Arts and Culture

The United States Small Business Administration started sending out Shuttered Venue Operator Grant award notices Wednesday, according to a spokesperson with the federal agency.

“We have hundreds of SBA staff working around the clock to continue processing, approving, and disbursing funds as quickly as possible to get our live entertainment venues back on track,” Victoria Guerrero with the SBA’s Office of Communications and Public Liaison, told WFPL in an email.

The announcement comes nearly five months after the 16-billion dollar program was signed into law.

The grants will be awarded to those with the greatest need first, groups that took a gross revenue hit of 90% or more because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Once the SBA receives the signed notice, it will process the disbursement “the next business day,” according to the agency’s website.

Businesses will be required to keep records to show that they are staying in compliance with their use of the SVOG money. 

The SBA will begin awarding applicants with pandemic-related losses of 70% or greater in about two weeks. In a month, the agency will start issuing award notices to all other eligible applicants.  

A Months-Long Wait For Desperately Needed Funds

Congress signed the provision into law in late December as part of a a federal spending bill.

The goal was to get much-need funds to the live entertainment industry that had largely shut down in the midst of the pandemic. Eligible applicants included venue operators, theater producers, performing arts organizations, movie theaters, talent representatives and promoters. 

Just how important were these funds?

“Imperative,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, director of communications and board member with National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA.

“This industry would have had an absolute mass collapse had emergency relief not been possible,” Schaefer told WFPL in February

But months passed, as bills continued to rack up, without any word from the SBA on when they would begin accepting applications. 

A date was finally set for April 8. 

The big day arrived, people logged on to apply for aid, and, just as soon as it launched midday, the portal crashed. 

A worker at a live music venue in North Carolina told NPR she and her colleagues spent about seven hours trying to submit an application, but had no success.

SBA ended up shutting it down. 

“After launching the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application portal, technical issues arose despite multiple successful tests,” the SBA tweeted. “After working with our vendors to address the issues, the portal was shut down to ensure fair and equal access once it is reopened.”

Nearly a week later, another tweet said the technical problems were “identified and fixed,” and they were continuing work to improve the system to reopen it.

But it remained closed longer, even prompting members of Congress to send a letter to the agency in mid April, urging SBA head Isabella Guzman to fix the problems asap. 

Another mishap occurred when the SBA incorrectly told some applicants they hadn’t properly submitted their applications. In fact, those applicants had done their due diligence, according to an “action alert” letter from advocacy group Americans for the Arts. 

Despite multiple requests for comment, the SBA did not provide more information about the technical problems to WFPL by the time of publication. 

As of Wednesday, SBA reported 13,154 applications for SVOG funds. 

Those total number of applications broken down by category are as follows: 

  • Live performing arts organizations: 3,089
  • Live venue operator or promoter: 5,373
  • Motion picture theater operator: 1,546
  • Museum operator: 703
  • Talent representative: 1,547
  • Theatrical producers: 896
Stephanie Wolf is WFPL's Arts Reporter.