Theaters are dark, concert halls silent, and bookings for performers and stage crews canceled. The same shutdown that’s endangering small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening small arts organizations.
Unlike large national arts groups, which are tapping their affiliations with famous stars and rosters of wealthy donors to survive the pandemic, local and regional groups have few resources to keep them afloat. Most operate on razor-thin margins in good times and now have little or no cash and have laid off staff. Americans for the Arts estimates that arts organizations have already lost about US$5 billion in revenues from ticket, membership, and gift shop sales and contributions, based on a survey it conducted in April.
Not everyone has stopped functioning or closed, even temporarily. Pittsburgh-based City of Asylum has found a way to keep connecting with audiences and help other local groups do the same. The nonprofit hosted 178 literary readings, jazz concerts, and other events last year, in addition to its founding mission of sheltering exiled writers who face persecution in their home countries. Now it has launched a shared programming channel, The Show Must Go On(line), for its programs and those offered by City Theater, the River City Brass Band, New Hazlett Theater, and other Pittsburgh organizations. Performances—which are live, prerecorded, or a mix of both—stream five nights a week on Crowdcast, and viewing is free.
“The cost for any one small organization to regularly produce, webcast, and market programs that primarily reach only its own audience isn’t feasible, so we reached out to others and started a collaborative webcast,” says Henry Reese co-founder and executive director of City of Asylum. “We want to keep the arts viable and visible during this difficult time—and by joining together, we can minimize costs and maximize programming.”
Each presenter on The Show streams events under its own name and can seek donations from audiences. City of Asylum received foundation funding for The Show, some of which is being used to pay artists who appear in performances and for operations costs.
Webcasting costs are negligible, because all presenters use the stage, cameras, and sound system already in place at City of Asylum’s performance venue, a former Masonic temple that’s known as Alphabet City. Although it has been closed to the public since mid-March, one stage technician is overseeing webcasts for The Show Must Go On(line) there.
The first performance, on May 4, featured a prerecorded concert with pianist and composer Claudio Cojaniz, which was interspersed with an interview with him from his home in southern Italy, where he was sheltering in place. “Crises are neither negative nor positive, they are opportunities,” he told viewers. “For me, it’s about working better.”
Audience participation is encouraged. There’s a chat box where viewers can post comments before, during, and after shows and a place to post questions. “We’ve always felt that our audiences are as important as our performers, so we’re trying out ways they can participate and interact with one another online,” says Diane Samuels, co-founder of City of Asylum and a visual artist.
As stay-at-home guidelines start to lift, The Show Must Go On(line) may serve as a bridge to returning to live audiences. City of Asylum is initially likely to experiment with very small audiences of, say, 10 to 20 people who can be seated at a distance from each other, then gradually increase those numbers—while continuing to broadcast online.
“In the future, no matter what the situation, we’re likely to mix live and virtual performances. We’re learning that this allows us to expand our reach” to audiences and to more artists throughout the U.S. and around the world, says Reese.
How to Keep Your Nonprofit Going
- Assess all your resources, especially previously recorded, archived performances that can be shown digitally or mixed with new material.
- Reach out to other local groups to create shared programs or programming channels.
- Pool marketing, social media, and fundraising efforts.
- Think imaginatively about how to use digital media to offer performances in new ways—by, for instance, interweaving prerecorded events with new video interviews with artists.