What happens when the shows actually can’t go on and no one knows when they will again?

Arts organizations are already dealing with the fallout of COVID-19’s economic impacts.
7 min. read
A dress rehearsal of “Northside” by Bobby LeFebre at Su Teatro on Santa Fe Drive, June 10, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

By Lisa Kennedy, for Denverite

Before he became president and CEO of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, Gary Steuer was the leader of New York City's Arts and Business Council, overseeing the group during 9/11. He participated in an arts leadership intervention in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and began his role as Chief Cultural Officer for the City of Philadelphia on October 1, 2008, just as the Great Recession was beginning.

"Nothing compares with what we're dealing with now," he said over the phone.

Like Colorado's other "gathering" industries, the local arts and culture sector -- and its institutional and individual funders -- are reckoning with the economic wallop of COVID-19 shutdowns.

In this impossibly fluid moment in which each day brings fresh trials and tough decisions, the new coronavirus has led to the shuttering of museums and the canceling of concerts and Broadway tours. It has meant ending theater seasons abruptly and postponing film festivals. It has meant the decimation of earned-income opportunities and, with the stock market reeling, a likely contraction in philanthropic giving. Arts organizations large and small -- an economic force in the region as well as the nation -- are in the midst of triage. (According to a 2018 study by the Colorado Business Committee for the Arts of metro Denver, the economic impact from "cultural tourism" reached nearly $400 million.)

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts counts 300 employees, making it the largest performance arts group in the region. On March 19, it announced it was canceling its theater company's final spring plays as well as its education initiatives after halting the Broadway tour of  "The SpongeBob Musical" and cancelling the upcoming one of "Mean Girls," both moneymakers.

Revenue from the Denver Center's Broadway touring fuels the work of the Denver Center Theatre Company. After the Broadway shows were canceled, the DCPA's theater company announced it would cut its final spring shows, Dael Orlandersmith's one-woman "Until the Flood" and MacArthur fellow Tarell Alvin McCraney's "Choir Boy." The Denver Center's robust education programming was also hit, including the cancellation of the Denver Public Schools' Shakespeare Festival (the largest Bard-specific gathering in the nation). These closures mean lost jobs and revenue. But the DCPA isn't sure of how many or how much.

The DCPA isn't alone in trying to handle the crisis fiscally. Artist directors and their boards of directors including Curious Theatre Company, Su Teatro and Boulder's Local Theater Company are deep into financially modeling the upcoming months. They're determining which staff must stay in order to rebound more efficiently from the pandemic's wreckage and how to ease the burdens of employees who are laid off, furloughed, or whose jobs are terminated. (A number of galas and annual fundraising events are taking a hit, a fact likely to prolong the agony of the current crisis.)

During a press conference Thursday afternoon, Mayor Michael Hancock announced a $4 million relief package aimed at easing the challenges for small business and their workers -- especially those in the food-service industry. He also announced that Denver Arts & Venues would come to the aid of artists. The IMAGINE 2020 Artist Assistance Fund offers grants up to $1,000 to individual artists who live in Denver and "whose incomes are being adversely affected due to cancellation of events, classes, performances, and other creative work." The capital commitment is $130,000. (On Friday afternoon, an update on the artsandvenuesdenver.com site read: "Due to overwhelming response, we are temporarily closing applications as we process current applicants.")

On March 16, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation sent emergency funds to the 43 Denver-based organizations it provided general operating and program support in the past 18 months. Among them: Cleo Parker Robinson Dance Theatre, the Denver Film Society, the MCA, Youth on Record and Phamaly Theatre Company. The amount each organization received is based on 10 percent of their most recent grant, with a $6,000 cap. Bonfils-Stanton has committed approximately $125,000.

"When this crisis began to materialize and become clear that it was going to be devastating to the cultural sector and individual artists, business as usual was not going to work," Steuer said. "It was clear we needed to respond immediately."

Steuer came up with the idea of "giving each of the most recent grantees a percentage of their most recent grant, immediately, no strings attached, no application process, no final reporting, just immediate, emergency support." On Monday, Bonfils-Stanton cut the checks. "We literally got the money out the door within three days," he said.

In trying to shape a strategy for Scientific and Cultural Facilities District and the 300 organizations it supports, to the sum of more than $60 million annually, executive director Deborah Jordy has been calling arts organization leaders.

"They're all developing plans, but as you know this is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour situation," she said. "Until we have a better idea of the federal and state implications, what the state's going to be able to do, it's so hard to say. Obviously, there's going to be a huge economic impact to all of our organizations, whether it's a small performing arts group or a one-person staffed organization."

As a board member of the national organization Americans for the Arts, Jordy underscored that arts groups around the U.S. are working to ensure "that arts and culture are squarely in the stimulus package -- knowing that there are so many other needs that may be in front of us."

The SCFD will have to grapple with the likelihood of its own fiscal challenges presented by COVID: The funds it disburses, in seven area counties, comes from a 1/10 of 1 percent sales tax.

Planning for what lies beyond triage is part of the challenge. In a video-call, Janice Sinden, president and CEO of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, spoke of the need for "resiliency planning," policies and practices that help the organization in advance of various crises.

In the meantime, she said, "our executive team had a four-hour conference call looking at every single impact to the people first....A lot of the conversations have been around balancing our sustainability as we rebound out of this as much as we can to support our unions, our contract employees, our part-time, our seasonal, our hourly and our full-time -- it's complicated."

On March 12, Su Teatro, the cultural mainstay on Santa Fe Drive and Bonfils-Stanton grantee, opened "War of the Flowers." By the next night, it was clear to artistic director Tony Garcia that concerns over COVID-19 had kept much of the audience away. Garcia had to cancel the rest of the run with an eye to remounting it.

"It was hard to do because the actors worked so hard and were beginning to hit their stride," he said. "I also felt there was little to gain by being obstinate."

Garcia and the Su Teatro board agreed to use the funds received from Bonfils-Stanton to pay the actors and the musicians: about $10,000, not a small sum for a small theatre outfit.

"The grant infusion will go directly to that," he said. "We'll live with it. I've got this thing about (doing) the right thing. This was the right thing."

Editor's note: CPR and Denverite have received support from the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation.

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