ANNAPOLIS — Maryland is awarding $10 million to entertainment venues across the state that struggled during the pandemic, including the Delmarva Shorebirds, The Maryland Theatre and the Maryland Symphony Orchestra, among others.
The money will help stabilize businesses that had to shut down or drastically reduce their capacity as COVID-19 surged through Maryland over the past year.
As the state begins to emerge from the pandemic, this money will also help venues prepare for the busier fall arts season, said Nicholas Cohen, the executive director of Maryland Citizens for the Arts.
“The arts season is a little quiet in the summer. It comes back in the fall,” Cohen said. “What this does is it helps float these venues until then, to really be like, ‘Here we are, we’re back, we’re maybe close to full capacity.'”
The additional $10 million in state grants will go to more than 60 venues and organizations in Maryland. The Delmarva Shorebirds, the Baltimore Orioles’ Low-A affiliate based in Salisbury, will receive $244,716 through the grant program.
The Shorebirds took the field in May for the first time since 2019.
Several organizations in Washington County will also benefit:
- Suite 710, an events venue in Hagerstown: $28,162
- Washington County Playhouse: $247,039
- Potomac Playmakers: $9,852
- The Maryland Theatre: $238,985
- Maryland Symphony Orchestra: $113,638
For the Potomac Playmakers, the money will help maintain the group’s new home, which volunteer grant writer Greg Berezuk said they moved into just before the pandemic shut everything down.
The building at 17303 W. Washington St. west of Hagerstown can hold around 130 people.
“We got in there just before COVID. It’s a wonderful facility for an audience to enjoy a live performance, and we couldn’t use it,” Berezuk said.
Fixed costs, such as the mortgage and utilities, still had to be paid even if the group was not able to put on shows, he said.
The all-volunteer Playmakers have been around for nearly 100 years, according to Berezuk.
He said the organization was able to “limp along” throughout 2020 and early 2021, with very restricted audiences allowed back during the fall and generous donations from sponsors filling in the gaps.
Berezuk said the Playmakers’ show opening on July 9, “Farce of Habit,” will be the first time the group’s new home will be open to full capacity.
Shawn Martin, who is a co-owner and co-producer at the Washington County Playhouse with wife Laura Martin, said in a Thursday email that the dinner theater at 44 N. Potomac St. in Hagerstown was closed for about eight months of 2020.
Even when the business was able to reopen in November, Martin said it was limited to 50% capacity, including staff members and hired actors.
The closure, capacity restrictions and a lack of demand caused by COVID restrictions made it impossible to cover business expenses, he said.
“The grant money will not make us whole, but will replace some of The Playhouse’s lost revenue,” Martin said.
The past 15 months were “devastating” for The Playhouse, other entertainment venues, and for Martin and his wife, who also suffered personal losses.
Martin said they have been supported by “a very large and loyal customer base and a loyal and trustworthy staff.”
The Playhouse, which opened 1985, is currently holding dinner shows primarily on Friday and Saturday evenings with select Sunday matinees.
The 2022 season, which includes musicals and summer camps, will be announced soon, according to Martin.
Suite 710 General Manager Robbie Soto said the business took a “couple of decent-sized hits” as the nightclub and attached bowling alley were both completely shut down from March to the end of June 2020
Soto said the entire staff had to be laid off.
As restrictions lifted, a new staff was hired and events slowly began to come back to the nightclub on Leitersburg Pike near the Longmeadow Shopping Center.
Soto said overall, the locally-owned business was out an estimated $300,000, so getting roughly 10% from the state was very welcome.
“Anything is better than nothing,” he said. “This is truly going to help us get caught back up.”
Soto said Suite 710 was “one of the lucky ones” to have survived the shutdown, and is working on booking events and bands to help regrow the decade-old entertainment business.
‘A lot of support’
The new $10 million in grants is on top of $30 million the state awarded earlier this year.
The Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Maryland Theatre and Washington County Playhouse also received sizable grants during that round of awards.
Maryland Theatre Executive Director Jessica Green said the new funding was higher than she had anticipated and “much appreciated.”
“Gov. Hogan and his leadership group have shown a lot of support for our industry,” she said.
The theater, at 21 S. Potomac St. in Hagerstown, is running at 100% capacity, even hosting 35 events in May and 12 in the past week, according to Green.
She said it was exciting to have people back in the theater, and that shows were selling out “incredibly quickly.”
While fall bookings are already picking up, the summer is a notoriously slow season for live venues such as The Maryland Theatre.
“People want to be outdoors,” she said, adding that the new funding will be “put to good use.”
Green said the theater is also waiting to hear back about its application with the federal Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program, which includes more than $16 billion in grants for establishments that had to close during the pandemic.
On the Lower Shore, several venues and organizers benefitted in the first round:
- National Folk Festival: $72,707
- Flagship Premium Cinemas Ocean City: $484,256
- Fox Gold Coast Theater: $213,073
- Special Event Productions: $72,638
- Sun & Surf Cinema: $484,256
Grants have helped the entertainment and arts industry “weather devastating losses in programming and income,” said Steven Skerritt-Davis, deputy director of the Maryland State Arts Council.
“The sector responded with characteristic creativity and innovation, quickly pivoting to provide online content, virtual arts events, and safe in-person events and projects whenever possible,” Skerritt-Davis said.
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The State Arts Council provided more than $12 million in grants during the pandemic through funding from the state and the National Endowment for the Arts.
There have been some challenges in the emergency funding processes. U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., this week joined dozens of Senate colleagues in a letter pressing the Small Business Association to distribute federal grant money to live event venues more quickly.
“It has been nearly six months since Congress passed the Save our Stages Act, nearly two months since the second launch of the program, and 51 days since the Small Business Administration began receiving applications,” the letter said. “We urge you to immediately take steps to ensure the funds are distributed to qualified applicants.”
The letter blamed bureaucratic holdups for slowing the distribution of the grant money even as businesses continue to struggle.
More than venues, though, Cohen, the Maryland Citizens for the Arts executive director, is worried about artists and performers, many of whom lost work when the pandemic caused major shutdowns.
“I think the response has been really appropriate for venues,” he said. “I think they’re on much more solid ground than we thought they would be as far as entering into the post-pandemic, but I think the key to that is how are venues going to survive if artists have had to leave the field?”
He points to the upcoming loss of federal pandemic unemployment benefits, which were an important boost for self-employed and gig workers.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced in early June that Maryland would opt out of federal unemployment programs on July 3, cutting off the extra money two months earlier than expected.
That means no additional $300 per week for people receiving traditional unemployment, and no help at all for nontraditional workers who received unemployment as an emergency measure during the pandemic.
If performers leave the industry because they can’t afford to survive, the venues that benefitted from emergency grants could see new challenges finding talent after a trying year.
“We always think of these huge venues and events,” Cohen said. “What are you coming for? You’re coming for the entertainers, the artists.”
Cohen said he hopes that the state finds new ways to support artists.
The State Arts Council has also been working to help artists support themselves. The organization put together more than 260 professional development sessions, which saw nearly 10,000 participants, Skerritt-Davis said.
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MSAC is also developing an Independent Artist Network employment initiative that aims to connect artists with employers, he said.
Cohen is also hopeful some of the strategies venues used during the pandemic could stay relevant and help artists reach more people as the state reopens.
“The benefit of this is the venues have learned that they can increase access by thinking about things that are in person, but also virtual,” Cohen said. “There’s a duality here to offer people both that in-person experience but also a really robust virtual one.”
Madeleine O’Neill covers the Maryland State House and state issues for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @maddioneill.
Herald-Mail staff writer Alexis Fitzpatrick contributed to this story.