Local Arts Leaders Connect With Audiences During COVID-19

Arts leaders balance finances, safety protocols, and the public’s trust in order to reconnect with live audiences.

Cincinnati’s arts and cultural scene was humming along in early spring, with a full slate of concerts, plays, exhibits, and recitals. Anticipation was building for outdoor summer festivals, Riverbend shows, and Cincinnati Opera’s 100th anniversary season. And then…. “We cut the ribbon on the traveling Maya: The Exhibition show on March 13 at 10 a.m., and we closed Union Terminal to the public at 4,” recalls Elizabeth Pierce, Cincinnati Museum Center president and CEO. “It sat there for months beautifully displayed, waiting for people to come see it.”

Illustration by Jason Solo

Ensemble Theatre opened its regional premiere drama Pipeline March 11, and The Carnegie debuted its spring art show the evening of March 13. With state-mandated crowd-size restrictions and then complete shutdown orders in Ohio and Kentucky, everything soon came to a halt.

What we at first hoped would be a blip in our lives, of course, turned into a heartbreaking string of cancellations and closures: the May Festival; the Opera; the remaining concert seasons; museums and galleries of every size; neighborhood arts centers; and finally all summer activities involving a live audience. And interacting with live audiences is the primary reason these organizations exist, as well as a major source of revenue. “The Cincinnati Playhouse’s income in general is 70 percent from ticket sales and 30 percent from donations,” says Artistic Director Blake Robison. “COVID-19 happens, and you watch 70 percent of your revenue disappear practically overnight. That can be catastrophic for arts organizations.”

Especially arts organizations that entered the shutdown in wobbly financial shape. Fortunately, Cincinnati consumers and donors have supported arts and cultural institutions strongly over the years, and in general the major ones are in decent financial position to weather the pandemic storm. “We came into this crisis with more resiliency than a lot of orchestras,” says Cincinnati Symphony President Jonathan Martin. “After 2009, when we were frankly at the precipice financially, our board, funders, and musicians worked to rebuild a prudent foundation to guide us forward, and it’s served us well in the current circumstances. Some U.S. orchestras have imposed enormous wage cuts or even shut down.”

Pierce guided the Museum Center through its major renovation, funded in part by Hamilton County’s sales tax, and invested in more interactive and visitor-friendly attractions, as well as giving the Holocaust & Humanity Center a new home. She and other arts leaders have continued their efforts to be more self-sufficient and less reliant on individual and corporate donations, a mandate Pierce often heard during contentious debates over taxpayer funding. “The irony is that right now if you don’t have some sort of balance between ticket revenue and contributions, you’re in trouble,” she says. “So the organizations that can rely on an endowment and can shift to virtual content, plus federal Paycheck Protection Program dollars and maybe rent forgiveness, are going to be in better shape.”

Museums reopened over the summer, while live performance seasons have been pushed back to late fall or the spring. Budgets have been slashed, public spaces sanitized, and social distancing protocols put in place. Overriding all of the prep work, though, is the great unknown of how many paying customers will come back right away. There’s a lot at stake, given that 225 nonprofit arts organizations employ more than 10,000 people in the 15-county Greater Cincinnati region, according to ArtsWave. The creative economy—including the arts and culture as well as advertising, design, and the media—generates $6.1 billion annually in this area, reports Ohio Citizens for the Arts.

Every arts organization spent the summer discussing two related topics: How do we get through this financial hit, and how do we stay engaged with our loyal audiences and donors? The answers were hunker down and virtual programming, respectively, and there wasn’t a roadmap for either one. “The PPP loan was helpful to allow us to keep museum staff through the end of June, but we laid off a large number as of July 1,” says Pierce. “Thankfully, we were able to access endowment dollars to help us pay the bills and keep a skeleton staff.”

“Fortunately the Playhouse has broad shoulders and funding reserves, and with a lot of judicious cutting we’re going to be OK in the long run,” says Robison. “For the new season, our plan is to sell 35 percent of the seats in each theater [due to social distancing] and maybe grow that to 60 percent by spring, if we’re lucky. But our budget is now $9 million, down from the original $13 million, an extraordinary jump for any nonprofit to take in one season.”

The same balancing act has been a challenge for smaller arts groups, which generally have fewer “broad shoulder” resources to fall back on. Kim Best, executive director of The Carnegie, says she and her board faced a difficult choice after the shutdown—do they close for the short term and simply cover maintenance costs, or do they figure out a way to keep serving the Covington community? “It was imperative that, in order to get to the other side, we continue some sort of programming,” Best says. “But we have seven staff members, so we weren’t flush with cash before the shutdown.”

The Carnegie slashed expenses by 35 percent on everything from programming to personnel costs, including furloughs and salary reductions. The organization’s education programs are an important revenue source, and The Carnegie was able to transition its summer camp sessions to a virtual format and salvage most of the camp fees.

“Imagine a machine whose sole purpose is to build live concerts and sell tickets to thousands of people every weekend, and then you have to retask it to build digital content,” says Cincinnati Symphony President Jonathan Martin. “It’s been a real muscle-building experience, no question.”

Arts and cultural groups shifted to digital programming over the summer to temporarily replace the live audience experience and to entertain home-bound families. Some were better-positioned than others to jump into virtual content. “Imagine a machine whose sole purpose is to build live concerts and sell tickets to thousands of people every weekend, and then you have to retask it to build digital content,” says the CSO’s Martin. “It’s been a real muscle-building experience, no question.”

Pierce says science and history curators at both the Museum Center and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which she also oversees, had wanted for years to find ways to connect virtually with the public. “This major shift to online programming has actually opened some opportunities for us that we weren’t focused on before because we were so intent on getting people into our buildings,” she says. “We can take the touch-screen interactive displays we wanted you to play with on-site and put them on your phone and have experts available to do virtual discussions, which really puts us in a good place.”

The Playhouse commissioned online Monologues of Hope from local playwrights, and the Symphony created the online Fanfare Project, short new works from a dozen composers. The Pops live-streamed its annual Fourth of July concert from Music Hall. The Cincy Fringe Festival moved more than 50 events online. The Cincinnati Art Museum, Contemporary Arts Center, Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati Ballet, Behringer-Crawford Museum, The Children’s Theatre, and many other groups offered virtual tours, curator talks, rehearsals, auditions, and classes.

Still, as arts leaders acknowledge, there’s no substitute for performing in front of live audiences or hands-on experiences at museums. So finally, as the Playhouse’s Robison says, “After running all kinds of different scenarios for the fall, you just have to plant your stake in the ground and say, We claim this as our new season. We’ll start here and adjust as necessary.”

The Playhouse, Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, and Ensemble Theatre coordinated delays to their seasons, with the first two kicking off at the holidays and ETC restaging its interrupted production of Pipeline in January. The Symphony and Pops are offering a hybrid of pop-up live performances, digital-only live streaming, and recorded work without audiences, at least through the end of the year. The Museum Center, Freedom Center, Art Museum, Taft Museum, and CAC coordinated reopenings in June and July as the first arts groups to welcome back live patrons.

The Carnegie, meanwhile, moved its theater season back a full year to the spring. It’s hosting a series of “tiny concerts” this fall with local musicians playing to limited 50-person audiences. “We’re willing to do whatever it takes to make things work,” says Best. “I’m the executive director and the cleaning crew. That’s why starting small makes sense.”

“Starting small” is the arts scene’s mantra right now. “It seems prudent to start in a small and manageable way while we all get used to new health and safety protocols,” says the Playhouse’s Robison. “So we’ll start with a one-person Christmas Carol and slowly expand out as we get better at it and everyone builds a new comfort level.”

Arts leaders are confident their health and safety precautions will earn the public’s trust and convince audiences to return. “This is my sixth orchestra, and I can say from my experience that the level of devotion among our customers here is deeper than any orchestra I’ve worked with,” says Martin. “Which is one of the reasons I came here.”

Robison agrees that the trust local patrons have put in Cincinnati’s arts institutions helps immensely in these trying times. “I saw a survey asking people what they needed to see in order to feel comfortable coming back to a live performance, and pretty high on the list of responses was that the venue opens. People trust arts organizations to do the right thing.”

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