Ryan Walters of Lanesborough has spent five years as a freelance theater professional. In 2019, he joined the Connecticut-based dance company MOMIX on an international tour, serving as a touring technical director. When he returned to the Berkshires last February, he was hired by MASS MoCA as a freelance technician for choreographer Bill T. Jones’s residency project Deep Blue Sea, with a preview scheduled for March 21
The preview never happened.
Due to the worsening COVID-19 pandemic, all performances at MASS MoCA were cancelled by March 7 and nearly 75 percent of the museum’s staff—including part-time workers—were let go on March 25.
According to the New England Foundation for the Arts, there are over 33,000 self-employed artists and freelance creative workers in Massachusetts. This group, like so many others, has been reeling from state-imposed shutdowns. According to the Mass Cultural Council, an individual creative in western Massachusetts lost 17 gigs and over $7,000 in income between March and October.
Walters got an early boost in the form of a Mass Cultural Council grant specifically supporting Berkshire-based theater professionals, but it was not enough to offset the drop in technical stage work as theaters and other performance venues were forced to close their doors to the public.
“I was receiving unemployment at the beginning of the shutdown, but I got off of it as I was able to pick up little jobs here and there,” said Walters. Luckily, he found alternative gigs including working for a local videographer, a musician who rented space at MASS MoCA, and a company producing a theater-by-phone experience at Williams College.
Now, he’s focused on personal visual art and multimedia projects—and back on employment. “I had an easy time getting it, but I know plenty of people who haven’t,” he said.
Jennifer Lemieux, a licensed hair stylist and owner of Salon 290 in Williamstown, applied for unemployment when the state ordered nonessential businesses to close in March, but didn’t receive any funds for two months. “It was retroactive, which was good, but I didn’t get the money until right before I went back to work in June,” she said. At that point, she made too much to quality for continued unemployment support.
Freelancers, independent contractors, and sole proprietors were previously excluded from receiving unemployment benefits. But the unprecedented economic fallout brought on by the pandemic spurred Congress to create the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program, originally available via the CARES Act, which expanded eligibility to this struggling group of workers.
The $900 billion Consolidated Appropriations Act signed into law in December extends the PUA program for another 11 weeks. Eligible artists and freelancers can receive $300 per week through March 14, 2021.
The bill extends another important COVID relief program called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides forgivable loans to small businesses like Salon 290 in order to keep employees working. But Lemieux was confused by the program’s language.
“I thought I didn’t qualify, that I had to be a worker on payroll,” she said. Lemieux owns the business but is licensed as an independent contractor. “By the time I realized that I could have applied for PPP I missed the deadline.”
The Small Business Administration is currently accepting new PPP applications and Lemieux is interested in taking another look at the program, although she is still apprehensive about the process.
“As a person who has always taken care of myself, it’s strange and scary to apply,” she said. “I worry about backlash or issues down the road, like if the loan is really forgivable. Being a small businessperson, the last thing I want to worry about is the government wanting the money back if I did something wrong.”
Blair Benjamin, director of Assets for Artists—an artist resource program facilitated by MASS MoCA—understands that the word “loan” can be a deterrent. “PPP is set up in such a way that if you do the right things and spend the money the right way, your loan should be forgiven,” he said. For example, a PPP loan cannot be spent on income losses already covered by unemployment.
Assets for Artists has increased its one-on-one business counseling for artists interested in applying for PPP and other government COVID-relief programs due to a lack of information and clarity surrounding the process.
“So many artists don’t realize they are eligible for PPP,” said Benjamin. “The typical reply is, ‘I’m not a formal LLC or business.’ I tell them that if you file a Schedule C with your taxes, you’re a business. If you earn a profit on a Schedule C, you count as payroll. This is how you got paid.”
Great Barrington-based writer and book artist Suzi Banks Baum didn’t need to apply for government support. In fact, last year was the first year she made money. “This period of quarantine didn’t diminish my sense of effectiveness,” she said. “It enhanced it.”
When three different teaching gigs were cancelled last March, Baum knew she would have to pivot her own teaching practice. A writing class she has been offering for women at the Ramsdell Public Library in Housatonic became a weekly online workshop with over 180 attendees, and two daily practice courses turned into care package projects.
“I sent about 110 packages through the mail which forced a different kind of resourcefulness,” said Baum, whose new workshop formats saved her money on travel, furniture rentals, expensive materials, and bulk supplies. “The cost for me to move to remote spaces was very low.”
The new formats also provide Baum with access to a broader community of fellow artists, educators, and students. She reaches people all over the world, many who find themselves housebound and hungry to express themselves as a result of COVID-containing lockdowns. “We were creative first responders,” she said. “Artmaking is a way people feel attended to.”
For more information
Assets for Artists: Email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a one-on-one meeting about preparing a PPP application.
Mass Cultural Council: Visit massculturalcouncil.org for more information about the COVID-19 Relief Fund for Individuals. Applications due February 2, 2021.