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Arts continue to feel pandemic impacts throughout 2021

Tyler Hewitt
The Iowa Arts Council says the creative arts were a healthy industry before the pandemic.

Before March 2020, the creative arts industries in Iowa were growing rapidly.

"Whether you want to measure it by job growth, revenues, or exciting new exhibitions, concerts, and productions, by any of those measures, our arts and cultural industry was very healthy at that time," said David Schmitz, an administrator with the Iowa Arts Council.

But with the ongoing pandemic, it's been a slow recovery for the arts.

Since March 2020, the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs has distributed more than $12 million in state and federal dollars to individual artists and organizations across Iowa in response to the continued pandemic impacts, Schmitz said.

This year, groups were able to open back up.

"For our performing arts groups in particular, they were some of the last to reopen, and they started to the spring in the summer," he said. "We really saw kind of a return to not quite normalcy. No one has seen, you know, a full return yet of audiences or ticket sales, but certainly some really exciting progress in momentum this year."

Groups still need assistance, though. Just in the last round of grants, they had a total of $1.5 million to distribute but received more than $4 million in requests.

"[That's] is always the really challenging part, we can't support every single need and the full amount of every need, but we were really proud to be able to reach a lot of communities and counties across the state," he said.

In a typical year, the creative industries bring in $4.2 billion to the state's economy and employ 43,000 Iowans, according to the department.

"When people are coming out and attending an exhibition or performance, there's a good chance, they may also be staying at a hotel and having dinner and doing all these related things that, that really create spillover effects, and support local businesses," Schmitz said. "I always like to say when arts and culture do well, communities do well. And as it's been coming back this year, that's also been good for our kind of leisure and hospitality and tourism industries."

He said some of the jobs lost have started to slowly return this year, especially with the assistance of grants.

Schmitz said some of the changes artists and organizations had to make over the course of the pandemic, like more virtual programming, has made a lasting impact on the industry.

"We're hearing from a lot of groups that even someday, hopefully, beyond the pandemic, they'll continue that as part of their mix, because they're reaching more Iowans are reaching new Iowans, they're reaching audiences and customers outside of Iowa, too," Schmitz said.

Schmitz said now, the industry is focusing on reengaging communities with the arts. A $1 million allocation of the state's coronavirus relief funds from Gov. Kim Reynolds back in September helped out that cause.

"That piece has been really helpful to groups here at the end of the year especially, to communicate that they have programs around the holidays open, and their museum gift shops are open, and all the things that bring people in and that help people to, you know, really connect in person," Schmitz said.

Moving into 2022, Schmitz said those in the arts want to get back to doing what they do best.

"When our arts and cultural organizations feel that stability and can focus on growth, again, it does a lot of good things for the communities that they serve. And so I think we're kind of hopefully approaching that point where they're able to get back to that sort of focus on, on growth and innovation that will help them to, to thrive more in the long term," he said.

Catherine Wheeler was Iowa Public Radio's All Things Considered host and a reporter from 2021 to 2023.