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What Happens to Cities When the Arts Go Dark?

For decades, cities relied on performing arts groups to help drive revitalization. Now nearly every company in the country has been shuttered for months, acting as a drag on local business.

The Opera House in Newberry, S.C., was built back in 1881 but shut down for decades after serving as a movie palace. Since undergoing a $5.5 million renovation during the 1990s, it’s been a prime stop for concerts and touring shows. Its success has led to increased occupancy in nearby housing developments and helped attract employers such as Samsung Electronics and M.M. Technics, a German metal supply company.

“It’s just been a great catalyst,” said Newberry Mayor Foster Senn. “It’s not that easy being a small town, but the Opera House has given us a flagship and been vital to our rebound.”

It’s long been common for mayors and other elected officials to tout the arts as an essential component of their economic development strategies. But it turns out that when the arts fall into depression, they represent a drag on local economies.

Like theaters all over the country, the Newberry Opera House went dark for months due to the coronavirus pandemic. Losing the venue as a draw has hurt neighboring restaurants and other businesses. “It is tough being a downtown shop right now,” Senn said. “These are some difficult days for a lot of them.”

The Newberry Opera House. (Photo: Bill Fitzpatrick)

A recent analysis by the Brookings Institution found that fine and performing arts organizations lost almost 1.4 million jobs and $42.5 billion in sales between April and July alone. That’s 50 percent of the jobs and a quarter of their sales. Things have gotten so bad that the Association of Art Museum Directors has lifted its normal taboo on members selling works to pay for operating expenses.  

Theater and concert sales took less of a nosedive than employment in large part because many patrons were willing to donate the value of their tickets to canceled performances. Some are still buying subscriptions for seasons that may or may not ever happen. However, people won’t keep buying tickets to non-existent shows forever. 

“If theaters can’t come back on a fully functional basis, then that’s actually going to hurt businesses quite a bit,” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres. “That’s all over Chicago. It’s not just about downtown.”

Presenting organizations around the country are hosting countless online events. That may entertain audiences and donors, but they aren’t doing anything to bring people out of their homes to spend money. In normal times, the average patron spends more than $30 on top of any admission price when attending a cultural event, according to Americans for the Arts, an advocacy and research group.

In St. Louis, a group called Grand Center Inc. was started 40 years ago to help revitalize the city’s long-neglected midtown. The 60 arts organizations located on or around Grand Boulevard normally bring in 2 million people a year, not only helping restaurants draw customers, but prompting renewed investment in hotels and apartments.

Over the past six months, however, the number of visitors has dwindled down to almost nothing.

“We employ thousands of people in this district who pay a 1 percent earnings tax,” said Rich Simmons, Grand Center’s executive director. “For those jobs that have been downsized, perhaps permanently, those are taxes that are not going to go to the city.”

Only the Big Survive

The Brookings study found, unsurprisingly, that job losses in the arts have been most severe in New York and Los Angeles. On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Opera — the nation's largest performing arts company — announced that it was canceling its entire season and won't reopen until September 2021 at the earliest.

But the pain has been felt all over. “There are over 100,000 small nonprofit arts organizations around the country,” said Michael Seman, a professor of arts management at Colorado State University and co-author of the Brookings study.

For the past 123 years, the last week of July has meant Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., a “celebration of western roots” (think: rodeo). Over seven days, the event typically draws 250,000 people, who fill hotels, shops and restaurants to capacity. This year, it was canceled due to COVID-19.

“It really is the heartstring of our community,” said Cheyenne Mayor Marian Orr. “It was truly heartbreaking and it was very surreal to have it canceled. This event has survived world wars, it’s survived depressions and recessions and it wasn’t until this pandemic that brought us down and broke the horse.”

The cancellation represented a huge economic hit for the city, but Orr notes that planning is already well underway for next year’s Frontier Days, the 125th anniversary edition. People in the arts world predict that a lot of big events, as well as large organizations such as symphonies and major theater companies, should be able to survive past the pandemic, thanks to deep-pocketed donors. Tiny nonprofits that have always operated on a shoestring may pull through as well. They’re used to not having any money.

 Frontier Days, Cheyenne, Wyoming. (Shutterstock)

But many middle-sized groups — the ones that normally employ about five to 10 people and have overhead to meet — may not make it. “If this continues, I do see the possibility of some of the organizations not being around,” said Simmons, of Grand Center in St. Louis.  

After plummeting in the spring, crowdsourced funding for arts projects has recovered “robustly” and is now higher than it was a year ago at this time, according to Doug Noonan, research director at a cultural affairs center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. But the character of giving has changed, he said.

“The crowd money is funding larger arts projects rather than smaller ones,” he said.

Will Audiences Come Back?

For people wary of the virus, entering an enclosed space and spending hours among hundreds of other people may well be one of the last things they’ll feel comfortable doing. And the arts, for all their value, are inherently an optional activity. 

“There is a hit economically for communities that have been relying on all this spending coming in for their arts events,” Seman said. “That’s not going to change in a meaningful way until sometime in 2021, if all goes well with a vaccine.” 

Noonan counters that, while there’s a lot of talk about “catastrophe” in the arts sector, he believes arts districts will rise from the ashes, in time. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for live performances,” he said. “People really do crave rubbing shoulders and shared experiences.”

Clapp, of the Chicago theater league, is also optimistic about the long-term yearning for theater among those who miss it. Patrons will be ready and willing to attend when they can, she predicts, given precautions such as wearing masks. Already, presentations such as patio concerts or small-scale theater productions presented in parks are filled to capacity, though that's usually limited.

Still, Clapp doesn’t downplay the current challenge. Many of her members have laid off 80 percent of their staffs. “Thousands of people in Chicago are out of work,” she said.

Out of 230 theater companies that belonged to the league when the year began, five have closed for good. Clapp notes that the number is smaller than she would have predicted back in March, if she’d known that everything would go dark for at least six months. 

They'll have to wait more than six months, though. In Chicago, theaters aren’t expected to open until the spring, at the earliest. That means a full year of closures. Not many businesses of any kind can last that long without any real revenue coming in.

Performing arts venues are hoping that the feds will fund more aid to small businesses, but Congress has kept its pandemic checkbook shut for months now. As more presenting organizations close, artists and employees are having to look elsewhere for sustenance. 

“We were a big industry in Chicago,” Clapp said. “It took 50 years to build the industry to where it was. It’s going to take a very long time to build it back.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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