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Oklahoma amid coronavirus: Oklahoma arts, culture nonprofits receive grant funding

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Norman Cultural Connection Class

A class at Norman Cultural Connection. The Norman nonprofit is a Humanities Organizations Pandemic Emergency grantee.

Recent restrictions have left Oklahomans without the arts and cultural programming they typically enjoy every spring — and nonprofits that provide the programming with debilitating financial losses. 

In response, Oklahoma Humanities and The Oklahoma Art Council will provide over $800,000 in grant funding to nonprofit arts and culture organizations across the state to offset the financial repercussions of COVID-19.

The funding is part of the CARES act, which was passed by the federal government in late March. The National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities were each appropriated $75 million dollars to assist arts, culture and humanities organizations in need, according to their websites. 

Funds will be used to “preserve jobs and stabilize” arts, culture and humanities organizations in Oklahoma, according to a press release. 

Nonprofit arts organizations weren’t prepared for the losses from COVID-19 because they don’t usually have access to money outside of what they spend on programming, said Amber Sharples, executive director of the Oklahoma Arts Council.  

“No one wants to prepare for a situation like this,” Sharples said. “And when organizations are typically set up to always give, they usually give all of their assets out.”

The spring and summer months are also a crucial time for these organizations, especially in rural areas, to collect revenue through fundraising and festivals, which can sustain organizations for their entire fiscal year, said Caroline Lowery, executive director of Oklahoma Humanities. 

Museums and cultural sites have also been impacted by COVID-19 due to a lack of revenue from attendees, museum stores and donations, Lowery said. 

“What we hope is that by infusing small amounts of money into these organizations across the state, we can try to save the skeleton of the ecosystem that we have built on, knowing that it's going to be a little smaller,” Sharples said. 

As of 2017, arts and cultural nonprofits provided 29,165 full-time equivalent jobs to Oklahomans and $588.2 million in household income, according to a study from the national nonprofit Americans for the Arts. 

While Sharples is grateful for the $800,000 investment, there is still more needed to address the damage, she said. To deal with the widespread need appropriately, the Oklahoma Arts Council and Oklahoma Humanities are working closely together.

“We’re trying to be very strategic and intentional in our respective plans to stretch those dollars to help all of our sectors, arts, humanities, and cultural entities, stay afloat,” Sharples said. “We want to see them on the other side ... because we know when we get back to whatever post-pandemic life looks like, we need these organizations for cultural preservation.”

Economics aside, Oklahomans’ cultural connections with each other are worth preserving, especially during a historically significant time, Lowery said. 

“I think also right now people are really looking more than anything to make sense of their world ... that is the role that the humanities play in our lives,” Lowery said. “The humanities are here to interpret, explain, preserve and tell our story.” 

Oklahoma Humanities and the Oklahoma Arts Council have both worked to address the varying levels of need across the state’s cultural landscape with their funding.

The Oklahoma Arts Council hopes to fund up to 100 arts and cultural organizations, Sharples said. The amount of each grant will depend on several factors, including size of the organization, level of geographic isolation, discipline and community demographics. 

“We are going to be prioritizing in our consideration communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” Sharples said. 

The focus of their grants will be to assist organizations that provide arts access and education with job retention and operating costs, Sharples said. 

The Oklahoma Arts Council’s executive committee will review grant applications, then a governor-appointed board will decide which organizations will receive funding at their council meeting in June, Sharples said. The council hopes to deliver the grants by July 1. 

Oklahoma Humanities announced their Humanities Organizations Pandemic Emergency grantees on April 30, totaling in $481,100 in grants, according to the organization’s website

Oklahoma Humanities awarded nine of their largest grants of $25,000 and 26 other smaller grants to cultural organizations across the state, according to the website

“If you were a humanities-based organization, and you could show financial need, we really tried to keep the barriers to funding as low as possible,” Lowery said. 

One of the HOPE grantees, Norman Cultural Connection, received $5,000 to help cover the costs of canceled programming. The nonprofit provides community outreach programs involving world cultures and diversity education, according to its website

The organization needs the HOPE grant because programming that usually brings in donations from the community is no longer happening, limiting its ability to pay operating costs, said Norman Cultural Connection executive director Marial Martyn. 

“(COVID-19) has brought everything to a halt, as it has for most everyone else,” Martyn said.

Norman Cultural Connection had to cancel in-person events, including their “Compassion Around the World” lecture series, meditation practice groups, and African drumming classes, Martyn said.  

The meditation class is still available online every week through Zoom. 

“As we need to honor physical distance, we are looking at ways of maintaining social connection,” Martyn said. 

As communities continue to deal with COVID-19, connecting with the humanities is a crucial aspect of people’s lives, Lowery said. 

“Especially as we are all stuck in quarantine,” Lowery said. “I think we would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has made it through this without enjoying the arts and the humanities from their home.”

Despite restrictions on operating like usual, Sharples has been impressed with arts and cultural organizations’ strides to move programming online, she said.  

“I think the creative industry always brings a sense of innovation,” Sharples said. 

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