| Beaver County Times
Herb Alpert: Artists are ‘second responders of society’
Funding the arts is paramount for jazz great Herb Alpert, whose foundation donates to some 90 small organizations. He calls artists “the second responders of society.” (Aug. 28)
The show didn’t go on.
The curtains closed, and the doors shut in March for hundreds of theaters across Pennsylvania — and thousands more across the country.
The coronavirus pandemic devastated the arts community with a blow so strong and swift that it immediately sent home nearly everyone connected to the stage, leaving behind administrative staffs to keep driving funds into its arteries.
In Pittsburgh, an eagerly awaited season of touring Broadway musicals, performances by the Grammy-nominated Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, and live shows by magicians in the intimate new Liberty Magic theater got scrapped.
The entertainment industry was among the first businesses to close due to the coronavirus, “and we’ll probably be the last to reopen,” Pittsburgh Cultural Trust CEO J. Kevin McMahon said. “We’re just not built for social distancing.”
In Philadelphia, Anne Ewers has 9,000 empty theater seats every night.
She’s the president and CEO of Kimmel Center Inc., the base for eight resident companies, five stages and additional venues for smaller performances, corporate meetings and weddings. When the pandemic shut down Ewers’ operations, she furloughed 80 percent of her employees and cut millions of dollars from her budget.
“After doing all of that, we still have a shortfall — a gap — of $5 million,” Ewers said.
A hundred miles away in York, Lyn Bergdoll had few employees to lay off because she runs a community theater and, like others across the country, actors, set designers and choreographers all work voluntarily.
Bergdoll, the executive director of the Belmont Theatre, and one other full-time employee along with two part-timers have used the pandemic period to reorganize and build pieces of the theater’s operations and raise funds. Ticket sales from about 25,000 patrons usually help to pay the bills, but not this year, and like many arts organizations, not for the foreseeable future.
“Even though we are a non-profit … you have to run the theater like a business,” said Bergdoll, the executive director. “Even though a 501(c)3 gives you the tax benefit, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay the electric bill.”
Pennsylvania’s creative industries lost more than 97,000 jobs and $4.4 billion in sales between April and July this year, according to a study by the Brookings Institute, released in August.
“The pandemic has created damaging and lasting impacts on the arts and culture sector,” said Norah Johnson, director of external affairs and public awareness for the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. “As a big industry that was one of the first to close and inevitably will be one of the last to fully re-open, this has translated into a tremendous amount of value lost in terms of the sector’s contributions to Pennsylvania’s economy.”
The economics of the shutdown, when viewed on a national scale, are staggering:
- Non-profit arts and cultural organizations lost about $13.1 billion by mid-September, according to Americans for the Arts.
- With 96% of organizations canceling events, that meant a loss of 355 million admissions and counting.
- The ripple effect meant $11.2 billion in lost audience spending at local businesses.
Losing more than money
The playwright and poet Oscar Wilde once said: “I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”
Beyond the funds that lay a foundation for the arts, what fell through the pandemic hole immediately was live creative expression. No audiences larger than 25, no shows, no live choirs, no dramatic plays, no symphony orchestras.
Along with that went the connections that audiences feel being there in person — experiencing it with one another.
“People want to gather together, to experience inspiring artistry and great entertainment, and of course artists want to create and performers want to perform. All of these are crucial to living a life of meaning and purpose,” Stephen Catanzarite, managing director of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center in Midland, said.
The pandemic caused Lincoln Park to cancel its final shows of the 2019-20 season, and the opening ones for the 2020-21 subscription series of musical theater, plays and ballets. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School students and adult audiences alike were denied the thrill of a live performance in a 500-seat theater garnering immediate laughter and cheers.
Hoping to compensate as best possible, Lincoln Park has pivoted to streaming plays, presented like old-fashioned radio shows, with small, socially distanced adult casts.
“I hear from people who are missing that very much — watching the production and socializing with others at the production. It’s being a part of something else that connects you to people in so many different ways,” Luce said.
The arts is about “making magic,” according to Priscilla Luce, interim president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, an association with 460 large, medium and small members in Philadelphia and five surrounding counties.
“When the arts is removed, as we have had to experience during the COVID-19 shutdown, something irreplaceable is taken out of the community, and it’s vital that the arts be functioning, be strong, be supported at every level within the community,” she said. “We can’t have a society without the arts.”
Reaching the masses
Virtually no stages, regardless of size or prestige, are immune to this crisis; even the Metropolitan Opera in New York City made waves with its September announcement canceling its 2020-21 season.
The lack of organizational and audience spending has also caused $4.2 billion in lost government revenue and the loss of support for 725,000 jobs, according to the Americans for Arts report.
“Yes, people love music, they love comedy and it’s what people do in their leisure time, but these are small mom-and-pop businesses that have contributed so much to their communities, not just by being an arts magnet but by being the trigger for economic activity for all the businesses around them,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for the National Independent Venue Association.
Business models within the arts community had no choice but to morph into something new.
Pittsburgh’s City Theatre hosted a Drive-In Arts Festival last month at the new Hazelwood Green development, featuring concerts, a live comedy podcast, an evening of ballet and classical music, magic and poetry.
“Every day, characteristically nimble and new modes of delivery emerge, whether through galleries, arts councils, or arts and culture organizations of a variety of size and disciplines. Virtual dance and music performances on Zoom, writing workshops via GoToMeeting, drive-in concerts, and the creation of online galleries out of physical art spaces are just a few examples of this,” Johnson said.
In May, the Pocono Arts Council sponsored a “Drive-By-Art,” exhibition, in which 12 artists from throughout Monroe County participated, said Susan Randall, executive director of the council.
Artists showcased their pieces on fence posts, lawns and driveways, and the arts council published a map so that both locals and visitors could view and purchase art. As a gesture of goodwill, the arts council did not ask for commission from the artists involved in the event.
At the council’s gallery in Stroudsburg, physical shows have returned, and throughout the state, more galleries are opening their doors with limited guests and reservations often required in advance.
“We’re really trying to keep doing what we should be doing for the community … just in different ways,” Randall said.
But virtual shows for the performing arts continue.
In York, the Belmont will share ghost stories in October to an online audience, and a virtual concert is planned Dec. 4-6.
The mayor of Milford in Pike County said technology has helped saved the arts, at least at a local level.
“The real strength in a community to me is not something that you necessarily see or recognize when you drive through a town. It’s the social capital, it’s the networks, the friendships and the relationships,” said mayor Sean Strub. “While the pandemic has gotten in the way of a lot of those because people can’t gather or convene, it’s created a bunch of new ones. There’s all sorts of people who have Zoom relationships that never did before, and that’s going to be with us even when we get back to sort of normal.”
The price that arts organizations pay is that those digital shows have primarily been free, and so they face more uncertainty in their future.
As they weigh the question of when audiences and performers feel safe returning to live shows, they also wonder if their free performances during the pandemic may make tickets a tougher sell.
The price of entry
For York’s Belmont Theatre, ticket sales represent about 40% of its budget, which makes fundraising a significant part of Bergdoll’s job.
On the other hand, the Kimmel Center has a revenue formula that’s unusual: Ticket sales — from about 1.2 million patrons, pre-pandemic — represent 93% of Kimmel’s $55 million-plus budget; the remainder comes from donations, Ewers said.
The formula changed several years ago because the center was competing for dollars with some of its resident companies, Ewers said, but with the pandemic’s impact, fundraising will need to fill the gaps.
Arts organizations are looking to government leaders to help as well.
“We would very much hope that our elected officials will understand the critical importance of the arts and culture sector to the life we live, and the happy life we live, in our state. Just imagine in the eastern part of the state, arts and culture has a $3.4 billion impact on the economics of the City of Philadelphia alone,” said Luce, of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “I think it’s very, very important that arts and culture in this state be understood to play a fundamentally critical role in our lives as Pennsylvanians.”
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NIVA, a national coalition of more than 2,800 independent venues and promoters, reported in late August that 90% of venues were “a few months” away from shuttering permanently without federal funding. NIVA is supporting legislative efforts including the Save Our Stages Act, which would establish a $10 billion grant program for venue operators, promoters and talent representatives.
Owners of the Rex Theater in Pittsburgh cited the coronavirus clampdown in their decision to close their 600-seat concert venue after 11 years.
“If these businesses go bankrupt through no fault of their own and get boarded up and then those businesses that moved to that neighborhood to be there for that foot traffic, then they start to go like dominoes,” said Schaefer. “We are an economic trigger and multiplier.”
In an effort to rally public support, We Make Events North America, a united front of industry professionals, lit more than 2,000 venues across the country in red light on Sept. 1 in an event dubbed Red Alert. We Make Events’ goals include the installation of the RESTART Act, extending the Paycheck Protection program and establishing a Small Business Administration loan program in a COVID-19 relief package.
The coalition is also working for the extension and expansion of pandemic unemployment assistance for self-employed and part-time workers.
When will the show go on?
Broadway closed earlier this year, declaring it would reopen in January, but as the date nears, arts venues are skeptical. Until a vaccine is available and patrons feel safe, the stages will remain dark.
“When there is a vaccine, the arts will flourish, but it will be different,” Ewers said.
Patrons and artists will return at their own pace, she said, when they feel safe. Protective equipment and safeguards will cost the Kimmel Center millions of dollars, but to see the curtain rise again will make it all worthwhile.
They all anticipate that day.
“People will have to take their time to become comfortable in these venues,” Luce said. “When that happens, when a vaccine is available, it can’t happen fast enough.”
Bergdoll said: “It’s going to be really emotional.”
For the long term, the show will go on and audiences will return.
“I’m confident of that,” Catanzarite said. “People will always have a desire for the kinds of experiences that only live performances — be it theater, music, dance, comedy — can provide. We may see more patrons wearing masks and taking other extra personal precautions, and certainly the need, and expectation, for venues to maintain good housekeeping, will be heightened.”
Kim Strong can be reached at [email protected] Micaela Hood is a features reporter for USA Today’s Mid-Atlantic features team, and is based at the Pocono Record. Reach her at [email protected] Scott Tady is the entertainment editor at the Beaver County Times and can be reached at [email protected]