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Arts in the Time of Covid

(photo credit: Oscar Keys)
(photo credit: Oscar Keys)
(photo credit: Oscar Keys)

For those in the Westchester arts industry, the clock has not been their own. Each ticking minute means lost revenue. More than ever, during the time of COVID-19, this revenue, or loss of it, can determine the fate of an organization—its survival or demise. New York State’s “Phase 4” goalpost for the reopening of “arts and entertainment” has come and gone, but significant limitations emerged in its place, dashing the expectations of the cultural community.

When their scheduled seasons were canceled in March, arts organizations hastened to work on alternate plans. With their fingers hovering over the imaginary “play” button, they anxiously awaited Phase 4, which they expected would allow them to open their doors, welcome audiences and begin to recoup revenue. However, these plans were diminished when unexpected restrictions prevented these organizations from moving forward. While understanding the caution that is driving the decision to keep theaters closed, they still continue to prepare for the eventual reopening. “A crystal ball would come in handy right about now,”sighs Judy Exton, Director of Development at Jacob Burns Film Center (JBFC). “We keep revising our timeline, but it’s been a moving target.”

Best Laid Plans Come Undone

Although galleries and museums were allowed to reopen (with limited capacity), indoor performances and movies were completely restricted and outdoor events were capped at 50 people.  “We expected to open in Phase 4, but at the last moment, movie theaters were pulled from the list of businesses eligible to open,” explained, Laura deBuys, Executive Director of The Picture House (TPH).  She continues: “52 percent of our revenue each year is earned through ticket sales, concessions, rentals, school residencies and on-screen advertising, so the closure has erased all of those revenue streams.”

The Picture House is not alone. Being closed for nearly six months has resulted in a complete halt in revenue streams at most other arts organizations as well. “Ticket sales are a huge part of our annual budget…and with no performances, there are no ticket sales,” explains Kathleen Davisson, General Manager at White Plains Performing Arts Center (WPPAC).  Exton echoes Davisson’s frustration: “Since March 13, we’ve had practically no earned income coming in. Ticket sales are gone and membership renewals are down.” 

According to Seth Soloway, Director of Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, “We refunded every single ticket, so we lost all of that revenue. Even when canceling, we still have costs. There’s already money that has gone into things like artist fees, advertising and travel. Those are funds we won’t get back.”

With the strict State-mandated audience restrictions, even groups that diligently planned outdoor events were forced to cancel those events after Phase 4 began.  Says Jazz Forum Arts Executive Director Mark Morganelli: “Though we ardently tried to present our nearly three-dozen annual free summer concerts in Westchester, the concerns surrounding possible transmission of coronavirus has forced us to cancel them for this year.”

Similarly, the Armonk Outdoor Art Show, scheduled for October 3-4, was canceled for the first time in the show’s 59-year history. Executive Director Anne Curran explains: “After weeks of alternate planning…we have had to reconsider based on recently announced New York State guidelines that limit attendance.”

Successful Recovery Relies on Others

While many organizations are providing virtual programming, this solution can only do so much to keep the arts afloat. Says Exton: “[Our virtual programming] doesn’t generate a great deal of income. So we’re not doing it to make up for lost income from ticket sales, but to stay connected to our audience.”  

In order to plan new in-person programming, an organization must depend on the circumstances of others. For one, in order to reopen, the Governor’s office must give the go-ahead.  Even then, a domino effect of uncertainty follows.

For instance, film centers can’t plan a schedule of new movie screenings because, as deBuys describes it, “the calendar of new releases has shifted significantly. Some new films are slated for holiday 2020 openings, while others have moved into 2021.”

Emelin Theatre’s Executive Director Elliot Fox indicates that a significant part of the theater’s programming is for regional schools and families. “This means the challenges that schools face for the coming academic year also affect our programming choices.”

Meanwhile, Katonah Museum of Art (KMA) almost lost the chance to display its major Bisa Butler: Portraits exhibition, which was slated to open just days after lockdown. The exhibition was set to travel to the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) right after its run at KMA. “We knew that our initial closing date wouldn’t have allowed anyone to see the show,” said Executive Director Michael Gitlitz. “But we couldn’t announce that we were extending our dates until AIC rearranged their curatorial schedule and agreed to also push back the show.”

As for WPPAC, even after it reopens, it won’t be able to rely on its usual groups to rent in its space. Davisson explains: “There’s an over-$100,000 hole in our budget just from [rentals]. This also affects the next season because it’s not known yet if those small businesses will survive this shutdown.”


Making Lemonade Out of Lemons 

Despite the unexpected barriers and obstacles brought about by COVID-19, arts organizations remain hopeful, having done their due diligence during the shutdown. They’ve applied for grants, narrowed spending and begun fundraising campaigns. Anything to ensure survival. “We just want to reopen and present live entertainment to our community again,” says Davisson, whose organization, like many others, received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. This small business loan is designed to help businesses keep their workforce employed during the crisis. Even with PPP assistance, groups like JBFC and TPH have still had to lay off or furlough staff members. 

The Emelin Theatre has staff on a “substantially reduced work schedule.” For The Picture House, deBuys says:  “We have had to furlough our projectionists and concessionists. The rest of the team has been working harder than ever finding ways to keep our audiences engaged online.” The Picture House, which is coming up on its centennial, also received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan that will be paid over the next 30 years.  DeBuys is also thankful that several of her grantors rearranged funding timelines in order to get money to grantees more quickly. 

To that point, ArtsWestchester’s Director of Grants Programs, Susan Abbott, explained: “While funds from New York State Council on the Arts were stalled, most organizations were pleased to know that their Westchester County Government supported grants administered by ArtsWestchester would continue to support their organization’s revised plans for 2020-21, including online programming.”

There was one silver lining expressed by all who were consulted for this article. The impactful support of donors, sponsors and community members has been a consistent saving grace for most organizations.  For instance, when JBFC launched its fundraising campaign, an anonymous donor pledged to match up to $100,000 of funds raised.  The momentum from this pledge inspired a generous response from the community. Meanwhile, WPPAC created a memorial fund for founding member Henry G. Miller and reactivated its “Friends of WPPAC” committee. This allowed the center to host a fundraising event over the summer and raise needed funds. In Pelham, local supporters organized an evening of online entertainment that raised money for six of the town’s nonprofits, including The Picture House. “The community support really lifted our spirits more than anything,” explained deBuys.

For arts organizations, survival will rely largely on people’s willingness to return. Many organizations have used their time during lockdown strategically, taking steps to ensure that future visitors will feel safe. “For museums and art, their oxygen is interaction, and the experience is just not the same when you can’t do that. Now that KMA has reopened, we’re just trying to make the museum a safe environment so people feel comfortable coming back.”

A version of this article first appeared in the September issue of ArtsNews, ArtsWestchester’s monthly publication. ArtsNewsis distributed throughout Westchester County. A digital copy is also available at artsw.org/artsnews.

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