Arts Upended

Houston Performing Arts Community Braces for Uncertain Future

Companies return to the drawing board as the Coronavirus wreaks havoc on remainder of 2019-2020 season.

By Emma Schkloven March 27, 2020

Updated Apr 13

The Alley announced this afternoon that it will be able to re-hire the employees it previously laid off after receiving financial assistance through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Those who were laid off will receive backpay from March 30, according to the news release.  

 It started with emails. In early March, theaters across the Houston-area filled their patrons’ inboxes with similar messages: We’re making changes to keep you safe amid COVID-19, but we’re open for business. But just a week later the upbeat tone began to fade as Bayou City officials issued a disaster declaration as the city and county authorities moved to limit all gatherings in a bid to slow the spread of the virulent disease.

And so began the tide of cancellations and postponements, first individual events and then entire spring seasons. The bombshell landed on March 20 when, in addition to cancelling the rest of its 2019-2020 season, the Alley Theatre announced it was temporarily laying off 75 percent of its staff and issuing pay cuts for many of its remaining staff members.

A few weeks into the pandemic and with no end in sight, arts organizations are once again reeling as they try to plan for a crisis that is unlike anything the modern world has ever dealt with. “The question is how long is this going to go on?” Alley Managing Director Dean Gladden says. “The question is will it go into May and June? It’s hard because right now, we just don’t know.”

Double Whammied

This isn’t the first time in recent years the performing arts community has faced an uphill battle. Just three years ago, the Wortham Center, Alley Theater, and several downtown parking garages were damaged during Hurricane Harvey. The result was a $250 million economic loss for the companies in the Theater District, says Perryn Leech, managing director of Houston Grand Opera and board chair of Theater District Houston.

While some organizations did not see as much physical damage, the 2017 disaster left marks in other ways. The Houston Symphony Orchestra’s and the Society for the Performing Arts’ number of patrons still haven't returned to what these organizations saw pre-Harvey. “This is the second whammy in a short period of time,” Leech says. “Just when you feel we’re moving forward, now this happens.”

The Houston Grand Opera had planned to sell $250,000-worth of tickets in the final weeks leading up to its last two shows of this season. Now, those plans have vanished. Theater Under the Stars’ cancellation of the rest of its 2019-2020 season constitutes a loss of almost $2 million in revenue and $4.6 million overall, according to a news release from the organization. 4th Wall Theatre Company had plans for a summer program that now may not happen. “We don’t know if the Houston school district is going to put kids in school in the summer,” Co-Artistic Director Kim Tobin-Lehl says. “If that happens, there are numerous theater organizations that do school programs in the summer—that’s income and jobs lost.”

Party's Over

Organizations are also offering refunds for ticket-holders, something that will further cut into profits. On top of everything else, March and April are often crucial months for arts organizations as they push for subscription renewals, hold galas and other major fundraisers, and announce new seasons. Coronavirus has thrown a wrench into all of these plans, SPA CEO Meg Booth says, who had planned to announce the organization’s new season on Monday. Instead, she cancelled its remaining 12 performances of 2019-2020.

Many arts leaders expect to see subscription renewals drop again as Houstonians plan for the future in a world unexpectedly in the grips of a massive economic downtown (U.S. unemployment filings hit 3.3 million last week, an increase that hasn't been seen since the federal government started tracking these filings in 1967.) And that’s not the only change local arts leaders anticipate. Houston’s performing arts community receives significant financial support from the energy sector—a group that is already seeing contraction as global markets begin to collapse. “When oil went down, it had a devastating effect on Houston’s economy,” says Gladden. “It’s not just the coronavirus, it’s what’s happing to oil.”

Bracing for Change

At this time, it’s impossible to predict exactly how much of a financial hit the Houston arts community will take and how that will affect them moving forward. But leaders are certain of one thing: This will impact all of them and they are doing their best to plan accordingly. The Alley has already announced what Gladden called a "$6.5 million crisis campaign" to get it through the summer, and 4th Wall is currently adjusting plans for its 10th season next year. “We’re just at the tip of the iceberg in understanding what we’re going to have to deal with in the impending future,” Tobin-Lehl says.

Some companies, like SPA and the Alley, are attempting to salvage parts of their lost seasons by working cancelled productions into future schedules—a difficult task as most seasons are planned months, if not years, in advance. Others, like HGO, have abandoned previously planned major shows altogether. Meanwhile, the SPA plans to announce its next season on a rolling basis.

Whenever Houston’s performing arts community does return to the stage, whether that is in May or not until September, art leaders know that it won’t be business as usual. “We will survive this,” says Booth. “We will make changes to adapt, but that doesn’t mean that this doesn’t hurt.”

 If you’re with an arts organization and want to tell us about how coronavirus is impacting current and future plans, email Emma Schkloven at [email protected].

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