The impact of Covid-19 on the arts and culture sector first came into focus for me early in the pandemic when I received an announcement from the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) in Staunton, Virginia, near my home. ASC is a nationally acclaimed theatre company and an economic engine for Staunton and the surrounding area. ASC’s Blackfriars Playhouse is one of two recreations of the indoor Blackfriars Theatre in London, in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed.
On March 16, 2020, ASC announced that they were suspending their current season, cancelling their upcoming season, releasing all actors from their contracts, and furloughing the staff. Further, to stay in business until June—when they hoped to reopen—they would need to raise at least $350,000 to pay their mortgage, employ a skeleton staff, and maintain health insurance coverage for furloughed employees.
While their announcement certainly got my attention, ASC’s situation was hardly unique. All across the U.S. arts and culture organizations have struggled—and continue to struggle—to adapt to this challenging new reality. Many depend on box office revenue, admission fees, and even facility rental fees for a significant portion of their income. Choral arts organizations are especially challenged, since choir rehearsals have been documented as perfect environments for spreading the virus.
Further, amid spiraling community needs that include food and housing, healthcare, childcare, remote education strategies, and aid for struggling small businesses, the needs of arts and culture organizations have not been front of mind for many donors.
In mid-May, The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, one of the largest funders of arts and culture in the DC region, asked me and a colleague, Kathy Freshley, to interview leaders of arts and culture organizations to better understand the finances and most pressing needs of their organizations. You can read our report here.
While our interviews certainly revealed significant challenges—most frequently around developing viable business models and adapting to virtual and online settings—we also heard optimism and determination. Many organizations are finding opportunities to adapt by making their work more accessible to larger audiences. You can read more in this post I wrote for the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) blog.
Fast forward four months, and the American Shakespeare Center is in a very different situation than in mid-March. ASC raised $750,000 over 12 weeks in response to its “Keep the Lights On” campaign, and was able to bring staff and actors back from furlough. It launched an online streaming service, BlkFrsTV, that was featured in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times and generated $122,000 in revenue while the Blackfriars Playhouse was closed. Forty percent of that audience was new to ASC.
While ASC’s success may be exceptional, it also demonstrates the potential for organizations with enough working capital to survive and even thrive in this challenging environment. That’s encouraging, because we need them.
In the CEP post referenced above, I wrote, “At their best, arts and culture organizations help us experience joy, connect with one another, celebrate our shared humanity, and reckon with difficult truths. The arts can create spaces for grieving — and for healing. Our communities will need all of that as we weather COVID-19 and work together toward a more equitable future.”
Not just here Staunton but in all our communities, arts and culture organizations are an asset we can't afford to lose. I hope philanthropy will step up.