When the show does not go on
The arts take a huge hit from coronavirus crisis
JADE SYLVAN, a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School, spent two years writing and producing a musical, “Beloved King,” a queer interpretation of the biblical story of King David. Sylvan was set to debut a semi-staged production last weekend with two sold-out performances at the Oberon, which is part of the Harvard-affiliated American Reperatory Theater – the first step toward getting the show into full production.
Then coronavirus hit. Sylvan and officials at the Oberon agreed that the right decision was to cancel. “The week before the show it felt like slowly everything crumbled around me,” Sylvan said. “It’s crushing and heartbreaking.”
Sylvan is out $10,000, and has no idea if the project they dedicated two years of their life to will ever come to fruition. “We say we’re postponing it, but the future is so uncertain it’s hard to know when that will be,” Sylvan said.
As the coronavirus pandemic puts a hold of all gatherings in Massachusetts, the arts is one industry that is particularly hard hit. Virtually every public performance space is shut down, and theater classes are cancelled. Major museums are all closed. While some larger arts institutions may have a financial cushion, many smaller organizations live season to season. And artists are frequently part of the gig economy, paid for each concert they perform or each production they staff. When the work dries up, so do the paychecks.
“A large chunk of my annual income is hanging in the balance,” Cohen said. “It’s a little bit unnerving.”
In Massachusetts, the arts is a big business. According to the Massachusetts Cultural Council, nonprofit cultural organizations put $1.5 billion annually into the state economy, and generate an additional $877 million in indirect audience spending – for example, when patrons go to dinner before a show. There are the equivalent of 71,000 full-time jobs generated by the arts.
Anita Walker, executive director of the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said arts organizations run the gamut from small, volunteer-run groups to those with large staffs. “Some have a certain cushion of sustainability, but none of them have a robust fund to fall back on that will last any length of time,” she said.
And, Walker added, “If an organization has to close its doors and cancel performances, it’s not just a loss of performances, it’s a loss of real work, whether ticket-takers or people working in catering or merchandising.”
The cultural council is distributing a survey to determine the economic cost of arts-related shutdowns. Walker called the situation “heartbreaking.”
“This is their lifeblood, this is what they live for, to open their doors, invite audiences in and share the arts and transformative experiences, and people need this now more than ever,” she said.
“As a theater producer for 30 plus years, what is deeply ingrained in me is the notion that the show must go on,” said David Dower, artistic director of ArtsEmerson, a Boston theater affiliated with Emerson College. “It’s every part of my fiber at this point. But that is actually the wrong response in the face of this particular threat.”
Dower said he was involved in the response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, when activists made a point of touching each other to show that the virus was not contagious. Dower said it took him time to come to terms with the current crisis, that “the communal response is our togetherness needs to be expressed by not gathering.”
At the Huntington Theatre in Boston, a world premiere of the show “Our Daughters, Like Pillars” was scheduled to open March 20. After the show was cancelled, the theater considered recording it for subscribers, but didn’t want to force the actors to gather. The theater is still figuring out logistics, like which staff will continue to get paid. “There’s no playbook for this situation we’re in,” said Temple Gill, director of public affairs for the theater. “We’ve never been in this position before.”
Financially, the Huntington expected to raise $1.5 million in ticket sales over the next couple of months. Its annual fundraising gala, expected to gross $1.3 million, is scheduled for May 4, and theater officials have not yet decided whether to hold it.
For smaller artists, the economic hit is particularly tough. Edrie Edrie, a musician with the performance group Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys and president of a production company, estimates that she and her partner Walter Sickert will lose 40 percent of their annual revenue, since all their work has disappeared for the next three to five months. Shows were cancelled and other work, like scoring sound elements onto video games and commercials, has been postponed.
The couple is trying to sell Sickert’s visual arts – paintings, sculptures and prints – to earn money. “I feel like it’s going to take a year or more to recover, to get to where we were before the last 48 hours started,” Edrie said on Friday.
Faye Dupras, artistic director of a Somerville theater company that creates touring puppet shows, lost $5,000 due to cancelled shows. She also teaches in schools — now cancelled. “Basically, all my streams of revenue have been zeroed out,” Dupras said.
Dupras was gearing up to crowd-source money for a new project, but she worries that if the country enters a recession, money for the arts will dry up. “I’m feeling like that’s going to be a harder sell to get people to donate money for theater when I think people will be struggling more to keep their own finances in order for the necessities in life,” Dupras said.
The lack of clarity around how long the shutdowns will last is also difficult.
Shana Gozansky, a freelance theater director, just started rehearsals this week for a show slated to open May 15. The cast and crew already spent hours working on design, set, lighting, costumes, and casting. The actors memorized the scripts. They are starting rehearsals virtually, using videoconferencing. But they remain in limbo, not knowing if the play will happen – and if they will get paid, since payments are often made in installments.
“We’ve been working on this play in some form or another since July. Now we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Gozansky said.
Some funds are starting to pop up to help struggling artists. The city of Boston turned an existing arts grant fund into an Artist Relief Fund, which will give grants of $500 and $1,000 to artists who lose income due to coronavirus.
Kara Elliott-Ortega, chief of arts and culture for the city, said the fund typically distributes around $35,000 during each round of grants. The Boston Center for the Arts also set up a mechanism for private donors to contribute to the fund, so this round may be larger.
Elliott-Ortega said the fund is meant to help lower-income artists who had tours, gigs, or readings cancelled. “Knowing that people were counting on income they’re not going to receive, we try to give people something to recoup that,” she said.
The Record Co., a nonprofit community music organization, established its own grant fund, which will give $200 to any musician who had a performance cancelled on a first-come, first-served basis. It created the fund Thursday and started distributing grants Friday. As of Monday morning, the fund had raised $27,500 and distributed $8,000. “If we’re going to have an emergency fund, it needs to be emergency fast,” said Matt McArthur, executive director of The Record Co.
Many artists are developing creative ways to continue to share their art.
Jean Appolon, a choreographer and dancer who has a dance company and teaches in schools and studios, said he lost all his income overnight. On Saturday, he tried for the first time to livestream a dance class on Facebook. Over 6,000 people watched.
“Dance has been my life since I grew up in Haiti facing violence and trauma. Now we’re facing almost the same trauma through coronavirus,” Appolon said. “I feel like this way of connecting to people just brings so much healing.”
Many artists also worry about the impact on the public. “I think in times of crisis, the arts help people feel comfortable, enjoy life, escape from the trauma of day to day, distract from seeing the news and alerts and social media post about this,” said Michael Bobbitt, artistic director at the New Repertory Theatre in Watertown. “Now we won’t have that relief, which I think helps perpetuate hysteria.”
Peter DiMuro runs the Dance Complex in Cambridge and has his own dance theater company. DiMuro said he recalls past difficult crises – the AIDS crisis, the September 11 terror attacks, the 2008 recession – and he worries that people will look for short-term fixes, but forget about the arts in the long term. DiMuro said he knows that some artists and small businesses will take years to recoup the financial losses, and others will not survive at all.“I fear the world will go back to its very capitalistic ways and say art is unnecessary, when we know … the arts are a saving grace in these times,” DiMuro said. “We need to not let them perish and have to rebuild up again.”