Until Further Notice: The Next Chapter for the Performing Arts in the Continuing US Pandemic

for The Platform
July 2020
By Adrian Ellis and Eric Gershman

The not-for-profit performing arts sector – opera, dance, classical music, theater – is roiled. Joining the turbulence caused by the pandemic there are now demands from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artists and staff alike that management address systemic racism with greater determination and urgency than they have to date.  And many non-executive boards – even those that are generally hands-off – have been drawn by these exigencies into the grey area between governance and operations, their often conservative instincts not well-aligned with the pressures felt from below. Cumulatively, this is creating the most challenging environment in many arts leaders’ professional lives.

Those arts leaders are for the most part open to a fundamental rethink of what they do and how they do it – a constant source of pre-COVID reflection, if not always action. But the sheer pressure of current events does not seem to them to allow the time or space to do so. However, they may, in the event, have quite a lot of time to work through these issues.

While other “non-essential” sectors are beginning to re-open, the performing arts look to be among the last.

Museums are finding ways to reopen assisted by Perspex, Purell, stanchions and copious signage.  The National Gallery of Art opened the ground floor of its main building earlier this week. But for performing arts audiences, all those bottlenecks on the way in and out are tougher to navigate - and for performers there are obvious distancing challenges both on-stage and in the warrens of shared dressing rooms and narrow corridors backstage. The adverse financial impact of reducing seat numbers is formidable. And it is unclear who would show up anyway: surveys of loyal patrons, often older, suggest they will be cautious. The challenges of the ever-morphing intricacies of international and now even interstate travel feel like the final nail. 

We took the temperature with a range of arts leaders across the performing arts, listed at the end of this article. Many are concluding, sit it out:  stay in touch with audiences through the best on-line presence you can muster – and in many cases necessity is the mother of some truly inventive developments in digital creation; and through socially distanced  – usually open-air  – less costly events, often free.  It has taken a while for a generally can-do group to reconcile themselves to this approach. Not knowing when the “next normal” will arrive is nerve-racking and accommodating oneself to the idea that this is the next normal even more so. Absent herd immunity the fate of the sector increasingly looks tied to the availability of an effective vaccine. Current thinking in the industry is March 2021 – eight months hence - but there’s no solid reasoning behind this. Arts managers are whistling in the dark with everyone else as American public health policy unravels in front of them.   

Good should come from arts organizations’ examination of the realities of racism, however uncomfortable the exercise. On the other hand, there will be lasting damage from COVID, and the longer the period of retrenchment, the greater the prospect that even the most careful companies will lose deep reserves of expertise and institutional loyalty. 

But many performing arts organizations can survive as organizational entities in the pandemic-induced nether-world for quite some time.  Staff are, in increasing numbers, being laid off as PPP funds expire, reducing overhead; philanthropic support seems to be holding; and some imaginative large-scale bond-financed programs are being created, led by the Ford Foundation, of which the cultural sector may be a beneficiary. And we should. Not forget nonprofit finance 101: the less you do, the less money you lose. Most not-for-profit arts organizations are loss-making affairs, and the tax exemptions and donations they enjoy are there to balance the books - with the express purpose of providing a public service. Staying closed, so long as you can maintain your contributed income while making a case for your raison d’etre, is less expensive than being open.

So, effectively benched for the foreseeable future, and in a period of deep foment, fluidity, and self-reflection, how should performing arts leaders use their time?  Here are some suggestions from the field:

  1. There are inequities baked into the realities just described: the organizations that are most resilient are also usually the most established and axiomatically the most privileged. If they hunker down and the smaller, often more diverse, organizations meanwhile go to the wall, the sector will emerge even further distanced from its aspirations for inclusivity and diversity. This is a time for broad sectoral – rather than organizational - leadership and for the financially stronger to look out for the weaker. This suggests deep collegiality, local partnerships, sharing resources like back-office functions and chipping away at the distinction that has grown between what have become known as “legacy” institutions and smaller, younger, often more community-oriented arts organizations.
  2. Do the work necessary to address current demands for greater social and racial equity. Move quickly in this once-in-a-generation moment beyond statements to overt processes and agendas that relate to the diversification and equitable treatment and representation of staff and artists. (In management speak, adopt the appropriate Key Performance Indicators and hold yourselves accountable to them.) Board development is equally critical as contributed income will continue to be a primary source of revenue for many in the years to come and extending the voices heard in governance is the only way the imperatives of diversity and finance can be reconciled.
  3. Invest in the immediate neighborhood and embrace the expanded civic role that makes your organization integral to it. Open your doors and become an information hub, a rest area, or a polling station. Don’t be known as “just” an arts organization in a city. Be that city’s arts organization. It may seem counterintuitive to think about an expanded mission at a time of crisis, but most organizations have already expanded the rhetoric of their ambitions to be community anchors. This is a time for reality to catch up, and an opportunity to continue providing the public good as stated in your charter.
  4. If you were planning a closure for capital works, try to accommodate it now. Construction work can proceed where performance can’t, and often on an accelerated time frame.
  5. Embrace on-line performances and the development of a virtual audience not as a stop-gap but as an integral on-going part of the artistic agenda and of audience development. Engage definitively with the idea of artistic work that is conceived and performed for those technologies – and of a quality that warrants some form of sustainable business model. Secure the talent required to do this. Work through the required easements to union agreements. Finally, try to capture and bottle the agility, imagination and humanity that has been required over the past few months – teams de-siloed, shibboleths tested, sacred cows slaughtered – and allow necessity to continue mothering invention.   

This article draws on interviews with Robert Battle, Artistic Director of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; David Devan, General Director and President of Opera Philadelphia; Perryn Leech, Managing Director of Houston Grand Opera; Michael Maso, Managing Director of Huntington Theatre Company; Stephanie Ybarra, Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage; and Harold Wolpert, Executive Director of Signature Theatre.

Adrian Ellis is a Director at AEA Consulting and Chair of the Global Cultural Districts Network. Eric Gershman is a Consultant at AEA Consulting.

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