Construction After Covid: What's Next for Performing Arts Buildings?

for The Platform
April 2021
By Eric Gershman

Over the course of the pandemic, performing arts producers and presenters have been the hardest hit among cultural institutions due to the challenge of maintaining social distancing throughout front- and back-of-house spaces. Even as countries continue to ease regulations, many open-air venues are being restricted to less than 50% capacity, providing additional burdens on an already fragile business model.

Although the pandemic depressed on-stage production, construction continues on many new and/or renovated performing arts facilities. These projects are being adapted in recognition of both the physical constraints and social changes brought on by the pandemic; however the potential benefits of these changes go well beyond traditional health and safety concerns. The discussion around these infrastructure projects is also based on organizational purpose and how arts companies can use their new facilities to attract audiences, engage communities, and serve artists better in a post-pandemic world.

What's Changing?

Safety is the low-hanging fruit, with everything from easy-to-clean materials to upgraded air filtration systems – MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) and ACPH (air changes per hour) have joined the lexicon of performing arts administrators worldwide – being discussed and analyzed. Of note is the greater attention paid to audience circulation patterns in order to allow for continued social distancing without exponentially increasing building square footage. The use of multiple entrances as well as auxiliary outdoor queuing spaces are regularly being discussed as ways to keep patrons as far apart as possible.

Most performing arts organizations pivoted to fly some sort of digital flag during the pandemic. Even though live performances have begun to return, the digital capture and distribution of content is here to stay, as evidenced by some arts organizations’ investments in streaming platforms as well as the expanded reach of digital programming well beyond home communities.

In recognition of these digital strides, arts construction projects are laying digital pipes from the start (e.g., Arts Common’s partnership with Canon and the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth’s plans for its $70 million renovation). These include larger than normal cable troughs, easy to access loading docks for recording vehicles, and fiber-optic internet runs. These base-level amenities will allow organizations to easily transform their in-person facility into a digital studio without being hampered with even more significant investments in camera, recording, and distribution technology.

Connection to community became paramount at the pandemic’s outset when performing arts organizations struggled to find their raison d’etre. Although performances were prohibited, venues with ample front-of-house space and other amenities could, by virtue of their location, provide benefits to the public unrelated to a 7pm curtain. Airy lobbies, glass facades, public restrooms, and more are being included in designs to build spaces that can act as both community center and performance venue. The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, NY and the Huntington Theatre in Boston both recently announced construction projects that serve to bolster artistic production while furthering community access.

These building adjustments speak to a wider trend among arts organizations trying to have a greater impact on, and role within, their communities. These projects are intended for companies to do more good, be more present, and be more representative of their general public. If/when the next pandemic hits, these organizations want to be both relevant and useful to their communities.

What's Next?

The next generation of performing arts facilities may be the safest, most technologically advanced, and most inviting homes for art, but what real opportunities will these changes have for programming, business models, and bottom lines?

Changes to the Art Itself

  • Artists may be inspired to use these new buildings to create performance pieces that better incorporate technology, multiple indoor spaces, and exterior spaces. If built with enough flexibility and creativity, new facilities will allow performers and designers the freedom to think outside the traditional stage box and more in line with other popular “immersive” productions.

Expanded Production Models

  • Standalone in-person and digital productions will continue, but hybrid productions (e.g., simultaneous in-person and digital attendance) will be developed at previously unheard of production levels. Online experiences may offer a different view of the performance than those in person and may encourage “repeat attendance” for those wishing to experience every angle.
  • Technological advancements in lighting and sound will allow for more flexible program models that incorporate different levels of production on a more frequent basis. The symphony may perform one evening, followed by a film screening, followed by a rock concert. While final program choices will defer back to mission, the opportunity will exist to fill these halls more often with diverse content.
  • Season structures may adjust to allow for fewer (but more resourced) in-person productions while diverting other shows to digital. This would offer a full calendar of programming to more people with scaled down expense levels.
  • Facilities with digital “pipes” may rent facilities during times (e.g., overnight and mornings) that do not impact the primary company’s operations. Peer organizations that do not yet have the ability to capture and distribute content may wish to use these facilities for everything from full productions, to arts education assets, to board meetings.

New Funding Models

  • Organizations may continue to provide subsidized venue rentals to local and/or BIPOC arts organizations. These rental rates may ultimately be below the pre-pandemic market rate and, in time, shift a portion of rental revenue into contributed revenue, creating a need for additional financial and in-kind support.
  • Hybrid and digital productions have yet to provide an earned revenue model that is consistent or near the levels of in-person performances. Indeed, the most successful examples are more contributed revenue-based than earned income, and thus the line will continue to blur between these two revenue columns.
  • Arts facility construction projects now often result in a full 3D-rendered, virtual reality model to determine certain architectural choices as well as serving as a tool with donors and stakeholders. These digital assets may continue to be used in a number of ways post-opening, but especially by organizations seeking a “digital” home. This would result in a separate virtual venue rental model. A small chamber orchestra, for example, could rent a virtual model of the new David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center, providing a professional backdrop and level of familiarity to digital performances.

This article draws on conversations with Mary Lou Aleskie, director of Hopkins Center for the Arts; Alex Coulombe, creative director and co-founder of Agile Lens: Immersive Design; Josh Dachs, principal-in-charge at Fisher Dachs Associates; Anna Glover, director of theater safety and occupational health at the Yale School of Drama; Stephen Jolly, head of cultural sector at Buro Happold; Kate Liberman, managing director of Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival; Michael Maso, managing director of Huntington Theatre; Alex Sarian, president and CEO of Arts Commons; and Harold Wolpert, executive director of Signature Theatre.

Eric Gershman is a Senior Consultant at AEA Consulting.

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