Darkened stages, billions of dollars lost, and thousands out of work. Can arts organizations adapt to come back stronger than ever?
When Broadway went dark on March 12, the surreal magnitude of Covid-19’s impact on the arts—and on life in general—was made clear. Arts organizations, from the mighty Metropolitan Opera, which announced losses of $60 million from its canceled season, to the Minnesota Opera, who postponed their two remaining productions of 2019–20 and then canceled 2020–21 altogether, began to absorb the immense pain of the coronavirus pandemic.
Then, in the midst of it all, came the murder of George Floyd, making plain the second of what the Ordway’s interim president and CEO Christine Sagstetter calls “the two pandemics of Covid and systemic racism.”
Other industries have certainly struggled (I’m thinking restaurants and corporate real estate), but the losses in the arts, especially the performing arts, have been catastrophic. According to the National Independent Venue Association (whose board is led by First Avenue’s Dayna Frank), about 90 percent of independent live music and entertainment venue owners, promoters, and bookers said in June that they were at risk of closing without additional financial assistance. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) warned that one out of every three U.S. museums may shutter forever as funding and reserves run dry. And, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, during the quarter ending in September 2020, 52 percent of actors, 55 percent of dancers, and 27 percent of musicians were out of work (compared with an overall average unemployment rate of 8.5 percent). In a word, the forecast was devastating.
Yet what I’ve seen in these past ten months is that flexible, resourceful artists and arts organizations can survive, even thrive, by experimenting with new technology, adopting innovative programming, and by generally reconsidering the status quo. In talking to arts luminaries here in the Twin Cities, I discovered a determination to confront, even embrace, the challenges presented by Covid.
Technology to the Rescue
Enthusiasm for digital content is not new, but Covid has hastened its growth. In 2017, in a strikingly prescient move, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra launched its free digital Concert Library website and app. If you haven’t experienced it, the online resource includes full-length audio and video concerts, livestreams, and special features like interviews and behind-the-scenes commentary. Thanks to that foresight, and despite having to cut short its 2019–20 season, the SPCO’s audience, both in-person and virtual, reached a record high at 286,950 this fiscal year—an increase of nearly 100,000 over the previous season. Most recently, in response to Covid-era distance-learning requirements in the schools, the SPCO has added new Concert Library resources for children, families, and educators. And they’ve beefed up the special-feature content. Needless to say, they plan to expand on this resource even after the pandemic ends.
“We’ve been fortunate that we have the Concert Library and video archive,” says Kyu-Young Kim, the SPCO’s artistic director and principal violin. “It’s enabled us to avoid [health and safety] risks and still fulfill our mission to connect with the community and share music.” Before the pandemic, says Kim, the SPCO’s goal was to capture five to ten video concerts for the Concert Library each year; post-Covid they plan to produce closer to fifteen—a big commitment of resources and manpower but nevertheless a priority, “not just because there might be another pandemic,” says Kim, “but because it’s become a way that people are comfortable experiencing music. And now that we have a digital audience that’s nearly three times bigger than we had before the pandemic, we want to keep that audience—and ideally still have them come to the live concerts. If we can build up the library that way, with twice as much content every year, I think it’s really going to pay dividends.”
Back in August, the SPCO had pivoted to doing a series of livestream concerts—with socially distanced musicians and no in-person audience—but had to cut them short when Covid numbers spiked in November. Five more are now tentatively scheduled between March 20 and June 12, and their programming is the result of the bigger, more collaborative staff meetings that are another byproduct of the pandemic. Concertmaster Steven Copes had the idea to commission short solo works from a diverse slate of composers, almost all women or BIPOC. It’s a sign that people are feeling freer to experiment, as well as an imperative to do so, says Kim.
At the Ordway Performing Arts Center, Chris Sagstetter agrees that video performances, live or recorded, are here to stay. “I believe that the virtual environment is going to be with us for a long time,” she says. Like other arts groups and performance venues, the Ordway has moved some performances online after canceling the remainder of its 2019–20 season and postponing four of five shows in 2020–21. For now, they are offering five stream-on-demand concerts in January and February called “Winter Weekends with the Ordway,” as well as a “Meet the Artist” series of livestreamed conversations with Broadway at the Ordway theater artists.
Even school field trips have gone digital. The Ordway’s new Virtual Field Trips include special shows and lessons, post-show Q&As, study guides, and companion lesson plans.
Still, Sagstetter argues, nothing can take the place of live performance. Live at the Loading Dock, a socially distanced cabaret performance held at—where else?—the Ordway’s loading dock, in September and October, was a hit. “People cried and just loved to be together,” she says. “People have a need to gather, so we’re finding new ways to do that,” she says.
Unlike the SPCO, the Ordway has a state-of-the art facility that has to be maintained whether its stages are active or dark. With no ticket revenues coming in, and despite cost-cutting layoffs early in the pandemic, the Ordway knew it had to reach out to donors (the Ordway typically relies on ticket sales for 67% of its income). But how to raise money in the middle of a lockdown? Ordway leadership had canceled its 2020 gala due to Covid but were persuaded to try something different. The Virtual Spring Fête (produced by Bust Out), which ran in June, was its most successful gala ever, reaching 720 participants (double that of previous years) and raising $100,000 over the projected goal. Other organizations, like the Guthrie and Theater Latte Da, have had similar success—virtual galas cost less to produce and can reach many more people. Sagstetter says the Ordway may try a hybrid event in 2021, with both live and online components.
Webinars and Workshops
Vanessa Rose was in her second year as president and CEO of the American Composers Forum and in the midst of crafting a comprehensive strategic plan when Covid struck. Her immediate response was to create a series of webinars, with Springboard for the Arts and Slam Academy, to give artists the practical tools they would need to survive, whether it was figuring out how to file for unemployment, create an affordable home studio, or monetize Facebook livestream performances—anything that could help them navigate the immediate economic effects of the pandemic. ACF also started a professional-development workshop series with American Composers Orchestra.
As ACF was pivoting to this digital space, it made the decision to acquire I Care If You Listen, a multimedia hub for contemporary music. “We were really looking at how we could build our online presence, both for the storytelling and in terms of the advocacy,” Rose says. “We wanted to create more direct connections to the artists and their music. And especially with Covid, it does seem like this is the time to move forward.” ACF had been in conversation with ICIYL for months and had partnered on a few different series, including one about cultural appropriation.
ACF’s focus on the work of living artists dovetails with its long-standing commitment to DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), and the acquisition of ICIYL has allowed them to highlight historically marginalized artists and promote racial equity through digital performance and programming. Between the impact of Covid and the rise of Black Lives Matter, Rose says, “I don’t think there’s going back to a normal; I think we’re going to be entering into a new dynamic in which the digital medium is not just a supplement [in the classical music sector].”
No More Business as Usual
The idea that there’s no “going back to normal” is shared by all three performing arts professionals. Each likewise mentioned the necessity of equity work in a post-pandemic world, crediting the movement for racial justice with having as significant an impact on the arts as Covid.
“There’s a silver lining in this awful year,” Rose says, “in that we have an opportunity to change comfortable, long-term structures that have needed to be reimagined. It’s definitely given us a chance to rethink how we program—what does music mean in people’s lives? How do we connect as a community? How relevant is it to the world around us? I don’t think we can separate what’s happening in our country, both in terms of the racial history reckoning and what’s happening politically, with how we live in our daily lives.”
The SPCO’s Kim agrees that crisis can bring opportunity. “We do not want to go back to business as usual when we get back to concerts,” he says, “and so much of that comes from George Floyd and all the protests after that.” Kim foresees opportunities for new programming that will juxtapose new and older works and explore different themes. A recent virtual panel discussion on George Frideric Handel’s investments in the transatlantic slave trade, for example, was presented before the encore video performance of Handel’s Messiah. Panelists addressed what it means to perform the work with this newfound information. “These are not isolated questions,” says Kim, “but we have to be aware of them.”
And yet, he says, the company has to do better in terms of its own diversity (there are no African American or Latinx musicians in the orchestra) and that of its artistic partner roster. “There’s so much more that we can do in this regard—we have to do more to really keep that commitment.”
Doing better weighs on the mind of the Ordway’s Sagstetter, as well. This year, instead of giving out its prestigious Sally Awards, the Ordway celebrated three former Sally winners, all Black men and elder statesmen of the Minnesota arts community: Seitu Jones (visual artist), Gary Hines (Sounds of Blackness), and Lou Bellamy (Penumbra). The three are featured in a film by Robin Hickman-Winfield called “Visionaries Who Matter.” That initiative, along with a recently announced grant from the Knight Foundation to support a pilot year of a musical theater training program for emerging artists of color, are what Sagstetter hopes will continue to encourage meaningful conversations about racial inequity.
The Road Ahead
The Covid-19 pandemic has left a lasting mark on the arts and on the world. While we can’t ignore the difficulties this past year has brought, we must continue to focus on adapting to the challenges ahead. Just as scientists have found new ways to understand the virus, artists and arts leaders are finding new ways to engage audiences and make art. The three I’ve spoken to here, Kyu-Young Kim, Chris Sagstetter, and Vanessa Rose, have shown that adaptability, and a fierce commitment to their mission, can fuel exciting change and growth. They, and their many creative colleagues in the arts community, will continue to provide entertainment, solace, and inspiration and foster equity in a post-pandemic world.
“We’re all struggling to think of how we are going to survive this,” says Kim, “but I’m pretty optimistic that, down the road, we’re going to be stronger than ever.”