Melissa Huggins

The arts and culture sector has been beaten down by the pandemic, and it will take all of us to keep it alive in 2021 and beyond

By Melissa Huggins

The cultural community in Spokane is resilient, tough, and accustomed to making magic with few resources. Artists have been innovating, pivoting and getting creative for decades before those were buzzwords. My faith in the arts community’s determination and pluck never wavers. But let me say plainly: Arts and culture in the Spokane region took a series of punches this year, and we’re still only a few rounds into the bout. While we are hopeful, and working hard behind the scenes to be ready to reopen fully, arts and culture face many unknowns in 2021 and 2022.

While the vaccine news is thrilling — and we should celebrate good news whenever we can — the reality is that for arts and culture, an initial vaccine rollout does not necessarily mean back to business as usual. It appears critical mass may not be reached until fall, which means large gatherings (the heart of performing arts) may not be possible until late 2021. Most venues will face a phased reopening, with safeguards in place, and similar to restaurants, it remains to be seen whether it pencils out to open at limited capacity. Creatives in Spokane will still have to fight for their livelihoods, careers, businesses, nonprofit organizations, and the heart and soul of this community. A few of the best ways to support arts and culture in the near future are through buying local, hiring creatives and donating.

Buying local: Create a challenge for yourself in the new year by seeing how much of your usual spending you can shift to local restaurants, local cafés, local small businesses. Giant box stores, corporate fast food and online retailers are raking in money hand over fist, and that money doesn’t stay in our community; it flows to corporate headquarters and CEO bonuses. They don’t need you, and right now, the beauty is that you don’t need them either. The best sandwiches in Spokane are not found at a drive-thru with a history of discrimination; they’re found at a dozen local restaurants who’ve made ordering to-go and curbside pickup easier than ever. Looking for books to read this winter? Local independents can ship any book you could want to your door. Instead of increasing Jeff Bezos’ stock options, your purchase will ensure real people, friends and neighbors, can pay their staff and keep the lights on.

Hire Local Creatives: This region has thousands of talented, brilliant creatives who can provide every service under the sun. Photography, music lessons, website design, videography, florals. Custom jewelry and leather goods, furniture or signage. Graphic designers, architects, interior designers, landscape architects: They can help you make progress on those projects that (if you’re anything like me) have been lingering on the list for years now. Many local creatives have expertise and training in multiple areas rather than a single specialty: the welder who’s also an electrician, the graphic designers who also paint murals, the florist certified in sustainable landscape design, the chorale singer who is also an auto body expert: The list goes on. Building a relationship with one artist by hiring them on a small project can open up a whole world of possibilities that you’d never have discovered otherwise, and they can tailor each project to your budget size.

Donate: Sometimes it’s hard to remember that small donations make a difference. If I can only give $10 this month, is that worth it? How far will $35 go? Remember that every single dollar gets combined with someone else’s dollar and adds up to something bigger, and that is worth contributing to.

One example: At the beginning of the pandemic, Spokane Arts launched a crowdfunding campaign to offer small grants to artists who’d had months of scheduled work canceled overnight. People gave $5, and $10, and $25, and I got to see those donations combine into blocks of $500 grants that we distributed directly to artists. All the small donations, with the help of a few larger ones, added up to over $30,000 directly donated by community members, plus another $25,000 thrown into the pot from a private donor. Over 100 local artists received grants as a result. That process gave us data on what artists were facing, which we took to city and state leaders to demonstrate the pandemic’s impacts. That, in turn, led to federal aid being allocated to the sector, which meant we were able to award another $50,000 in direct support to individual creatives whose gigs were canceled by COVID-19. None of that would have been possible without the initial generosity of the people who tossed $5 into the pot and encouraged their friends to do so, too. Every little bit does matter.

2021 holds a new set of challenges and uncertainty, beyond what’s been faced this year. Federal and state legislators will need encouragement to follow the lead of other states and countries, from Ohio and Oregon to Germany and Ireland, who are passing massive stimulus packages recognizing both the economic impact and human value of arts and culture. We hope county and city leaders will treat the creative sector as the economic linchpin it is: a crucial driver of tourism, tax revenue, and key to recruiting students and businesses, not to mention the educational and entertainment opportunities provided to the community at large. Ideally the foundations, families and individual donors in a position to do so will give to the arts, allowing nonprofits to keep offering their services. It will take a village to rally around arts and culture through 18-plus months of near-total shutdowns and cancellations, but I know Spokane can do it.

For Spokane to be the complicated place that I love — flawed yet full of possibility, beautiful, frustrating, charming, gritty, and poised on the brink of significant change — for that Spokane to evolve, we must make sure our cultural and culinary gems still exist by the end of next year, and the next. Because without festivals and street fairs, local breweries, wineries and food trucks; without theater, live music, comedy and dance; without museums and galleries and bookstores; without record stores and music shops and printmaking and creative reuse spaces, Spokane would not be Spokane. It simply would not be the place we know and love. Losing our artistic community would be like missing our soul, with no guarantee we could find it again.

But make no mistake: The energy and excitement to create art and bring people together is strong as ever. The creative community has plenty of fight. All we need is you in our corner.

Melissa Huggins is the executive director of Spokane Arts.

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