Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival’s Frances Hellman talks COVID-19 pandemic musician relief fund, grant programs

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SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) — The global COVID-19 outbreak caused most Bay Area music and arts organizations to cancel in-person experiences in 2020, including San Francisco’s iconic Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

While the pandemic may have put a Golden Gate park tradition on hold, it has not stopped the team behind the event from working to support the local music and arts community in a financially-trying year.

Frances Hellman, of Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and the Hellman Foundation, joined ABC7 on Friday to talk about community relief grants and initiatives that the festival has created to help Bay Area musicians survive.

Hellman says the while the potential impacts of COVID-19 on the festival were clear early on, it has not made them less devastating for the Bay Area performing arts scene.

“Needless to say, it was crushing when we realize we were going to have to cancel the annual festival,” Hellman says. “We realized it fairly early on and decided to switch over to an online version. And then along the way, it was clear that the live music industry is being devastated because of COVID. Events were being shut down, shows were getting canceled, people’s livelihoods were, you know, upended.”

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“It was clear, we would not be able to have a million people gathered for Hardly Strictly,” the organizer continues.

She says watching these losses unfold inspired her team to pivot from scheduling performances, to philanthropy, and develop two local music industry assistance programs, financed through a community relief fund.

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Hellman says a primary aim of the programs was to get money directly into the hands of unemployed musicians through offering relief checks.

“So we decided to partner with a couple of organizations,” the festival organizer says. “We worked with the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, and with the Center for Cultural Innovation, to distribute what turned out to be about $660,000 in aid via $2,000 relief checks.”

Hellman adds a second goal was to financially support established spaces for music and arts, of which many were early casualties of the pandemic.

“We created a program to provide a bridge for the smaller for 15 smaller music venues throughout the Bay Area, Hellman says, “and they distributed almost a million dollars in grants, which ranged quite widely was very much based on the need of the individual venues. So these were all small to medium sized venues that are such a critical pipeline for up and coming musicians for staff to learn the business and for keeper and as keepers of our cultural heritage.”

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Hellman says these efforts were engaged with the spirit of the Hellman family and a love for the arts at the forefront.

You can watch the full interview above.

If you have a question or comment about the coronavirus pandemic, submit yours via the form below or here.

Get the latest news, information and videos about the novel coronavirus pandemic here

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