Local venue and arts center ARTS/West temporarily shut down on Aug. 7, 2020. After a rocky year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the creative hub at 132 W. State St. eventually announced their closure until at least Jan. 4, 2021 and placed remaining employees on furlough.
A number of individuals within Athens, both community members and former ARTS/West staff members are disappointed by the sudden closure.
ARTS/West is funded by the city of Athens and taxpayer dollars. It essentially depends on tax funding in order to stay open. Emily Beveridge, the current program specialist at ARTS/West, said the center maintained its revenues in early 2020 at a rate similar to the past three years.
However, once the pandemic hit and ARTS/West closed briefly in March, it never really fully reopened. Emily Prince, a previous program specialist at ARTS/West from 2007-2012, said Mayor Steve Patterson and Terri Moore, director of the Athens Community Arts, Parks & Recreation Department, said the arts center closed due to a “lack of work.”
“I feel let down,” Prince said in an email. “I feel like, true or not, it sent a message to the Athens community that the arts are expendable or an extra or not necessary -- all of which are not true.”
There were a number of staff openings when the pandemic hit, making the situation even more difficult as it had a small staff, Beveridge said. She was actually the only employee within her department assigned to ARTS/West, other than a childcare program specialist.
Both the childcare program specialist and Beveridge were the first two full-time employee layoffs. However, Beveridge said, the layoffs are supposed to be temporary.
“When we were notified when we were laid off, we were told that these would be temporary layoffs for lack of work and that we would be reinstated into our positions on January 4, 2021, which is the beginning of the next fiscal year,” Beveridge said. “My concern with that, is that the city operates year-to-year, based on the previous year’s intake, and obviously the 2020 taxes are going to be considerably lower than the 2019 taxes, because of the pandemic.”
Nonetheless, Beveridge is still worried about the status of her position. “One of my concerns with the situation is, while the layoff may be classified right now as a temporary layoff, the budget for next year is going to be considerably worse, and at that point the layoff could become permanent.”
ARTS/West technically reopened in June after its March closure under the gallery guidelines by Ohio Governor DeWine. These guidelines, which outline how classes and gallery spaces could reopen, made Beveridge optimistic for the reopening of ARTS/West.
She continued to work on ideas, such as a local socially distanced plant exchange or half-day art enrichment programs for children staying home from school. However, the arts venue was shut down under order by Moore.
Beveridge thinks that ARTS/West could’ve stayed open, especially in a town like Athens that supports the arts.
“I absolutely think that ARTS/West could have continued to provide services to the public,” Beveridge said, adding that other arts centers such as the Dairy Barn Art Center and Stuart’s Opera House have remained open with funding.
Both Beveridge and Athens Municipal Arts Council member Chelsa Morahan questioned if there really was a lack of work, or if the arts were simply left behind when budgeting tax dollars amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Morahan and others are pushing to create a Friends of ARTS/West nonprofit group in order to open up different revenue streams. Morahan, who was also a program specialist at ARTS/West from 2012-2016, expressed excitement that the Athens Municipal Arts Commission, or AMAC, recently attended a City Council meeting to address the closure of ARTS/West.
AMAC is attempting to get funding for ARTS/West through the CARES Act, a bill meant to stimulate economic growth during the pandemic, Morahan said. If it gains funding, AMAC plans to update ARTS/West’s wi-fi and reopen the building as a local hotspot.
“One of the things that really bothers me … is that the arts are always the first thing to get cut, because they’re not what people would call ‘essential,’” Morahan said.
For Morahan, the arts are an essential part of life.
“Art is all around us,” Morahan said. “I mean, the pictures that are hanging in your house, the movies that you watch, the books that you read -- those are all forms of art. To a lot of people, they are rather essential.”
Corrections appended: A previous version of this article credited the wrong information to Prince, and Chelsa Morahan’s name was spelled incorrectly. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.