Whatcom Arts Project brings local groups together — at a crucial time

“Find your community,” invites a message in a window of downtown Bellingham’s Mount Baker Theatre. That is just what local organizations have done in forming the Whatcom Arts Project, and what numerous residents and visitors do — more often virtually, these days — as participants and audience members. The COVID-19 pandemic has created challenges for all — and prompted ideas for future sustainability. (Amy Nelson photo © 2020) 

By Matt Benoit

— Take a moment and think about your favorite local event. Maybe it’s a film, music or food-based festival. Maybe it’s a local theatre production, or an athletic competition, or a recurring recreational event. 

Many of these events were either cancelled or held virtually this year due to the pandemic. But next year or the year after, some of these events may not happen for a different reason: because there’s not enough money to properly fund them. 

Soon-to-be-realized funding reductions from the City of Bellingham, combined with the economic hardships of pandemic restrictions, have had a profoundly negative effect on the local arts community. Some local venues like The Firefly Lounge and The Upfront Theatre have closed indefinitely, while other arts groups are staring at dwindling budgets and uncertainty. The closures and pullbacks impact many hundreds of people who pursue their passions through these activities, and tens of thousands who enjoy them as spectators or audiences.

Out of this troublesome time has come at least one positive development. This spring, more than 30 local arts organizations banded together to form the Whatcom Arts Project, a digital campaign to support, promote and entertain during the pandemic, keeping themselves and the community socially close but physically distant. 

Annette Bagley, who has worked on Bellingham’s Cultural Heritage Tourism Strategic Plan, said the idea for something similar to Whatcom Arts Project was previously discussed but never acted upon.  When the pandemic brought the world to a halt, however, the timing was finally right to make the idea a reality.

The more, the merrier

In mid-March, Bellingham Symphony Orchestra’s Gail Ridenour received an email from John Purdie, executive director of the Mount Baker Theatre. 

Purdie was asking Ridenour — BSO’s executive director — and the leaders of venues such as the Pickford Film Center and Sylvia Center for the Arts, how they might be able to help one another.  The emails quickly led to a Zoom meeting organized by Ridenour with around 20 local arts groups, all interested in collaboration.

Within one month, the Whatcom Arts Project was a reality, complete with a stakeholder group, webpage, digital platform and marketing campaign. The group’s webpage is hosted by the Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism website. They also have a Facebook page offering announcements and ample content for both children and adults, including art lessons, concerts and theatre performances.

Much cross-promotion of organizations and digital events has since taken place, and is one of the chief elements of the project, Purdie said. 

“It helps solidify and expand the working relationships between those organizations,” he said. “It’s a much better network than it was before.”

Collaboration and coordination, not competition 

The Whatcom Arts Project is also a chance for development of projects such as collaborative fundraising, Purdie added. Some of that has already taken place with the “We heART commUNITY” fundraiser this summer. 

The campaign asked individuals to make five $50 donations to five of 14 possible arts groups, for a total of $250. About $18,000 in donations were made to Allied Arts of Whatcom County and then distributed accordingly. The first 100 donors received a commemorative, locally-manufactured canvas tote bag. 

The arts sector functions as “a resource
that makes our community better and
makes it thrive as a whole,” asserts
Shu-Ling Zhao; above, Zhao participated
in the recent “Show Up for Love” rally
as emcee, Community Conversation
facilitator, and organizer.
(Alexander Hallett / Sattva Photo)

Shu-Ling Zhao, executive director for the Sylvia Center, said Whatcom Arts Project has been invaluable to those who pour upwards of 100 hours a week into their venues. 

“(It’s given us) an opportunity to slow down,” she said; “to connect with one another, to consider collective advocacy efforts, and to start really looking locally at how we can support the community as a whole.”

Zhao said that it is easy to consider the arts as a competitive industry, where one ticket sold at a venue means one not sold somewhere else. That, however, is a problematic ideology. Purdie agrees. 

“For the arts community to survive, it has to be a community,” he said. “It’s not like you can just pick one or two of those arts organizations and then say, ‘Well, the rest can all fail and it’s okay.’ You have to have the whole community to make the community work.”

Takin’ care of budgets

In past years, many Whatcom Arts Project members applied for and received funding from a City of Bellingham tourism promotion grant program. The money comes from a portion of the city’s lodging tax, and goes toward marketing both new and ongoing events to tourists, who are classified as coming from 50 or more miles outside Bellingham. Some of the money spent on helping organizations market events comes back to the City in the form of lodging and sales taxes when tourists spend their dollars here — a substantial return in typical years.

With tourism drastically down due to COVID, revenue from the city’s lodging tax is also coming up short. In 2021, the advisory committee responsible for the program won’t issue the usual $250,000 or so in startup and standard grant funds; they’ll also likely make cuts to institutional grant funds allocated to the Whatcom Museum, Mount Baker Theatre and Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. Startup tourism grants max out at $5,000, with standard grants ranging from $2,500 to $25,000 annually. 

Tara Sundin, the city’s community and economic development manager, said the lodging fund is forecast to be reduced by about half in 2021. The original 2019-20 city budget estimated nearly $1.9 million in revenue for the lodging fund. Instead, this amount is likely to be only about $940,000. 

The proposed 2021 budget shows the fund’s reserve balance at just $185,420 compared to a 2020 balance of nearly $1.2 million. 

This year’s grant recipients (who were selected in 2019) were given the chance to make pitches on whether or not their grant-funded programs could continue despite the pandemic, Sundin said, with an option to carry remaining 2020 funds into 2021. 

[Ed.: The Bellingham City Council will hold a second public hearing Nov. 23 on the 2021-2022 preliminary budget. To comment, use this link to register before the meeting or to connect during the meeting and immediately join the meeting to testify. Pre-registration is encouraged.]

Arts as marketing

Without grant funding, some events may be in jeopardy. The Pickford receives money from the fund for its Doktoberfest Film Festival. So does the Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival, the Chuckanut Writers’ Conference and the Bellingham Festival of Music. 

Other activities and events that receive these funds include the Community Boating Center’s Tuesday Evening Free Paddle, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement’s Salmon Sighting Events, Bellingham’s Got Talent, the Bellingham Bells’ summer marketing program, the Lake Whatcom Triathlon and the Bellingham Bay Marathon. 

The Sylvia Center has used previous grant funding to produce free, outdoor summertime theatre productions in Maritime Heritage Park.  Without grants, Zhao said it will be less feasible for her organization to offer such performances in the future.

Ridenour said that BSO and other organizations in the Whatcom Arts Project will likely be hard-pressed to find alternate marketing funds from other sources. 

“Knowing how much the symphony receives … I don’t know how we would make up that type of funds and really be able to draw people to Bellingham the same way through marketing outside our county,” she said. 

In a COVID-19 world, of course, the future of many 2021 events remains hazy at best. The City itself was forced to postpone the introduction of two new festival-style events, in addition to the cancellation of the annual SeaFest food festival. 

“The challenge is that we don’t know if or when those festivals or events will be allowed to happen,” Sundin said. “We’re still in limbo.”

The Lodging Tax Advisory Committee held a work session on Nov. 17 to further discuss things, Sundin says. Other decisions have yet to be made, but grant funding appears certain to be eliminated. 

“We won’t consider that program again until we have a better sense of revenue. And right now, it’s anyone’s guess.”

Sylvia Center’s Zhao looks at these potential cuts as reason for the city to consider different funding mechanisms for the arts. Tourism grant recipients don’t just get their money and spend it; Zhao said they must keep track of how many tourists their events bring in, where those tourists come from, and where they stay while in Bellingham to attend events. 

“Fundamentally, (these grants are) kind of using our arts and culture sector as a marketing arm for the city and the county,” she said. “We’re implying the value of the arts sector is rooted in its ability to bring outside folks into our community, rather than as a resource that makes our community better and makes it thrive as a whole.”

No Access?

Despite an array of clippings and
posters testifying to its popularity,
the door to Access Bellingham, the video
training program for Bellingham’s
public access channel, is likely to
stay closed as funding is expected
to be cut in the 2021 budget.
(Glen Nelson Bristow photo © 2020) 

In addition to tourism promotion grant cuts, all funding for the Access Bellingham training program — which provides free videography lessons and equipment rentals to city residents for the purpose of creating content for BTV, the city’s local access channel — is likely to be cut, from elsewhere in the budget. 

Eero Johnson, a local professional videographer, contracts with the city to manage Access Bellingham. His duties include organizing camera equipment, much of which can be rented, and teaching free video-producing skills to Bellingham residents. 

Access’s six hours of non-commercial, citizen-produced weekly content — which airs each Sunday evening and isn’t editorially-reviewed — includes local theatre, circus, comedy, and community events like parades. It also screens short films, cooking shows, and other creative programming.

“It’s a chance for the community to create whatever they choose to create,” Johnson said. “This is one of those programs that would be impossible to do without this, because of the price of cameras and computers being out of reach for many of the people involved in the program.”

Especially during the pandemic, Access programming has brought previous in-person events into the homes of local residents. This includes “Real Food,” a collaborative program between the Bellingham Circus Guild and Community Food Co-op that combines entertainment with healthy eating info. The program is usually held at schools, but right now, Access is the only way school-age children can experience it. 

Losing this avenue of content creation, Johnson feels, will be detrimental to many residents’ creativity and sense of togetherness. It seems unclear what BTV will do to fill the six hours of content, or whether they will still allow citizen-produced content to air in 2021. 

What — and when — is the new normal?

Regardless of what may happen in 2021, most Whatcom Arts Project members are continuing to provide digital content and events. 

The Pickford is allowing moviegoers to pay to stream their films online. The Sylvia Center has already produced two shows and is working on a third to open in mid-November; it will be livestreamed via multiple cameras and patrons will pay to see it, just as if they were there. And the Mount Baker Theatre, silent since March, plans to screen classic holiday films with full distancing protocols and limited capacity. 

For others, the question remains: how slowly or quickly will “normal” come back in 2021? 

For performance groups like Sylvia Center or BSO, will the pandemic and subsequent budget issues permanently alter how they operate?

Ridenour says the Whatcom Arts Project has several possible fundraising campaigns being developed for the 2021. Whether those fundraisers can make a sizeable dent in budget deficits for organizations remains to be seen, she said.

One thing the post-pandemic future may hold, besides the continued existence and collaboration of Whatcom Arts Project, is the continuation of live-streamed events as an additional source of ticket revenue.

Ridenour said that right now, amid all the uncertainty, nothing is off the table. 

“We’ve heard so much from people how they’ve really enjoyed having this virtual option,” she said. “As we look at our future seasons, we’re definitely exploring options for ‘How do we make our concerts accessible for people who aren’t able to attend?’ Whether it’s COVID or beyond COVID, it’s definitely something we’re exploring.”

Matt Benoit is Bellingham-born and raised. He’s written for the Bellingham HeraldTri-City HeraldPacific Northwest InlanderDiscover Magazine.com, and WhatcomTalk.com, among others. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and media production from Washington State University. See more of his work at https://matthewcbenoit.com.