August 26, 2020

New Fund Helps Arts Groups Survive COVID-19 Pandemic

By Anne Levin

With no end in sight, COVID-19 has been devastating to the arts. Performances and exhibits have been canceled. Staff at theaters, museums, dance companies, and musical organizations have been laid off or let go. Planning for recovery is uncertain.

Particularly hard hit are small arts and cultural organizations with limited resources. It is this sector that is the focus of the New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund (NJACRF), recently established by a coalition of funders which has already raised more than $1.6 million, including a lead matching gift of $1 million from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.

“We’re focusing on organizations that have smaller budgets,” said Jeremy Grunin, NJACRF co-chair and president of the Grunin Foundation, which is based in Toms River. “We’re not funding organizations like NJPAC or the Count Basie Theater or McCarter Theatre. They have endowments, for the most part, and have the wherewithal to survive. We’re looking at those that have some paid staff but are facing that huge downturn. We’re also looking at intermediary organizations that can work with them, and get them money.”

Grunin is the incoming chairman of the Count Basie Theater, in Red Bank. Though the fund won’t be helping the theater, he is well aware of its problems caused by the pandemic. “Being dark since March has put a huge constraint on our resources,” he said. “Putting budgets together is a guessing game at this point. The people we employ have no recourse, not to mention the artists who perform there.”

Arts and culture are significant contributors to the economy. Nonprofit arts organizations generate more than $660 million in economic activity in New Jersey, employ nearly 22,000 workers, and engage more than 8.3 million people who stay in hotels, and eat and shop locally, according to a release from the Princeton Area Community Foundation, which is hosting the new fund.

“Investing in arts and culture today will increase the chances of long-term, sustainable success, with broad-reaching results that impact employment, real estate values, crime and safety, tourism, health and wellness, education, and overall quality of life in New Jersey,” the release quotes First Lady Tammy Murphy, the founding chair of the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.

The idea for the arts fund was first broached at a meeting of New Jersey arts funders at the beginning of the pandemic. Grunin, along with Tammy Herman, deputy director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts; and Sharnita C. Johnson, arts program director at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and the NJACRF co-chair, were closely involved.

The Grunin Foundation provided the initial gift of $250,000 to establish the fund.

“The impact of the global pandemic on this sector has been felt by everyone,” Grunin said in the release. “Arts and culture are important to our emotional and social well being while also serving as an important gear in our economic engine. This fund will help ensure the sector’s survival in the short term and growth in the longer term.”

In addition to Grunin, Johnson, and Herman, the steering committee for the arts fund includes representatives from the Prudential Foundation, Stone Foundation of New Jersey, E.J. Grassmann Trust, and the New Jersey Historical Commission.

“As the sector at large braces for worst-case scenarios, including permanent closure, New Jersey and its residents risk losing a necessary component of a complete recovery,” Johnson said. “With help, the sector will continue to support healing resilience, and relief, and move forward on a path for safe reopening.”

Half of the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund gift was made possible through a matching grant from philanthropist Joan Rechnitz, who founded the Two River Theater in Red Bank with her late husband, Robert. The Pandemic Relief Fund has pledged to match new contributions to the arts fund, dollar for dollar, up to $1 million.

Grants and application information will be announced in the next few weeks. For more information, visit