Independent Venue Association.
The program moved forward with fits and starts over the spring, and NIVA warned that the SBA’s “repeated errors and delays have endangered the very businesses and organizations the program was designed to help.”
Nearly 15,000 businesses across the nation have applied, according to the SBA, and just 732 are still under review.
This is the second time that the SBA rolled out its full roster of recipients – the first was at the start of this month when more than $52 million was awarded to 91 performing arts centers and other arts and culture venues across the state.
With COVID-19 restrictions all but lifted, many businesses said the funds will help them with their reopenings, and the late summer and fall performance line-ups.
“If we had gotten it six weeks earlier, I could have maintained and kept my employees,” said Sean Gilday, chief executive officer of talent agency Blue Raven Entertainment, which was awarded a $745,982 grant.
“Everybody’s starting to open up and people feel confident,” he continued. “Eight months ago we were operating at about 0% of our income. Now we’re at 45%.”
Those employees were let go, Gilday said, and have found employment elsewhere. The funds, nonetheless, will be useful to scale staff back up to pre-COVID levels.
Kelly Ryman, managing director at the George Street Playhouse based in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center in its namesake city, agreed. The theater moved into the NBPAC in 2019 and got a $495,113 SVOG award.
“It helps us to have cash to produce the fall season,” she said.
Near Dark Entertainment, based in Atlantic City, was awarded a $2.2 million SVOG grant, according to SBA records.
The Wharton Institute for the Performing Arts in Berkeley Heights was awarded $571,349, while the Home Port Alliance, which operates the Battleship New Jersey museum on the Delaware River in Camden, was awarded $512,339.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Florham Park was awarded $490,972, while the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City was awarded $4.4 million, according to public records.
Mary Meluso, a spokesperson for the Liberty Science Center, said the grant will help the museum recoup some of its losses from the seven months it was closed during the pandemic, and “allow us to continue to scale up our operations as we see brighter days ahead.”
The State Theatre in New Brunswick was awarded $3.6 million, and according to its president, Sarah Chaplin, the funds “will be instrumental” in holding the venue over “through the challenges of reopening this fall and through the end of the calendar year.”
Center Stage Entertainment, an entertainment agency in Lindenwood, was awarded nearly $3 million, while the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn was awarded $7.4 million.
Those dollars account for 45% of the theater’s 2019 revenue, according to Mike Stotts, its managing director.
“Although there is a long road ahead before Paper Mill completely recovers from the significant financial effects of the pandemic, this grant is a lifeline for the organization,” he said in an email. “It will allow us to begin hiring back artists, staff and crew, help us re-build audiences after such a lengthy and devastating closure, and enable the theater to reopen in the fall.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 9:50 p.m. EST on July 27, 2021, to include comments from Liberty Science Center spokesperson Mary Meluso and from State Theatre president Sarah Chaplin.