The First Art Newspaper on the Net   Established in 1996 Friday, May 14, 2021


The lost weekend
The stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, Sept. 14, 2020. Without ticket-buying audiences, incomes of cultural organizations have plummeted, creating the worst crisis that New York’s arts community has experienced in living memory, worse than what followed 9/11 or the Great Recession. The losses are staggering. Victor Llorente/The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson, Elizabeth A. Harris and Graham Bowley



NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- The Untold Costs of a Silenced City
Ah, New York. The city where, on this first autumn weekend, song-and-dance man Hugh Jackman will make mischief out of marching bands in Broadway’s “The Music Man”; reigning diva Anna Netrebko will pine stirringly as Aida for the Metropolitan Opera; and the chameleonic rocker Nick Cave will command the stage with the Bad Seeds at Barclays Center.

The whole world seems to be here: Acts from Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon are expected to join an Arabic music festival at Joe’s Pub. In Midtown, parties and performances herald the long-awaited opening of a new $60 million home for the Irish Arts Center. And in Fort Greene, the reimagined Next Wave Festival is drawing adventurous artists from around the globe to BAM.

Plus, oh yes: Josh Groban is playing Radio City Music Hall. Billy Joel returns to Madison Square Garden. And, for those willing to venture across the mighty Hudson, Justin Bieber is at MetLife Stadium.

That’s not hypothetical. That’s the actual arts calendar for this weekend, Sept. 25 to 27, 2020.

Or at least, it was.

The coronavirus pandemic has shredded the schedule, silencing New York’s stages, from Broadway to the ballet. It cost the city more than 20,000 lives, over 150,000 fine and performing arts jobs, and billions of dollars in economic activity; it has endangered projects and careers and institutions.

Now Jackman is taking online dance classes. Groban is preparing a virtual concert series. Netrebko is being treated for COVID-19.

Even as culture vultures return to museums, students to schools, and diners to restaurants, the performing arts remain indefinitely dark.

There are exceptions, of course — small outdoor ventures in parks, on streets, at gardens. And there is streaming — so much streaming.

But this is the moment when, each year, the city’s cultural life begins anew, with excitement and energy but also with so many elements that now seem impossible: casts and crews jostling for space in boisterous dressing rooms and crammed backstage warrens; singers and musicians projecting respiratory droplets; crowds of strangers packed cheek by jowl in tight venues, all breathing the same air for hours at a time.

What happens when the performances pause, seasons are suspended, and stages go dark? With this one lost weekend as our lens, we look at the toll the shutdown is taking: on the city, on cultural organizations, and on the people who make their lives, and earn their livelihoods, in the performing arts.

A Crisis for New York City’s Heart — and Wallet
In many ways, the city’s pulsing cultural scene, big and small, rich and struggling, scrappy and refined, makes New York what it is. It’s why we live here, or why we visit. The arts entertain us, provoke us, inform us, inspire us.

They’re also an engine that drives the city’s economy.

Before the pandemic, New York State’s arts and cultural sector contributed $120 billion to the state’s economy, or 7.5% of its economic output, and employed nearly half a million people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

“The arts are essential to the city’s identity, economy and quality of life,” said Kate D. Levin, a former city cultural affairs commissioner who now heads the arts program at Bloomberg Philanthropies.

When the pandemic hit, those cultural engines abruptly stopped. Across the city, concerts were postponed and museums locked their doors. On Broadway, the lights went out.

Without ticket-buying audiences, incomes of cultural organizations have plummeted, creating the worst crisis that New York’s arts community has experienced in living memory, worse than what followed 9/11 or the Great Recession. The losses are staggering.

In just four months following the shutdown, about $27.9 billion in sales “just disappeared,” according to Michael Seman, an assistant professor of arts management at Colorado State University.

The city feels this not just in its heart, but in its wallet. Taxable revenue from performing arts companies fell 85% this spring compared with 2019, dropping from $25.2 million to just $3.8 million. That’s among the steepest drops of any New York industry, according to the Center for an Urban Future.

Another measure: Playbill normally prints 1.75 million programs each month for distribution in New York. Today, that number is zero.

For many New York cultural organizations, there are now existential challenges: 10% are not sure they will survive, according to a survey by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the arts and arts education.

A Brookings Institution report, written by Seman and Richard Florida, estimates nationwide losses for the creative industries to be $150 billion, on everything from tickets and concert merchandise to paintings and music lessons, with New York the hardest-hit metropolitan area.

The economic benefits of arts and culture extend far beyond ticket sales and taxes. Tourists, drawn here for Broadway or dance or gallery-hopping, also stay in hotels, take cabs and shop. There are the restaurants and bars that depend on Broadway audiences; the food carts outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the parking lots near Lincoln Center.

“Without the arts, New York City is not sustainable,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. “Without the arts, New York City is not as attractive a place to live. And without the arts, there’s very little reason to visit.”

And then there’s the halo effect. “It’s not just the hotel visits, it’s ‘I went to a part of the city I wouldn’t have otherwise come to,’” Levin said. “It’s the kids attracted to come here for college, even if they’re studying neuroscience, because there’s a jazz club down the street. That’s all real.”

And all of that, right now, is at stake.

As other industries in peril, like restaurants, reopen and struggle toward some kind of recovery, theaters, clubs and concert halls have yet to find a path forward. The large, indoor gatherings they rely on are likely to be among the last forms of activity to resume when the pandemic eases.

“The road to recovery will likely be longer for the performing arts, in particular, than any other part of the city’s economy,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director of the Center for an Urban Future. “For most New York industries, quarantine resulted in a long pause. But for the performing arts, it’s become a deep freeze with no thaw in sight.”

Jobs That (Used to) Pay the Rent
New York has long been a magnet for aspiring artists, some of whom make it big, and many of whom struggle.

Before the pandemic, the city boasted 280,000 jobs in the fine and performing arts — a number that encompassed actors and musicians, but also costume designers and lighting technicians. Between April and July, 153,000 of those jobs disappeared, according to the Brookings report.

The true impact is even worse, though, because many artists make ends meet with side jobs — art handler, fitness instructor, waiter — in industries that are also suffering.

“What’s really horrible about this is that one person can have several creative jobs,” said Seman, one of the authors of the Brookings report. “You have someone who is a musician in a touring band, and they lost their tour. At the same time, maybe she’s working as a bartender in a music venue; well she lost that job, too. She may also do sound editing for film, and now that film that would have been shot during the summer has been pushed off indefinitely, so that’s another job. It’s crisis level for creative occupations within the city because it’s all so intertwined.”

Americans for the Arts estimated that nationally the unemployment rate for creative workers is 63%. But it’s hitting some more than others.

“Black, Indigenous and artists of color have higher rates of unemployment than white artists due to the pandemic,” a report by the organization said. “They also expect to lose a larger percentage of their income.”

Broadway, the beating heart of New York culture, and the place where theater artists are most likely to make a good living, is already six months into the longest shutdown in its history. The loss is palpable in the empty streets around Times Square. The industry employed roughly 10,000 people directly, and claims to support a total of 97,000 jobs across the city; overall it contributed $14.7 billion annually to the city economy — almost all of that now gone.




The most visibly affected are performers. Actors’ Equity, the union representing theater actors and stage managers, had 1,100 members working on Broadway, on minimum weekly salaries of $2,200, when the crisis hit and the industry shut down. Off-Broadway, it had members working on about another 50 shows, where they earned minimum salaries ranging from $650 to $1,600.

Without these jobs, its members have been tossed into a tenuous new life, seeking work elsewhere, if they can find it, as health insurance slips away and a crucial lifeline provided by a $600-a-week federal supplement to unemployment benefits has expired.

“There is only so long that people can live without income,” Mary McColl, executive director of Actors’ Equity, said. “I think it’s possible that the industry will lose really talented people out of necessity because they need to support their families.”

Shortly after the crisis struck, Actors’ Equity gave $750,000 to the Actors Fund, for unemployed actors and stage managers to draw on for claims of $1,000 each. The fund was emptied within three weeks.

Freelance workers have been hit especially hard. Theresa Buchheister, who runs a theater company in Brooklyn called Title:Point, had to permanently close the company’s home venue because they could no longer afford the rent. Buchheister, who also manages the Brick, has helped artists whose shows were canceled turn to the streaming platform Twitch to perform and raise money.

“A lot of people are going through a deep existential crisis,” said Buchheister, who cites the $100 a week some can now earn for an online show as a lifeline, especially for those who have side jobs in the hospitality industry.

Initially, many organizations were able to retain employees with support from the Paycheck Protection Program or grants from groups like the National Endowment for the Arts. Smaller groups, however, struggled to access the paycheck program, and when the grants ran out, the bleeding continued.

Even dancers at New York City Ballet, who have among the most sought after jobs in the global dance world, are struggling. Separate from the institution, the dancers created a website asking for donations to help with “housing and other basic necessities.”

‘More Than a Pause Button’
Picture the performing arts in New York, and you might think of big names: Broadway, Radio City Music Hall and Lincoln Center.

But there are hundreds of other arts organizations throughout the five boroughs, a fertile creative ecosystem from which great art bubbles up.

A 2017 University of Pennsylvania study identified about 4,700 nonprofit cultural programs in New York, and there are some 1,400 nonprofits that apply for funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs each year.

The theater landscape is particularly rich: In a 2019 study, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment found that 748 small theater venues and organizations operating off- and off-off-Broadway created $1.3 billion in economic output and more than 8,400 full-time jobs.

Forced to shut their doors, organizations at every level have suffered.

“I fear that this is more than a pause button,” said Dvorkin, of the Center for an Urban Future. “There is a radical reshaping in New York, and some of the impact is on the arts.”

Midsize organizations are thought to be particularly vulnerable. “I’m not optimistic,” Steven A. Wolff, the founding principal of AMS Planning & Research, said of the performing arts. “The middle will suffer the biggest contraction, but I think overall we’re going to see a reduction in the scale of every single institution.”

For example: The American Ballet Theater projects about $20 million in lost revenue as a result of canceling six tours and two full seasons. Martha Graham Dance Company saw its annual budget shrink from about $6 million to about $3.5 million. The Secret Theater, a small venue in Long Island City, has closed for good.

Arts administrators have had to redraw their business strategies, drastically recalculating how much of their revenue comes from so-called “earned” sources, like ticket sales or classes, versus donor contributions. At Mark Morris Dance Group, those proportions have flipped: Before the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of the company’s revenue was “earned.” Now, nearly two-thirds is expected to come from philanthropy and government grants, while the overall operating budget has fallen from $9.7 million two years ago to $6.8 million this year.

Among the largest, name-brand institutions, the losses are enormous, but those places also tend to have cushions smaller groups lack, like endowments and wealthy board members who can help prop them up.

The Metropolitan Opera, which will not reopen until next year, says it will lose $155 million in revenue from cancellations of shows that would have been lighting up the city’s cultural stage, like “Aida” and “La Traviata.” It has furloughed roughly 1,000 members of its staff. But gifts from donors have helped it weather the crisis, as have online programs like “Met Stars Live in Concert” that have brought in money and audiences even as its physical doors remain closed to the public.

Even Broadway is worried. About one-fifth of its audience comes from abroad, and it is likely to take some time before tourists from around the country and the world will once again feel comfortable visiting New York. “We know we are going to lose at least 20% of our business because international will take some time to come back,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League.

As with so much in New York, the challenges here can come down to real estate. For arts organizations with rent or a mortgage to pay, the disappearance of revenue has been devastating.

The Barrow Group, a nonprofit theater organization in Manhattan, first furloughed and then laid off staff. Despite $250,000 in Paycheck Protection Program funds, a one-off $325,000 donation and some continuing revenue from online performance classes, it recently decided to give up its 12,000-square-foot space.

“It’s been epic,” Robert Serrell, executive director, said of the struggle to keep going.

Manhattan’s Chain Theater has also been unable to pay rent, utility bills, or its three full-time and seven part-time staff members. The nonprofit is among about 250 seeking rent relief with the help of the League of Independent Theater. If they don’t get it, at least 60% of the league’s members believe they will close, said Christina Perry, an actor and the director of development at the Chain. (Perry herself is now surviving on unemployment benefits.)

“We were really rocking and rolling until COVID hit,” she said. “We have taken a huge hit.”

Some groups are hoping for one small bit of relief: that a drop in real estate prices will mean they can eventually replace the spaces they had to give up with cheaper digs.

“The pre-COVID New York was a city that was increasingly out of reach to the average artist,” said Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation. “Now, maybe that will change.”

There are signs of life emerging, at least while the weather holds. The New York Philharmonic has hosted pop-up concerts around the city out of the back of a pickup truck, which it’s calling the NY Phil Bandwagon. Small theater groups like the Team have held socially distant outdoor performances, handing out quinceañera-themed masks at a performance of “Quince” in Bushwick. Lincoln Center hopes it might be able to open a 400-seat socially distant outdoor venue for events like dance and music next year, if the city and state safety guidelines allow for such large gatherings.

Performances streamed online or small ones staged outdoors may keep audiences engaged or even attract new fans, and they can serve as a creative bridge for artists who have spent their lives performing. What they don’t generally do, however, is bring in much money.

“How to monetize physical performances that are socially distanced outdoors, that’s a thing that hasn’t been figured out at all,” said Tom Finkelpearl, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. “That’s the problem with performing arts. They’re highly dependent on earned income, and they can’t earn any income.”

See You Next Fall?
So when will life return to New York’s stages? A few Broadway shows have announced March dates. “The Music Man,” which has just optimistically installed a giant billboard over its new marquee, is aiming for a May opening. But the Metropolitan Opera is delaying performances until next fall. And David Byrne, whose acclaimed “American Utopia” was scheduled to return to Broadway this month, said, “Realistically, I think it’s going to be about a year.”

Workers in the arts, desperate to ply their craft and earn an income, are ever yearning when asked what next fall could look like. “I sure hope I’ll be working,” said Maggie Wrigley, a door person at Mercury Lounge, “and putting on my earplugs in anticipation of a beautiful noise.”

But most striking is how uncertain they are. “In a perfect world, there will be a vaccine that will effectively work, and people will have the good sense to take it, and we can get back to something that resembles what we had,” said Petrina Bromley, a member of the cast of “Come From Away” on Broadway. “But we can never go back to before.”

Many artists are modulating their expectations, sensing that their welfare is simply not a priority. “It’s hard not to feel abandoned by American society as an arts worker,” said Georgina Pazcoguin, a City Ballet soloist.

Some will never return to New York. Some will never return to the performing arts. But many are vowing to hang on, determined to propel this city’s cultural rebound. “I just want to be a part of the group that ushers this world back in, because right now it’s not even on life support,” said Matt Doyle, of the “Company” cast. “It’s dead, and we need to revive it.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company










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