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Supporting the arts in a sea of change

By Simon Mallett

On Thursday, March 12th, the Government of Alberta announced a restriction on gatherings of above 250 people due to COVID-19. That night, the curtain did not rise on many of Alberta’s arts events, and it became immediately clear that for artists and arts organizations, business could no longer proceed as usual.

In the weeks following, many artists saw their contracts postponed or cancelled. Artists also began to take some of their work online, trying to find ways to pivot the work they had planned to present in person into the digital realm. Others sought new ways to use the arts to keep people connected as we began to physically distance, and many folks who were now stuck at home turned to the arts for entertainment, togetherness, and hope.

As the Rozsa Foundation is a nimble organization, we are able to identify opportunities and challenges in the arts sector and respond to gaps that exist in the support structures for arts organizations. We knew early by mid-March that additional granting supports would be necessary, and as the first wave of emergency funding was announced by governments and other funders, a sense of where and how we could help became clearer.

At the beginning of April, we launched our COVID-19 granting programs, investing an additional $400,000 above existing grant amounts, and we were accepting applications by the middle of the month. Rozsa Foundation created two new granting programs which we hoped would provide support to arts organizations and artists where it was most needed. The Programming Cancellation Grant was created to cover the costs of those artist contracts that were paid out prior to COVID-19 cancellations. This would ensure that artists received income from their cancelled gigs at a time when they needed it most, and freed up some funds within arts organizations for other operating costs and obligations.

We also saw great potential in the artistic programming that was being moved online. As schools were being closed and we became further distanced from each other, the possibilities for online artistic programming to help address the delivery of school curriculum, assist with social isolation in at-risk populations, bolster mental health and well-being, and maintain a sense of social cohesion became clearer. This led to the creation of the Online Programming Grant, which would support organizations in their creation and dissemination of online arts content, allowing them to engage artists, address social needs, and provide entertaining experiences through digital platforms.

As always, our focus was also on building the capacity within arts organizations, and so we were specifically looking for how arts organizations could use digital content to meet their own short-term needs and the needs of the community, while simultaneously building systems that could have long-term positive impact. The quality and ingenuity we found in the applications from artists and organizations was inspiring to say the least.

Since mid-March we had been in constant communication with other local arts funders, in an effort to respond to the many different needs of Calgary's arts sector during the pandemic. The desire and willingness of both the Calgary Foundation and Calgary Arts Development to support the arts sector became clear as each contributed funding towards grant programs described, bringing the total funds available to $750,000.

The grant programs ran for just over a month and a half and were closed in early June when all the available funds had been allocated. In total, the Rozsa Foundation, Calgary Foundation and Calgary Arts Development supported 81 grants, and we were focused on making sure the money was available without delay. Most applicants received notification of their success within three days of applying and the vast majority of successful grants were supported for the full amount requested.

$259,000 of the funding pool went to supporting fees paid directly to artists for programming that had to be cancelled, while the other $491,000 was invested in artists, collectives, and arts organizations to create online artistic programming. The support of Calgary Arts Development was key in this area, allowing us to expand grant eligibility beyond charitable organizations to include individuals and groups of artists as well as non-profits.

Some of the online content supported through these grants has already been shared with audiences. The Calgary Philharmonic’s Orchestral Adventure provided an educational experience about the various instruments that make up an orchestra, while the National Music Centre’s Learning at Home allowed kids to build instruments of their own and understand how they work. The Folk Festival Society of Calgary offered their Virtually Live series, presenting world-class musicians for intimate digital concerts, and the Glenbow at Home program allowed would-be visitors to take virtual tours and see some of the many amazing works that call Glenbow home. Sled Island, Evergreen Theatre, Indefinite Arts, Trickster Theatre, and Quickdraw Animation Society are among the other organizations who have already shared their fantastic digital programming, and while a widespread return to in-person arts programming isn’t expected until 2021, there’s plenty more digital content to come from Vertigo Theatre, Springboard Dance, Calgary Young Peoples’ Theatre, and Wordfest, along with many of the projects put forth by individual artists and artist collectives.

The breadth of programming was motivating, and we wanted to get the word out as much as possible to Calgary audiences. We established the Alberta Online Arts Programming Calendar, which provided a detailed listing of all of the digital arts content available. Along with Calgary Arts Development, we were also pleased to support the podcast The Breakfast Dish, which features interviews with artists who are creating digital content. And we held a webinar around monetizing online arts content, exploring the different approaches and tools used by arts organizations to generate revenue from their digital offerings.

While digital art may not replicate or replace the in-person experience, at this unique time, Alberta-based arts organizations are finding innovative solutions to meet their artistic goals and the needs of the greater community. The true impact of this grant stream and the collective work of the 58 supported online programming grant applications won’t be clear until many months down the road, and many challenges still lie ahead for Alberta’s artists and arts organizations. That said, the work is entertaining, inspiring, and keeps us connected, so if you’re yet to experience some of the incredible online arts programming that’s been made here in Alberta, I strongly encourage you to check it out.

The Rozsa Foundation will continue to seek to identify ways that we can make a positive impact in the Alberta arts ecology during this difficult time, which may include other new granting opportunities in the future. For our September grant intake, we will resume our existing grant streams, as many organizations have identified this as a time where some meaningful capacity building can take place. The application deadline is September 4th, and full details can be found at

Thanks to the Rozsa Foundation board and staff for jumping in with both feet to make sure we could provide timely and focused support for Calgary's arts community in this unforeseen situation. We all believe deeply that the arts are integral to community, and that they will be necessary not only for the endurance of the physical distancing period, but also for the recovery of community and economy following the pandemic.

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