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Houston’s Art World Hard Hit By Coronavirus Pandemic

Local organizations are trying to raise money for those mostly overlooked by the government.


The cast of The Alley Theatre’s “Quixote Nuevo.” The theater laid off 75% of its staff in March, and asked some of the remainder to take a pay cut.

Theaters, galleries and museums are closed. Art shows are canceled.

Houston's theater employees union is reporting close to 100% layoffs.

It's a big hit for a city that gets more than $10 million in annual sales tax revenue from the arts and culture industry.

The Houston Arts Alliance did a preliminary damage assessment for the arts community and found at least $50 million in real or anticipated losses, including $35 million in lost earned income.

John Abodeely, CEO of the HAA, said most independent art contractors are losing work.

"The artists that are doing shows at museums or performing on stage," he said. "About 75% are losing their contracts."

Artists of all kinds are affected, Abodeely said, be it in the visual, performing or literary arts.

And it's not just artists, but anyone who works in the arts.

"There are many cultural institutions that are forced to lay off their workforce," Abodeely said. "So it's both the creative, producer types of all disciplines, but also the managers, institutional managers."

Some artists are going online to sell their art, he said. But with so much uncertainty, especially in the world’s energy capital, buyers are scarce.

"We found that because the market is so far down and unstable, and because the value of oil and gas is so far down in Houston's case in particular, that there is not nearly as much of an exchange of money for artists' goods taking place," Abodeely said.

And to make matters worse, many artists work on contract and are ineligible for unemployment benefits.

John Abodeely is Chief Executive Officer of Houston Arts Alliance (HAA). Abodeely says employees in Houston’s arts community have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Houston Arts Alliance, together with several other organizations, has launched a relief fund to support Houston's struggling artists. Those who qualify receive a $1,000 grant.

Within the first week, they received 180 requests – totaling $180,000.

The money is meant to go toward food and housing.

A similar effort is underway for musicians.

"Music is one of the things that is keeping the world going right now," said Rachel Austin, a digital marketing professional, who works in hospitality, retail and music. "You know, music is something that connects us all and gives us a layer of emotion in a time where everybody feels very disconnected due to social distancing, and we want to keep music alive."

Her husband, Mark Austin, is a local talent buyer and music manager. Together, they launched the Houston Music Foundation to raise $500 grants for people in the music industry.

"Why does this sector of our population not have somebody to support them?" Mark Austin asked. "If you look in Austin, there's a dozen organizations like this that are all humming, that are in place, that have funds ready to go, are easily able to raise more funds."

More than 10,000 people work in the music industry in Greater Houston, according to the Texas Music Office. About 3,500 of that are working musicians.

In just four days, the fund received 600 applications, from all kinds of musicians.

"You know, what surprised me about it was a lot of the applicants are teachers at public schools who teach music and have lost income because of the fact they are no longer offering private lessons," Rachel Austin said.

While $500 may not seem like a lot, she said it helps meet immediate needs for people who don't usually make much more than that. The fund it's not meant to be a long-term support, she said, but emergency relief for a profession that otherwise has few places to turn for help.

"A lot of these musicians are only making upwards of a couple of hundred dollars for a performance," she said.