As Dallas arts organizations cope with the pandemic fallout, the focus is on survival — and the future
Local arts groups hope to survive until at least April 29, while assessing how to protect themselves once COVID-19 is gone.
By Michael Granberry
From The Dallas Morning News
This past week produced stunning news in the arts. On Wednesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York projected a total shortfall of $100 million, with the grim expectation of being closed until July.
A day later, the New York Metropolitan Opera — the largest performing-arts organization in the country — announced that it will lay off all union employees, including its musicians and chorus. Total losses? An estimated $60 million.
In the national landscape of arts and culture, those are the biggest fish. So, what effect will the ongoing crush of COVID-19 have on arts companies in Dallas?
“It’s going to be tremendous,” said Jennifer Scripps, director of the city’s Office of Arts and Culture.
Already, Scripps said, she has watched developments she thought she’d never see. The first happened March 13, when the Dallas Museum of Art and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science announced they were closing.
Those two alone, she said, “literally left me speechless.”
For both to go dark overnight, “It’s not just the price of admission,” she said. “It’s parking. It’s membership. It’s ticket revenue for special exhibits. It’s what they spend in cafes.”
But the crash extended well beyond the DMA and Perot. The DMA canceled its annual fundraiser, The Art Ball. The Nasher Sculpture Center postponed until November its Nasher Prize celebration. The Dallas Art Fair put off until October its 12th annual edition, which could have lured 20,000 people.
Broadway is closed at least through April 12, and after staging two performances of the Broadway hit Come From Away, Dallas Summer Musicals postponed the run, hoping to reschedule.
All of that combined, Scripps says, “is tremendous. And those are just the big organizations.”
As for the small ones, “Well,” she said with a sigh, “it could affect their ability to survive.”
David Lozano, the executive artistic director of Cara Mía Theatre, said that, in the short term, he’s hoping the city’s Office of Arts and Culture will “come through with the contracts we’ve signed, despite the fact that some small groups and individual artists have had programming canceled, because of the crisis.”
Funding contracts between cities and small arts groups are common throughout the country.
If the city honors those contracts, Lozano said: “It gives us a lifeline. In our case, that would more than likely take us to the end of the fiscal year. We’re still crunching numbers, and we’ll know more soon, but it’s critical that the Office of Arts and Culture, the city of Dallas and Dallas City Council get behind our arts groups, even though some of our contracted services have been canceled due to the new restrictions.
“If they can provide that funding, then we can continue to pay our artists, keep them healthy and fed and free of worry. And that will help.”
Small groups are, he said, dependent on both city and state funding, because they “don’t have the vast array of donors the large groups have.”
If funding isn’t compromised, “We can hold on for a while,” Lozano says. “If we can make it through the tail end of this bell curve, we hope to be ready to tackle the next step — which is to look at life after this crisis.”
In an effort to reassure smaller groups, Scripps said, “We’re expediting the second of three payments. That’s the one thing we can do — to get the second payment out as soon as possible.”
After the Met announcement, The New York Times labeled the company “the canary in the coal mine,” a chilling description that forewarns of even darker moments to come. Here’s how sudden and dramatic the landscape shifted: On March 10, NBC aired an episode of its hit show, This Is Us, titled “New York, New York, New York.”
The matriarch of the show, struggling with a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, shows up at the Met in New York City to gaze at a painting she first saw as a girl, Portrait of Madame X, by John Singer Sargent. The painting, which Sargent sold to the Met in 1916, was welcoming scores of new visitors, lured by the power of This Is Us.
Three days later — blackout. Scripps, Lozano and Debbie Storey now share the same dread: They’re coping with the suddenness as much as they are the gravity.
Storey, the president and CEO of the AT&T Performing Arts Center, said the one bit of good news is that the city gave arts groups a break by extending its emergency declaration through April 29 — but no longer. That isn’t to say it won’t bleed into May or June or July, but, she said, they needed a boundary.
If it’s longer, well, they’ll prepare for that if it happens. Until then, it’s bad enough. ATTPAC has five resident companies, including the Dallas Opera, which canceled all remaining performances in its current season.
The impact, Storey said, is “going to be significant, to all arts and cultural organizations in the city of Dallas. All nonprofit companies rely on ticket sales and donations to keep the doors open. And obviously, ticket sales are not happening right now. They have essentially stopped. The question is, how long will everything be closed? How many performances will have to be rescheduled? We are focused on rescheduling rather than canceling. If it’s through the end of April, then the impact will be X, but if it’s through the end of May or June or July, then the impact increases exponentially.”
Without a target, Storey said, “We had nothing to shoot for. Now, at least we know: We will be closed through the month of April.”
Storey sent an urgent email to patrons on Friday, saying Congress “is considering a multi-billion-dollar fiscal rescue package to help address the severe economic and job crisis caused by COVID-19. Just as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt included artists and the arts in the WPA programs created to confront the Great Depression, we need to ensure that artists and the arts are part of today’s rescue package as well.”
Storey urged them to “contact your federal lawmakers immediately by using this link.” Undermain Theatre and Ochre House Theatre are among local organizations that have issued the same plea.
Local artists are also seeking funding relief. Darryl Ratcliff, who occasionally contributes to the Arts & Life section of The Dallas Morning News, helped launch the Dallas Artist Relief Fund, an offshoot of Ratcliff’s “Creating Our Future Dallas.” The fund seeks to help “low-income, BIPOC, trans/GNC/NB/Queer artists and freelancers whose livelihoods are being affected by this pandemic in Dallas.” There is also the Fort Worth Artist + Service Worker Relief Fund.
Preparing for the future
As a woman who came to her job after being an executive with AT&T, Storey is already focused on the future. After the threat dissipates, look for the arts companies that survive to burrow in on these key areas:
1) Endowments. Dallas has long been considered a distant second to Houston when it comes to endowments in the arts. The AT&T Performing Arts Center oversees the Moody Fund on behalf of the Moody Foundation, whose $10 million endowment provides grants to the city’s smaller arts organizations. ATTPAC’s own endowment is, Storey said, a third of that. What an endowment is not, Storey said, is a savings account. Most endowments are tied to investments. As the market dips, so too does the endowment. It is not a rainy-day fund. Even so, endowments need to grow.
2) Rainy-day funds. You hear financial advisers say all the time that each individual American needs to have in the bank the equivalent of one year’s income to ward off economic catastrophe. It would be nice, albeit unlikely, Storey said, for a company to raise enough to cover a year’s worth of operating expenses.
3) Insurance. Storey acknowledged that ATTPAC and other companies are already negotiating with insurance carriers to see if they can be insured in the future for what has now been labeled a global pandemic. South by Southwest learned the hard way that, while it had good insurance, it didn’t cover a penny if the cause of cancellation was disease.
4) Online alternatives. Dozens of companies are already exploring how to broadcast their shows over the internet or even television. It works well for an individual singer-songwriter, many of whom have resorted to it already, but for a major arts organization? It’s a work in progress.
Even so, the Dallas Theater Center (one of ATTPAC’s resident companies) announced Thursday that its production of American Mariachi, scheduled to run from March 14 through April 5 but canceled, would be made available online to subscribers, patrons who had already bought tickets, or anyone who would like to see it and is willing to buy a virtual seat before they run out.
Digital content will emerge as a post-crisis growth industry.
“We have to multiply the ways in which the public has access,” Storey said.
It is, she added, “absolutely critical that we work to maintain our visibility and our relevance to the public. We can’t go dark.”
As all of us trudge onward, into the fog, Storey is certain of only one thing.
“This,” she said, “is a unique time.”