Officials say they can survive until 2021, but after that, they need full theaters - or government intervention.
Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, central Ohio performing arts groups aren’t sure how much longer this show can go on.
They have survived so far by cutting staff and slashing budgets, often moving performances online or outdoors. But nothing can replace the loss of an entire season of touring Broadway performances, or "The Nutcracker," or the Picnic With the Pops concert series — to name a few of 2020’s casualties.
Groups are looking with cautious hope to 2021, but recent interviews with area arts leaders made it clear that unless the pandemic eases greatly — enough for audiences to be allowed to once again pack theaters — some groups will need significant financial intervention to stave off closure.
"I don’t think you can underestimate the impact that this has had," said Sue Porter, executive director of BalletMet, which has lost about $2 million in revenue this year, or more than 25% of its $7 million budget. "The arts have certainly struggled even in good years, and the longer this goes on, the more dire it becomes."
Press Southworth, chief executive officer of Jazz Arts Group of Columbus, went further: "This is a real survival struggle for most of us."
Since May 1, when Gov. Mike DeWine began the state’s phased reopening, the performing acts sector waited patiently for its turn. When it finally came on Aug. 21, though, it was a disappointment.
Southworth’s group is typical of most in that even though theaters now can reopen, it does not make financial sense to put on shows there, given the state’s audience restriction: the lesser of 15% of capacity or 300 people.
For the Jazz Arts Group — which includes the Columbus Jazz Orchestra — that would limit crowds in the Lincoln or Southern theaters to about 90 and 135 people, respectively — not enough to offset the costs of rent, ushers and increased cleaning requirements.
"For us, anything less than 50% capacity does not make sense to have a live audience," said Southworth, adding that his group lost $265,000 in revenue in March and April alone, out of a budget of about $1.85 million.
The biggest loser by far in the pandemic, though, is the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts, which owns the city’s major theaters.
Unlike other groups such as the Columbus Symphony (which has a sizable endowment fund) or BalletMet (which owns a dance academy that can help make up lost performance revenue), CAPA is a presenting group that relies on ticket sales and venue-rental income for 90% of its budget.
CAPA President Chad Whittington said national touring companies are not coming to Columbus — or any other city — unless theaters are allowed to be 75 to 100% full.
He said CAPA has laid off 45 full-time staffers and is "burning through" its $3.5 million in reserves. He said the group will survive this fiscal year, which runs through June 2021, but at that point, if theaters still are not allowed to be full, "it will be a very dire situation."
Any catastrophe that befalls CAPA would have a ripple effect on the region because of its theater ownership and also because CAPA provides back-office management support to several area arts groups, including CATCO, the Columbus Symphony and Opera Columbus.
That is why Whittington and others are signaling that government help may be needed at the same time as they point out that the arts is big business.
A report released in August by the Brookings Institution estimated that the state’s "creative industries" — which include fine and performing arts as well as fashion and film — had shed more than 80,000 jobs and lost $3.3 billion in revenue between April and July.
The most recent losses came at the Wexner Center for the Arts, which this month announced layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts.
"I’ve been saying for awhile that this is a business story," said Angela Meleca, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Ohio Citizens for the Arts. "And so, like most businesses, they cannot survive being closed or on a fraction of its revenue for so long.
"We will be looking at federal, state and local partners to seek financial support to get through to the other side."
To that end, in July, the Save Our Stages Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate. It would authorize Small Business Administration grants to live venue operators, producers or promoters.
There have been a few other glimmers of hope — and even optimism.
During the Great Recession, the Columbus Symphony was forced to shut down for five months in 2008, but Executive Director Denise Rehg said "there is no risk of that happening again" now. She said the group managed to maintain a balanced budget in the 2019-20 fiscal year and has kept all its 44 full-time musicians.
The orchestra, which has organized a series of outdoor concerts, also is one of the very few groups that will perform in front of a live audience in CAPA-owned theaters this fall, when it plans three performances in the Ohio Theatre for the maximum-allowed 300 people. (The performances also will be recorded for streaming.)
"The symphony is refusing to see the glass half-empty," Rehg said.
It has helped that the level of giving from patrons has remained strong — something that other arts leaders said they have experienced through this crisis, as well.
The Shadowbox Live theater company has been working on filming several future streaming performances, but it also is preparing to reopen its theater in the Brewery District soon.
CEO Stacie Boord said the state’s health department has determined that their space falls under restaurant-seating guidelines, meaning it can accommodate 30 percent of capacity. For Shadowbox, that means 92 people, and Boord said that makes it worth doing live performances.
ProMusica Chamber Orchestra has stayed busy as well, recently completing a series of seven outdoor shows.
Most other groups are planning a 2021 return to live shows. But a big question remains: Even if capacity restrictions are eased, when will audiences return in sufficient numbers?
CAPA has been participating in a monthly national survey conducted by AMS Analytics and WolfBrown. On Aug. 19, its patrons were asked how they felt about going out again to cultural events. Of 179 respondents, 16% chose the statement, "not until there is no risk." Twenty-one percent chose, "as soon as it is permitted." Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) chose, "when reasonably confident that risk of transmission is minimal."
That seems to indicate that the health of the arts scene, like so much else in society now, is dependent on development of a vaccine and/or greatly reduced numbers of COVID-19 cases.
Until then, groups will continue to adapt and fight to survive.
"I’ve told the staff, `We’re artists; we’re wired for pain, and we have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,’" Boord said. "It may never go back to the way it was, or maybe not for a very long time."