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The daily call that 200 arts groups hope will help them survive
The Metropolitan Opera in New York, March 12, 2020. In a sign of the pandemic’s toll, New York’s cultural institutions, large and small, feel compelled to share their woes and tactics in strategy sessions. Vincent Tullo/The New York Times.

by Robin Pogrebin and Michael Paulson



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It’s hard enough to Zoom with your mother.

Imagine being one of the more than 200 arts leaders who for the past month have been getting on the same daily Zoom call seeking comfort, counsel and connection as they try to stave off a raft of institutional failures prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.

More than just a logistical feat, the phone call has become a singular measurement of how worried, desperate and vulnerable cultural organizations have become since the virus hit. And just as notable, how much they are actually acting these days like the “arts community” to which they often aspire.

More typically, New York City’s cultural institutions compete for audiences, donors and attention. Museums rarely interact with performing arts groups. Manhattan cultural behemoths don’t often communicate with their scrappier counterparts in other boroughs.

Yet on these calls, cultural organizations that span the city — some from Museum Mile on Fifth Avenue, others from unheralded blocks in Brooklyn and the Bronx — are trading tips for accessing federal funds, strategies for streaming and thoughts about summer programming. The big fish are helping the small, as they both absorb guidance from local and federal officials who periodically join the conversation.

“The calls have really been a lifeline,” said Ellen Kodadek, the executive and artistic director of Flushing Town Hall, a multidisciplinary arts center in Queens. “It’s been this remarkable, consistent day-to-day way to touch base with one another.”

The rolling gathering is especially concerned about the small, community-based cultural organizations in neighborhoods hardest hit by the virus that are now the most endangered.

Many of them are anxiously tracking the hearings that began last week on New York City's budget, which will outline where cuts because of the coronavirus are likely to hurt arts groups that count on an annual infusion of city support.

“That’s really where the rubber is going to meet the road for culture and the arts — really for all nonprofits — unless we get a stimulus package,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, chairman of the City Council committee that oversees cultural affairs, who said he has been on several of the calls.

“This is an existential threat to the survival of many of these organizations,” he added. “Even the larger ones are really struggling under the weight of what they’re faced with, so it’s very smart for them to gather and remind themselves that they’re not alone and they’re not powerless.”

The calls are led by Taryn Sacramone, executive director of the Queens Theater, and Lucy Sexton, executive director of New Yorkers for Culture & Arts, an advocacy group. They argue that culture employs 400,000 workers and generates $110 billion in economic activity for the city.

“This is a key industry, a key part of our souls, a key part of our economy,” Sexton said. “We’re going to need it.”

The call takes place weekdays at 3 p.m., and lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Some people participate on video. Some simply call in.

At the beginning of each call, everyone is muted, and there is usually a presentation by a working group about some issue facing nonprofits. But they can unmute to ask a question or raise a topic. If they wish to pose a question anonymously, they can send it directly to Sacramone so she can ask.

On Friday, for example, one organization asked whether others had tried charging admission for online programming. That prompted a discussion about revenue potential for streaming content, as well as software recommendations for that purpose.

“When you start to think about 200 people on a call you think, ‘How does that even work?’” Sacramone said. “But a lot of people are just listening and hearing the topics of the day and don’t plan to speak.”

Of course there are interruptions. “We have kids enter the frame all the time, and people asking a question with somebody sitting in their lap,” Sacramone said. “That’s the reality right now.”

But the psychological boost from meeting as a group is empowering, as is the advice being shared on best practices.

When Madaha Kinsey-Lamb, founder and executive director of Mind-Builders Creative Arts Center in the Bronx, fretted on the call over how to give the organization’s dance students a virtual year-end recital, the Metropolitan Opera offered to share its experience with an online gala.

When Kinsey-Lamb wasn’t sure whether its insurance covered a business interruption like COVID-19, Anna Glass, executive director of Dance Theater of Harlem, offered to look the policy over.

“That kind of thing is just wonderful,” said Kinsey-Lamb, whose center provides music, dance, theater, voice and martial arts classes for more than 700 students a year.

There are other examples around the country of arts organizations trying to band together to get through the pandemic. In San Diego, 28 theaters began a joint campaign to ask for community support, while in Chicago, more than 100 theaters decided to collectively raise money for a Chicago Theater Workers Relief Fund.

Shared adversity has forced the organizations to focus on what they have in common — vulnerable financial portfolios in the best of times, often heavily reliant on ticket sales. Now, with performances and exhibitions canceled for the foreseeable future, they are all collectively — indubitably — in full-blown crisis.

“I was concerned before the pandemic,” said Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met.

That opera company, with an annual operating budget of $308 million, is projecting a loss of $60 million, far outpacing the damage anticipated by Flushing Town Hall, which has an operating budget of $2.3 million and is projecting a loss of $250,000.

But the smaller arts groups generally lack the major endowments and deep-pocketed donors who offer some kind of a safety net for the larger institutions. Just last week, the Secret Theater, a for-profit venue in Queens, announced that it would close, as did Shetler Studios & Theaters, a rental facility in Midtown Manhattan.

“This is a crisis that is causing us to have to think about our business model differently and how we serve our community,” said Alec Duffy, founder of Jack, a 50-seat performance space in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. “To be connected and having conversations and sharing ideas with leaders of multimillion-dollar arts organizations — it’s unprecedented.”

At an emotional level, Duffy added, the calls have made this period less isolating. “Before I started getting on the calls, I felt very disconnected,” he said. “It was a relief to hear there were so many people in the theater community experiencing similar questions and crises.”

The participants have broken out into different working groups around specific subject areas, such as insurance, advocacy and data. How to apply for a coronavirus relief loan through the Paycheck Protection Program? What will programming look like for the fall?

“Whether you’re a large zoo or a one-person shop with a 20-seat theater,” Sacramone said, “we’re all asking ourselves these same questions.”

The conversations continue off the calls. “Time and time again somebody is considering an idea and another person in the room has already tried it or is about to try it,” said Alejandra Duque Cifuentes, executive director of Dance/NYC, a service organization. “Coalitions are formed so that resources can be more effectively used.”

For Kinsey-Lamp, the effect of the daily calls has been emotional as well as practical. They affirm, she said, a Desmond Tutu quote that is painted on her center’s wall behind the reception desk: “One day we will wake up and discover we are family.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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