As more and more New Yorkers find themselves unemployed or desperately seeking funding to make ends meet amid the COVID-19 pandemic, New York City has struggled to support its rich arts and culture scene. As clubs, galleries, and music venues close across the city, artists and small businesses in Upper Manhattan lack access to resources, with self-employed artists and gig workers struggling the most.
On Monday, May 4, Community Board 9’s Arts and Culture Committee held a virtual forum with guest speakers Congressman Adriano Espaillat for New York’s 13th District, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and City Councilman Mark Levine to discuss the economic impact of COVID-19 on the local artist community and small businesses.
Co-chaired by Harriett Rosebud and Daria Hardeman, the Arts and Culture Committee aims to increase the visibility of arts and culture and to support cultural arts destinations in the neighborhoods represented by CB9, which include Manhattanville, Morningside Heights, and Hamilton Heights.
“I know that artists in West Harlem, Hamilton Heights, Morningside Heights, independent contractors, and people in the creative industry are hurting really bad now,” Levine said. “It was not easy to be a gig worker before [the] coronavirus, but it’s been devastating now.”
For many local New York businesses, receiving funding has already proved to be an immense challenge. Loan programs such as the Paycheck Protection Program have been criticized for supporting larger businesses while overlooking smaller ones, some of which cannot survive even with these loans.
Espaillat, who noted that the first round of PPP loans was a “disaster,” said that the second phase of funding includes $60 billion specifically allotted for smaller institutions like community banks and credit unions, which generally have stronger relationships with small businesses than larger banks.
Not-for-profits—like a number of arts organizations in Morningside Heights and West Harlem—are also eligible for loans, with at least 75 percent of the forgiven amount going toward payroll contingent on whether organizations keep all or most of their workforces. Self-employed independent contractors—or 1099 employees—sole proprietors, and gig economy workers are also eligible for PPP funding, which could greatly benefit independent artists.
However, Levine noted that most people in the Upper Manhattan arts community have not received their loans, as many banks have been denying people funding if they had not made a business checking account as of Feb. 15. Many New Yorkers have also yet to receive their $1,200 stimulus checks from the IRS, an amount which could help many artists stay afloat.
In order for artists to receive the financial support that they need, the three guest speakers stated that community boards, elected officials, and New York City arts organizations must spread the word about funding opportunities, especially in areas where many residents lack access to the Internet or technology.
Such funding opportunities include a $10 million grant program established by NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. According to Espaillat, over 200 northern Manhattan businesses and not-for-profits have already received funding from the program. Additionally, businesses can apply for the Small Business Association and the National Endowment for the Humanities emergency loan programs, as well as other loan programs that are listed in the daily newsletters that Brewer’s office sends out.
Brewer suggested that the city must try to figure out where artists are and what projects they are working on in order to help them, noting that some artists are currently working on projects that celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. However, Brewer added that the federal government and the city cannot provide enough funding for all artists, calling on philanthropists to support uptown creatives.
“Between the Harlem Renaissance and the fact that [the city] has such great talent, we need to figure out as elected officials and others how we can fund the mediums so you get the opportunity to show your craft,” she said.
A number of uptown arts organizations are working to support local artists and spread the word about funding opportunities to less privileged communities. Organizations like the Harlem Arts Alliance—headed by Executive Producer Voza Rivers—and the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce have initiated programs like the Harlem Community Relief Fund to support families in need by providing support to small businesses and not-for-profits. In addition, northern Manhattan artist groups like the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance are holding artist and curator talks to engage the local arts community, while others are working to collect information about local artists and use that data to help the community going forward.
“We’ve got to do more because it doesn't matter how many of these entities say they're doing a lot. Nothing is going to help our own like being able to reach back and pull somebody with you,” said Athena Moore, director of the northern Manhattan office of Gale Brewer.
In order to assist student artists, Espaillat said that he is leading efforts to get federal funding in order to conduct a remote version of the Summer Youth Employment Program, which was officially canceled earlier last month.
Espaillat noted that the program would have to be restructured since many small businesses will be unable to reopen and social distancing protocol may continue throughout the summer, but he and Levine are optimistic that the City Council can restore some version of SYEP.
“Artists define and musicians define the personality and character of a neighborhood, and I want to preserve that,” Espaillat said. “I want to work to preserve the personality and character of all the neighborhoods in the 13th District.”