One year after the pandemic shuttered numerous New Jersey cultural organizations and threw state artists into unemployment, the New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund (NJACRF) has awarded $2.6 million in its first round of New Jersey-specific support grants to rebuild the state’s arts community.

The grants are designed to help the state’s nonprofits address an estimated $100 million loss related to COVID-19 related closures and a loss of income that has resulted in layoffs, furloughs, and in some cases closure.

The new round of funding was announced in early March. Organizations under a $3 million threshold can be awarded $50,000 for general operating support, $50,000 to subgrant or support individual artists, or funding for both.

First round regional recipients include the Arts Council of Princeton, Artworks Trenton, Capital Singers of Trenton, Conservatory of Music and Performing Arts Society (Trenton), Historic Morven (Princeton), Hub City Jazz Festival (New Brunswick), New Jersey Capital Philharmonic, Old Barracks Association (Trenton), Passage Theatre (Trenton), Roxey Ballet Company (Lambertville), Trenton Circus Squad, Trenton Museum Society, Trenton Music Makers, Westrick Music Academy (West Windsor), and the West Windsor Arts Center.

In a recent telephone interview, NJACRF co-chair Jeremy Grunin says the fund was initiated last spring during a Council of New Jersey Grants Makers (CNJG) meeting.

The director of the $4.3 million family fund the Grunin Foundation and CNJG member says fellow members from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Prudential began talking about the impact that the pandemic would have on the arts and began discussing a central funding initiative

“I put up my hand and was the first one to put up the dollars to get us up and running,” says Grunin, whose foundation resources are based on real estate investments in Monmouth and Ocean counties.

Since many foundations participating in the CNJG can only disperse funds and are unable to accept money that would concentrate resources, Grunin says the plan needed a fiscal agent to handle the mechanics of the fund, and the group asked the Princeton Area Community Foundation to host and administer the project.

The PACF is designed to help individuals, families, businesses, and organizations to create charitable funds to support various interests. Based in Lawrence Township, it handles nearly $200 million in assets.

Although representing a foundation with offices in Toms River and Red Bank, New Jersey, and focused on supporting initiatives in ocean-side communities, Grunin says his interest in support outside the region is because “the arts transcend geography. The success of the state arts organizations helps determine the arts in Monmouth County. Artists move from county to county. Individual artists work throughout the state. We saw the arts as an ecosystem throughout New Jersey, and we saw the need to support it in this way.”

Calling the fund “a perfect way to support the ecosystems,” he says engaging with other funders in the state helped to provide insight to what groups exist throughout the state and how to help them. “I don’t know the groups in Newark, New Brunswick, and Somerset, but know putting the money into a fund makes the right impact,” he says.

He says in addition to the CNJG representatives of private foundations, the committee for the Cultural Recovery Fund involves the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and State of New Jersey representatives, including Tammy Murphy, wife of Governor Phil Murphy.

Although each of the participating organizations has the ability to support organizations and individuals independently and has its own mission, Grunin says participation in the fund doesn’t preclude each group’s traditional approach.

“I don’t think it is an either/or strategy; it is an ‘and’ strategy. I am chair of Count Basie Performing Arts Center (in Red Bank), and I still support those organizations in our home town,” he says, adding that the fund helps him further the foundation’s support during this time.

He adds that the pool of expertise also gives the Relief Fund “a degree of integrity and that it is not a group of elite foundation folk deciding how they’re dividing money.”

Elaborating on funding decisions, he says that the fund developed a grants committee comprised of people who have lived in the state for some time. Using funding practices employed by private state funders as well as the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the New Jersey Historical Commission, the committee would create funding criteria and review proposals and make recommendations to the steering committee for final approval or challenge.

While Grunin says the criteria are subject to change, depending on evolving community needs and new information, successful Relief Fund organization applications will meet the following requirements: demonstrate a commitment to equity and serving communities most vulnerable to the impact of COVID-19 and/or pursuing social justice work through arts, arts education, or history programming; show leadership of color on staff and board; demonstrate a clear, plausible, and innovative recovery plan and demonstrate adaptability to new circumstances; have developed new partnerships or built on previous partnerships to have greater impact with personnel, systems, or programs; and are engaged with reimagining what “their work will look like in a post-COVID future and are responsive to new demands, instead of replicating past programming exactly as it was prior to the pandemic.”

Grunin says more than 150 grant applications that totaled over $6 million of support arrived during the first fund’s initial program.

Speaking generally of the fund’s initial year and his personal involvement, Grunin says, “We’re primarily a volunteer army. We raise money in our free time. The arts are extremely important. But so are other things important.”

“I think there is an idea that art is an elitist thing and that some people have a closed mind to what the arts represent. I grew up playing a piano and cello. I’m not an art guy. But I see art as an important part of a fiber of an economic community.

“Look at what our foundation is about — art, education, having a thriving community that excels. The arts are a reason for people to spend time in a community. They go out to eat and stay around.

“(The arts) build the economic value of a town and city. We’ve seen this in the revitalization of places around the country. People are interested, and they want to be in the community. They want to be there and spend the night in a cool hotel.”

He also says that one of the missions of the fund is to help the arts create “an anti-racist community. Supporting underserved communities is important to us.”

And although the fund has raised somewhere in the $4 million range, he says, “We’re still fundraising. It’s ongoing.”

At the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, program director Sharnita Johnson says the fund’s first recent first phase efforts have been able to provide support for organizations in all but two New Jersey counties — only because there were no grant submissions from those regions.

The fund’s co-chair adds that during the first phase “we wanted to focus on the organizations that were most vulnerable.” Another consideration was groups that were BIPOC organizations.

She says the current second phase is open to organizations that did not receive funding in the first phase — including those that were rejected during the first phase.

“It was a panel process, so there were a number of questions with a lot of criteria,” says Johnson.

She notes that while the applications were need-based and that a number of organizations were trying to keep their doors open, there was limited funding.

However, she says, since the process was adjudicated by a diverse panel adhering to the criteria, some “organizations didn’t rank in a manner that was fundable.”

Explaining the overall funding approach, Johnson says, “We really want to focus on organizations that could reimagine what they did. There was the idea that technology was going to be the death of culture, but these organizations had to embrace technology, and while they can’t wait to get back to an audience they are building audiences around the world.”

While technology has helped organizations reach different audience, offerings have been free, and the funding is encouraging those who have learned to monetize the offerings so “people start understanding that organizations cannot provide content for free.”

Johnson says that in addition to arts organizations learning new approaches during the pandemic funding agencies are also learning new approaches, such as modifying their funding criteria to new needs and adjusting funding reporting.

“We learned we can be nimble and that a lot of requirements are likely unnecessary, and if we to service communities in meaningful ways we have to get out of the way with process,” says Johnson. “As funders it is gratifying to get those dollars out in communities.

“The challenge is that there isn’t enough money to meet the needs of the community. We are actively fundraising — this is a critical time, and will there be more money. The need is still great. (Our) resources are just a fraction of what is needed. We’re always thinking about this fund and talking about this fund. And trying to raise as much money as possible. And we’re continuing to fundraise. In fact there is a donate button on the website, so regular folks who love the arts and want to be part of the support — they can.”

For more information on the New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund:

For more on the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation:

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