Local Arts Groups in Turmoil Due to Pandemic

Concerts canceled. Galleries emptied. Fundraisers lost. Over the past eight weeks, it is not just small businesses in Lakeland that have lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic. Arts organizations report they have collectively lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket sales, fees for classes, sponsorships, galas and promotional events.

Some have obtained temporary relief through federal Paycheck Protection Program loans, and in some cases the damage has been limited because the shutdown of public facilities began near the end of the 2019-2020 season. However, as their fiscal years conclude in mid-summer, the greatest uncertainties for these organizations are whether government rules and public fearfulness will permit any kind of a season beginning in the fall and whether there will be enough money to resume the performances and the programs.

Alex Rich

Perhaps the biggest single loss for any local arts organization was suffered by the Polk Museum of Art at Florida Southern College, which canceled Mayfaire, its annual arts and crafts show on Lake Morton, which would have taken place this past weekend. Canceling the show was “a big deal,” said Alex Rich, executive director and chief curator of the museum.

“We’ve had several hundred thousand dollars in lost revenue over the course of the time we’ve been closed. About 70,000 people attend (Mayfaire) each year. It’s something everyone looks forward to. It was a huge loss,” he said.

Other organizations report losses that represent a significant part of their annual budgets.

Handout photo Amy Wiggins

Amy Wiggins, executive director of the Imperial Symphony Orchestra, said her organization had to cancel one major concert, and has for now rescheduled a pops concert and its annual Cookie Concert for kids. She estimates that the orchestra lost $12,000 to $15,000 in tickets sales and another $25,000 in unfilled sponsorships this spring.

Wiggins also said the orchestra normally carries $90,000 in season ticket sales for the next season into the new fiscal year.

“That’s what takes us through the summer. But our campaign for subscriptions came to a halt,” she said. “Some people are renewing their tickets no matter what. We just haven’t been able to do marketing.”

Alan Reynolds

Alan Reynolds, artistic managing director of the Lakeland Community Theatre, said two Main Stage productions were canceled as well as a children’s show and one by the Out of the Box special needs troupe. He estimates the company lost $28,000 in the first few weeks and will likely end the year about $50,000 in the red after 10 years of ending its seasons in the black.

“Less than half our revenue comes from ticket sales. Most is from sponsorships and grants. But now is when we usually get our sponsorships (for next year),” he said. “Our development director has been on the phone.”

Jermaine Thornton

Jermaine Thornton, co-artistic director and director of development for the Florida Dance Theatre, said his company canceled four performances but has suffered greatly from the loss of revenue brought in by its dance academy, which had about 80 students before the shutdown.

“I haven’t had a chance to calculate the total loss, but just canceling half our academy tuition cost us $25,000 to $30,000. Our summer camps usually bring in $7,000 to $10,000,” he said.

Pierre DuCharme Kerry Falwell

The chief executive officer of Explorations V Children’s Museum, Kerry Falwell, said it lost about $58,000 in the first 30 days of the shutdown, mostly from the absence of admission fees and a canceled fundraising event, which she called “a heavy blow.”

The Paycheck Protection Program loans have provided some help to Lakeland Community Theatre, which received $35,000, and Explorations V, which received $75,000. In addition, Explorations V received a $10,000 grant from the joint United Way/GiveWell Community Foundation’s United Community Relief Fund, which is being used to underwrite child care for essential workers.

Another local source of support may be in jeopardy as well. The Mayor’s Council for the Arts administers $250,000 in city funds that is doled out to local organizations as grants. However, with the city anticipating a loss of revenue, the fate of the fund is unknown. Falwell, who is co-chair of the council, said council leaders are currently gathering information about financial impacts that will be presented at some point to the City Commission.

In the meantime, many of the organizations are trying to find ways of bringing art directly to people, albeit without receiving much in the way of revenue in return.

Falwell said Explorations V has found ways to continue its mission through digital outreach, reproducing programs that are normally conducted in person. She admitted that plans had been in the works to create digital programs but the pandemic forced the museum to move ahead with the effort.

“We are putting about 70 percent of our programs online, either on Facebook Live or pre-recorded videos on our website,” she said. “Our most popular is story time, which we do in English and Spanish. We have a cooking program that’s really lovely and has educational aspects, such as making measurements. We have science programs. We do a lot.”

Other organizations also are trying to carry on in digital form. Thornton said the Florida Dance Theatre has been offering virtual classes and will conduct its summer “intensive” classes the same way, but has not charged tuition for them.

“A lot of families have lost jobs, so we do the classes on a donation basis,” he said.

Even so, only about 10 students are taking the classes, he said.

Nate Fleming

Lkld Live, a nonprofit venue that hosts concerts and comedy shows, has been hosting virtual events, but with the income on a donation basis, “they don’t make nearly as much,” said Nate Fleming, executive director.

“Usually we make enough to cover our rent. A Swan City Improv show will bring about $2,000 per night. We’d pack in 150 to 180 people. Donations, we get about $100,” he said.

Fleming said Lkld Live now has full broadcast capability and is planning to pre-record shows or stream them live, charging a “small amount” to viewers.

The Polk Theatre has adopted a similar approach to showing independent and offbeat films, offering online links for a pay-per-view cost.

Arts organizations historically have had to fight for funds to stay alive. Reynolds joked, “The theater has been dying for hundreds of years.”

But local arts leaders are clearly worried that there may be long-lasting or permanent damage to their organizations. Although none report having to lay off staff yet, Imperial Symphony musicians – who are paid per performance – have already lost compensation.

The uncertainty may be worse for performing arts groups, given their need for an audience and the prospect that social distancing rules may still be in effect in the fall. It is also a matter of people being afraid to gather in large numbers.

The Imperial Symphony, Florida Dance Theatre and Lakeland Community Theatre do not have their own performance spaces. The orchestra rents the Youkey Theatre and Florida Southern College’s Branscomb Auditorium. Florida Dance Theatre is the resident company at Branscomb Auditorium, and Lakeland Community Theatre performs at the city-owned Lake Mirror Center. So they are dependent on decisions by the City Commission and college administration whether those venues will reopen.

“If musicians have to stay six feet apart, I’m going to need a stage that’s quite a bit larger,” Wiggins said ruefully. “I just don’t have a finger on what happens next. We had planned some smaller concerts and a chamber music series. I’m optimistic we might be able to keep pace with what musicians, audiences and government are comfortable with.”

Despite the anxiety, arts leaders are trying to strike a hopeful note.

Reynolds, noting that actors can’t perform while wearing masks, said, “We’re working on a plan to get slowly started back. I think we’ll be OK. We’ll start with some stage reads, then move into plays. We’re not going to open with a big musical.”

Thornton said the Florida Dance Theatre has developed three options for the upcoming season, depending on the size of the allowed performing space, and may give more informal performances.

“Honestly, although everything seems grim, the best thing to do is to plan and remain hopeful. I told the staff if we focus on the negative, we’re going to operate in the negative and not put our best foot forward,” he said.

The Polk Museum may be able to resume normal operation sooner since it is easier to observe social distance rules in its space. Rich said he and his staff are trying to reshuffle the schedule of exhibitions, including keeping up through the summer “Music and Dance in Painting of the Dutch Golden Age,” a collection of 27 works that had been popular for the five weeks it was on display before the shutdown.

“I can’t say when we’ll open. There are so many considerations. We do want to make sure we are a safe environment. But we are in the deep planning stages for when we reopen,” he said.

A recent order from Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed museums to open at 25% of normal capacity with the approval of local government.

Wiggins noted that the task of arts organizations is to bring people together for a shared experience.

“Our role is ultimately to inspire. It’s part of our DNA to be positive and hopeful and creative about the things we do have rather than the things we don’t have,” she said.

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