Omicron delivered a 1-2 punch to the struggling arts sector. At this rate, will it be OK?
Illinois arts organizations lost, on average, 31% of their revenue to the pandemic in 2021, according to recent data from Arts Alliance Illinois, and they are on pace to match those losses over the first six months of 2022. WGLT surveyed area arts leaders with one main question: Are the arts doing OK?
Before the pandemic, Illinois’ arts and culture sector produced about $30 billion annually — more than agriculture or utilities across the state. As many businesses have begun to rebound, Arts Alliance Illinois Executive Director Claire Rice said the creative sector is still struggling to recover from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The recent omicron variant put added pressure on already stressed arts organizations.
“We’re being hit from all sides at this point: canceled performances, earned revenue losses, increased costs due to COVID mediation, plus the end of federal relief,” Rice said. “That equation spells essentially disaster for our sector.”
Rice said that the data has not yet been divided by geographic region, but she suspects McLean County’s trends mirror those seen across the state.
“People are just making decisions to stay home more often,” she said. “And yes, the climate for vaccine adoption — the climate for engaging in the world in general — is different geographically; but we’re seeing across the state, still, hesitance to come fully back into cultural life.”
The Alliance’s statistics surrounding earned revenue track with numbers reported by the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, which operates in Bloomington and Springfield. Executive director Trevor Orthmann said the ISO’s 2021-22 season tickets are down about 25%.
“Our single ticket sales revolve around our programming, as well as what the current news is on the virus and people feeling safe to come out to a performance,” said Orthmann.
Attendance was down early last fall as the symphony returned to live performances. Numbers rebounded with ISO’s popular holiday show that met or exceeded pre-pandemic sales depending on the location.
“Then the new variant hits and we have concerts at the end of January,” Orthmann said. “Definitely, with cases so high and positivity rates so high, there was a dip in attendance.”
The ISO is still operating in the black, however, having begun the season with a surplus due to government assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program and Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. And while statewide trends indicate added losses from drops in individual giving, ISO has seen an increase in charitable donations.
“With some, it was how well the stock market had done,” Orthmann said, with several donors wanting to make donations for tax benefits. "Some of it was that, but many of them were long-time supporters who are now in a position to give at a much higher level than they ever did.”
A looming question is if or whether the end to the Illinois mask mandate will create more hesitancy, or perhaps will appeal to folks more inclined to attend mask-free events. However, Illinois Symphony, McLean County Arts Center, Illinois Art Station and Coalescence Theatre Project confirmed that they intend to continue requiring masks for the time being.
Coalescence’s #ShePersisted play reading festival, originally scheduled in February, was postponed as a direct result of the omicron variant. The festival, which highlights female, femme-identified non-binary and transgender experiences, will now take place April 29 at the Normal Theater in Uptown. Assistant executive director and festival curator Rachel Hettrick said omicron’s high infection rate could have hamstrung the project, so they chose to delay.
“Because so many of our pieces deal with identity and are multicultural and multiracial, we may not be able to have one understudy for each show,” Hettrick said. “In a lot of shows, you could swing anyone into a role. We have some very specific requirements for some of our roles. So, it isn’t as easy as just putting the next person in.”
While the performing arts — theater, dance and live music — more directly rely on ticket sales to stay afloat, visual art organizations also have found the pandemic challenging.
Foot traffic is down at McLean County Arts Center, and while exhibits are free to the public, memberships, class fees and donations keep the doors open. Executive director Doug Johnson said gallery viewership and artist receptions have been smaller, and class offerings have been reduced.
“That’s reduced our income stream for classes significantly, but that said, it’s very difficult to get into one of our classes because they’ve all been full,” Johnson said.
Memberships are holding steady, for now, but Johnson has noticed fluctuations in individual giving and said in order to sustain themselves, the center needs new members. The center also recently completed a necessary capital project when a portion of the Brandt Gallery’s 115-year-old ceiling came down. The renovation cost nearly $200,000.
“We’ve had very generous members of the community that have helped support that, and that’s terrific because it would have shuttered us if we could not offer a safe space. The end result is we have a more beautiful and interactive space than we’ve ever had, but there are always challenges.”
Illinois Art Station cut the ribbon on its new building near Constitution Trail last fall. As the omicron variant surged this winter, executive director Laura Jaster said participation in children’s art programs actually increased “naturally just because of the weather, but also because we’re doing a better job getting the word out.”
Jaster said it's difficult to know if the pandemic has had a direct impact since the plan has always been to slowly scale up.
“Our capacities will be limited because of COVID — we can’t fill our studios — but we’re brand new, so we’re still getting people to come in general,” Jaster said. “We haven’t had to turn anyone away yet. For us, our biggest COVID worry is that we are so new that we don’t want to have to turn people away.”
To be sure, arts organizations have become more nimble and able to adapt to tremendous uncertainty, but arts leaders worry how long they can keep going without more government aid.
New York and California recently passed legislation to provide continued support to arts and culture workers. In his recent budget address, lauding Illinois’ economic recovery, Gov. J.B. Pritzker did not mention the arts. Despite a $5 billion surplus in Illinois’ COVID-19 relief funding, there is currently no line item for artists or arts organizations.
Arts Alliance Illinois is lobbying for an Illinois Creative Future Fund to provide additional emergency aid in these (hopefully) later stages of the pandemic. But a more existential concern is the overall health of the cultural economy at large.
“People are so tired,” said Rice. “Running an arts organization, being a practicing artist or arts educator — all of these roles for the past two years have been so incredibly challenging. Folks are making other decisions, taking new jobs, leaving the sector and leaving the state. This is what we have to prevent.”