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Facing smaller revenue streams, NY arts world getting creative

Sarah Taddeo, Maggie Gilroy and John W. Barry
New York State Team

HEAD DECK: Shuttered venues mean less revenue for performing arts groups, museums and other institutions, forcing them to reinvent how they function to survive

For months following COVID-19's arrival in upstate New York, the marquee towering above Geva Theatre Center in Rochester still advertised spring performances of “Once,” a Tony Award-winning musical set in Ireland.

But the lights had dimmed and the doors had closed, as COVID-19 shuttered the theater halfway through the show's run.

Theatergoers were eager to snag tickets to the smash-hit show, only to watch the lights dim and the doors close as COVID-19 shuttered the theater halfway through the show’s run. 

At the same time, Broadway went dark, museums locked doors and countless local bars, restaurants and independent venues cancelled concerts and gigs.

Music, art and performances bring audiences, and audiences mean crowds. Crowds mean the potential spread of COVID-19.

The lack of revenue from audiences — and the lack of grants, government funding and donations — has created a crisis for the New York arts world.

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.

National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a 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 grand program for venue operators, promoters and talent representatives.

“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 Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for the National Independent Venue Association. “We are an economic trigger and multiplier.”

Nearly seven months after shutting down completely, most live performance venues across the state are still closed. In an effort to stay creative and afloat, they’re reinventing what art and performance look like without an in-person audience — and therefore without a typical revenue stream. 

“Theaters were the first things to close and we will be the last things to open,” said Chris Mannelli, Geva’s executive director. The organization gets 70% of its annual funding from earned income, including ticket sales, which meant this year’s closure and cancellations leaves Geva with a 40% loss of income compared to a typical year. Half its staff has been furloughed, while the other half took a pay cut. 

The 48-year-old theater company will reemerge this fall with “Recognition Radio,” a series of four radio plays that amplify the Black experience using a medium that tips the hat to World War II-era radio dramas. Geva will tentatively resume its live theater season next spring.

The cast of '"Once" at Geva Theatre Center.

Museums, though their situation is less dire because they’ve largely reopened across the nation, have cancelled events and cut their capacity by more than half to meet state regulations. The International Council of Museums estimated in May that one out of eight museums around the globe could close as a result of economic hardships related to COVID-19. 

Arts organizations typically rely on a combination of private donations, earned income, government funding and investments to survive. Government funding has decreased in recent years, making it a small piece of the budget pie for most individual organizations.

Facing these headwinds, arts institutions have armed themselves with new ideas to engage patrons and create revenue, in hopes that it’ll be enough to carry them into next year. 

Virtual events won't cover budget shortfalls

The economics of the shutdown, when viewed on a national scale, are staggering. Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations had lost approximately $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, and $11.2 billion in lost audience spending at local businesses.

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.

Arts organizations weathered a financial storm 12 years ago, when the Great Recession brought a steep drop off in consumer spending. But this scenario is different, said Geva’s Mannelli. Never before have modern live performance venues faced a near full halt of the events that make up their business model. 

That factor affected touring, classes, educational programs and performances for groups like Garth Fagan Dance, a small company headed by legendary choreographer Garth Fagan, known for his work on Broadway's rendition of “The Lion King.” 

In the front Kate Shim, 12, of Pittsford and W.D. Ferguson, 10, of Rochester join in a dance routine during the free dance classes offered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by Garth Fagan Dance.

Garth Fagan dancers were preparing for a tour to Los Angeles when the pandemic hit. Immediately afterward, they taught online dance classes, attended by hundreds around the world. They were supported by Paycheck Protection Program funding, and when that ran out, the organization was forced to place them on furlough, said acting Executive Director William J. Ferguson II. 

Most of this year’s performances have been postponed to next year, and the company is working on new opportunities and collaborations with other major arts organizations, which have brought financial success in the past. But for now, even traveling to other states where live performance may be allowed is risky, especially when dancers need to stay healthy to perform.

That’s one reason the art and theater world has pivoted to virtual performances and events in recent months. They’ve seen a boost in audience reach, but most haven’t cracked the code of how to make money with that model. 

The Tri-Cities Opera Company, located in Binghamton, will host a full fall season of virtual events, including a "digital outreach tour” that will feature a filmed version of the children’s opera “Monkey and Francine in the City of Tigers,” by Kamala Sankaram. She also composed “Miranda,” which the company produced in September in a virtual reality format.

'Miranda: A Steam Punk VR Experience,' uses motion capture gear to create a live, virtual reality experience.

All the opera’s fall events, excluding its educational program, will be free. 

“It’s really hard to monetize digital performances and have people receive value, but we’re hoping that by offering good content and having people enjoy and engage with us, that we will hopefully receive better donations or more donations that engender good will in the community,” said company Executive Director John Rozzoni. 

At Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, a virtual presentation on artist Isaac Julien, led by museum director Jonathan Binstock, drew hundreds of viewers from around the world. 

“The MAG was on the radar of over 500 people for this one particular event, so that’s very heartening and really terrific,” Binstock said. “But this thing is there’s zero revenue in that. I have not been able to figure out how to monetize the virtual experience.” 

Concert venues like The Towne Crier Café in Beacon, near Poughkeepsie, can’t operate without full houses, and the impact of the pandemic on the 250-capacity venue has been “devastating,” said owner Phil Ciganer. 

“We’re unable to do what we do,” Ciganer said. “If it keeps up, there may come a time when I have to say, ‘Is it worth it?’”

Another problem is auxiliary revenue that flows into cities and towns when patrons and tourists stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and go shopping. Without live attractions compelling people to leave their homes or take road trips, these businesses will suffer as well.  

“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 Schaefer of NIVA.

A 2013 file photo of Geva Theatre Center during "A Christmas Carol."

Despite this predicament, it’s clear that live performance still has a place in today’s technology-obsessed world, and audiences are looking forward to its return, said Garth Fagan’s Ferguson.  

“When we were sheltering at home, everyone was willing to watch a dance performance on their computer,” he said. “But it’s really hard to get the nuance and the visceral taste that comes with a performance. Those of us who were concerned about whether the internet has rung the bell on the death of live performance — it’s clear that it has not.”

Desperate times call for novel ideas

As income from tickets and admissions dried up, venues and museums turned to traditional fundraising and out-of-the-box thinking to move forward. 

The Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester pushed forward this September with its largest fundraiser, the annual Clothesline Festival, which typically draws hundreds of artists to show and sell their work on the museum’s sprawling lawn. M&T Bank, the event’s presenting sponsor, stepped up to sponsor this year’s online version, which featured 297 artists showcasing their websites. 

The Memorial Art Gallery has turned up the volume on showcasing black art and black artists under the leadership of Jonathan Binstock.

The MAG's upcoming Andy Warhol exhibition, including an installation called “Andy Warhol Portfolios: A Life in Pop,” sponsored by Bank of America and featuring Warhol’s screen-printed imagery, was extended from three months to five months, giving the museum more time to collect revenue from ticket sales. 

Earlier this year, executives realized the institution was facing a $500,000 budget deficit going into a new fiscal year. An urgent fundraising initiative cut that to $100,000, and it’s unclear whether recent efforts will make up for the loss. 

“We’re watching our finances very closely. I’m at the edge of my seat on a daily basis,” said Binstock, museum director. “We’re threading the needle right now. If our need is great, we will respond to the extent necessary.”  

The Strong National Museum of Play

The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, which is open for reservations and walk-ins with limited hours, decided to fill a need felt by many families as fall rolled around — supervision and stimulation for children learning remotely. 

Called the “Strong School Club” and costing parents or guardians $50-55 per day, the museum will offer a supervised, socially distanced learning space with WiFi, breakfast and lunch provided by Foodlink and after-school playtime in the museum. The museum is providing a 75% scholarship for kids who get Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program benefits and would like to attend, said Steve Dubnik, president and CEO. 

The museum also held an two-week event called “Celebrate the Finger Lakes,” which incorporated 4-H projects, animal exhibitions and other elements typically seen at county fairs and the New York State Fair, most of which were cancelled this year. 

“We’re going to look at those types of engagement where we can step into things that aren’t happening in our community,” Dubnik said.