‘We get to keep existing’: Pandemic relief fund could be lifeline for concert venues and promoters

The Fireweed Dance Theatre held their annual company performance in Sitka, but remained fully masked and allowed only a limited audience. April 24, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Berett Wilber)

The Alaska Small Business Administration is helping Alaska concert promoters apply for a new pandemic relief fund.

Throughout the pandemic, Alaska theaters and concert halls have remained empty. Orchestras, choirs, storytellers and actors did not take the stage — or if they did, it was without a live audience. For the Fairbanks Concert Association, there have been no live performances for more than a year.

The concert association hosts music and dance events in Hering Auditorium, a 1,200-seat theater in Fairbanks. Anne Biberman is the executive director.

“Live is different. You hunger for it. Come together, hear it, you know, feel it, experience it, share it. All together. It is not something you can get from a virtual event,” she said. “As long as there’s social distancing measures, I can’t present.”

The concert association has been a non-profit subscription service for 73 years.

“We are really reliant on people buying tickets in advance,” she said. “You can’t offer a season if you don’t know if any of the components of that season will happen or not.”

The concert association cancelled the last concert of spring 2020, then its entire 2020 to 2021 season.

“In the midst of 2020 we had about four months when we had negative numbers, because we were doing ticket refunds. You know, one month we refunded $13,000,” Biberman said.

Now the association — and concert promoters across Alaska — can apply for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.

The grant comes from a pot of $16.2 billion in the Economic Aid to Hard-Hit Small Businesses, Nonprofits and Venues Act and the American Rescue Plan Act.

The Small Business Administration is distributing the grants. Applicants may qualify for funds equal to 45% of their gross earned revenue.

If the Fairbanks Concert Association gets the relief money, it will be the biggest grant they have ever received.

“We’ll get about $84,000 if we get it,” Biberman said.

The following can apply for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant:

  • Live venue operators or promoters
  • Theatrical producers
  • Live performing arts organization operators
  • Museum operators
  • Motion picture theater operators (including owners)
  • Talent representatives

Biberman says the grant would prevent the organization from closing.

“We get to keep existing,” she said. “We have a very, very small operational footprint. Most of the money we put out goes into the shows we put on. This money will really shore us up.”

She says the organization may try some outdoor performances this summer, if they can arrange the artists and venues around Fairbanks’ finicky summer weather.

But with only half of Alaskans vaccinated, she still does not know if she will be selling tickets for concerts in Fairbanks’ largest auditorium this fall.

“I don’t think our patrons are going to be ready to file into Hering and sit cheek by jowl, even with a mask on,” she said.

For now, she and other concert and dance agencies are frustrated and waiting for more people to be vaccinated.

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