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County offers relief for suffering small arts groups

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A scene from Blackfriars Theatre's 2019 production of "Detroit '67." The pandemic forced Blackfriars and many other small and mid-sized arts organizations to shut down for 14 months, which has had financially devastating results. - PHOTO BY ROY HEERKENS JR.
  • PHOTO BY ROY HEERKENS JR.
  • A scene from Blackfriars Theatre's 2019 production of "Detroit '67." The pandemic forced Blackfriars and many other small and mid-sized arts organizations to shut down for 14 months, which has had financially devastating results.
Responding to mounting complaints from small arts organizations that they have been shut out of public funding for the arts, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello on Monday unveiled a $2 million grant program for the groups.

The program, named JumpstARTS, is financed by federal CARES Act monies and will offer three tiers of grants between $5,000 and $20,000 for eligible organizations, Bello said.

“Many small and mid-sized arts organizations don't have the same level of philanthropic and government support as our larger organizations, yet their impact in the community is undeniable,” Bello said. “We need to ensure these organizations have the resources needed to be successful coming out of this pandemic.”

The county has come under scrutiny for both how much it allocates to arts and cultural organizations in its budget — about $1.4 million annually — and how the money is distributed. The lion’s share of the budget goes to nine legacy arts institutions, while a mere $45,000 is set aside for about a dozen small arts groups each year.


JumpstARTS is not a fix for that funding formula, but rather a one-time initiative, modeled after the county’s Fast Forward Monroe small business grant program, and is meant to help smaller arts and cultural organizations find their footing as they begin to reopen from forced closures during the pandemic.

County Executive Adam Bello unveils the JumpstARTS grant initiative for arts organization at Blackfriars Theatre. - PHOTO BY REBECCA RAFFERTY
  • PHOTO BY REBECCA RAFFERTY
  • County Executive Adam Bello unveils the JumpstARTS grant initiative for arts organization at Blackfriars Theatre.
In announcing the funding scheme at Blackfriars Theatre on East Main Street, however, Bello cast it as “the first step of a sustained improvement in county arts funding.”



Danny Hoskins, the managing director at Blackfriars, which has been closed since last year, said the program was welcome.

“We have been the one industry that has been down for 14 months, down completely,” Hoskins said. “For 14 months, we haven't had the chance to open. But in that time, we still had to pay rent, we've still had to pay utilities.”

Under the program, grants will be available to organizations in three tiers, based on their 2019 operating budgets and proof of pandemic-related financial hardship.

Groups with a budget of under $50,000 would be eligible for a $5,000 grant. Those with budget between $50,000 and $99,000 would be in line for $10,000, while organizations with budgets between $100,000 and $2 million could receive $20,000. Groups with budgets in excess of $2 million are not eligible.

The funds may be used only to cover expenses incurred by organizations and groups between March 20, 2020, and June 18, 2021.

Rep. Joe Morelle, who helped secure the CARES Act funding for the program, joined Bello at Blackfriars to announce the initiative.

“In a time like this where people have faced such emotional crises as we dealt with the pandemic, the arts offer an opportunity to lift our spirits to really remind us of all the wonderful things in life,” Morelle said.

News of the JumpstARTS initiative was released in tandem with Bello’s veto of county legislation that would have authorized an allocation of $131,000 to 17 small arts groups, including those who presumably would have been eligible for funding under JumpstARTS.

The bill was supported by Republicans and a handful of Democrats in response to cries from small arts groups that the Bello administration has ignored their complaints about funding, which date back decades. It would have been funded by a controversial $2.5 million slush fund that was added to the 2021 county budget over Bello’s objections.


In his veto message, Bello said the legislation was “deeply flawed from a legal and technical perspective” and defied state law.

At Blackfriars, Bello said his administration is looking into how it can build more meaningful and sustained support for small arts organizations into the county budget in years to come.

“We just don't fund the small, medium-sized organizations to the level that many other communities do, and to the level we deserve to have here,” Bello said.

Three decades ago, county arts spending topped $3 million. This year, Erie County set aside $6.6 million for 88 arts and cultural organizations.

Bello campaigned in part on a platform of making arts funding more equitable. But his first budget, which he proposed last year in the midst of the pandemic, did not address the topic. He said Monday that the health crisis sidetracked his timetable for addressing the matter.

The Avenue Blackbox Theatre is among the organizations poised to receive $20,000 under the initiative. It was also in line to receive that much from the $131,000 allocation that Bello vetoed.

Founder Reenah Golden said the money would come in handy to close the theater’s budget deficit.

“So $20,000 helps close that gap,” she said. “It helps, but would help more if we can count on annual support.”

The grant application period opened Monday morning at monroecounty.gov/jumpstARTS and will remain open through June 18.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at becca@rochester-citynews.com.