In mid-March, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp declared a public health emergency in response to Covid-19 and, a week later, shut down all nonessential businesses, including live performance venues. Artists did what they do in times like these, which is to pour beauty into the world. Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater did an excerpt from Revelations on Zoom. Pop-music artists held concerts on Instagram. Even the cast of Disney’s Lizzie McGuire reunited for a virtual table read.
Locally, Out of Hand Theater used Zoom to do readings of new plays, True Colors Theatre Company launched podcasts and Dad’s Garage Theatre Company jammed its Twitch.tv channel with content. Art galleries hosted talks and costume designers sewed surgical masks for hospital workers. The Museum of Design Atlanta found a global audience through its robust virtual programming. In the past six months, MODA has hosted everything from designer happy hours and sustainable design workshops for adults to summer camps for kids. Its virtual exhibition Learning From Nature: The Future of Design, on view now, feels like a walk through a museum, complete with videos.
“It is very likely that we will remain a hybrid organization,” says Laura Flusche, MODA’s executive director. “We have people participating in MODA regularly now both across the nation and in India, Mexico and Canada. We’re also hearing from people in metro Atlanta that they are happy about online opportunities because they can engage without traffic as a barrier.”
Still, despite ingenuity and creativity, experiencing art online isn’t the same as seeing it in person. Furthermore, arts institutions, which have a multibillion-dollar economic impact in Georgia, aren’t financially sustainable without ticket revenue (Georgia ranks 49th in the nation in arts funding per capita).
THE BLANK FOUNDATION + SURVEYS
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation has been working with arts companies across the state since 2014 to help them connect with audiences. When Covid-19 hit, the foundation knew it had to act fast. It partnered with Audience Outlook Monitor to develop a patron survey that went to audiences from 21 metro arts venues. Each arts organization emailed the survey to a small group of loyal patrons to gauge if, and when, they might be ready to return.
Penny McPhee, Blank Foundation president, says that with such options as free BroadwayHD and Hamilton on Disney+, nonprofit arts companies can find it hard to compete. The survey asked audiences about several scenarios, including what types of programming they’d like to see; whether venues should provide temperature checks, masks and hand sanitizer; and whether they’d feel comfortable in a theater with socially distanced seating.
Perhaps the most telling number from the first round of surveys is that only 15 percent of respondents said they’d be willing to return to cultural events when legally allowed to do so. They had very different comfort levels for galleries and museums than for performing arts, music and comedy venues. A total of 64 percent of respondents said they’d be “somewhat” or “very comfortable” walking through a gallery, compared to 21 percent who’d feel “somewhat” or “very comfortable” at a comedy club or live-music venue — and that’s without seats.
The Blank Foundation, McPhee says, recognizes that not all organizations will recover at the same pace.
“A lot of the audience is in the 55-plus demographic who are the least likely to be willing to return until there is a Covid-19 vaccine,” she says. “Safe is going to feel different for a 25-year-old than it is for a 65-year-old.”
This uncertainty has pushed some arts companies to become their own lifelines and figure out how to program outdoors and with physically distanced seating to ensure audience safety. The Alliance Theatre announced its 52nd season last month, one that will start with two holiday productions — a new one-woman show and a radio-play adaptation of A Christmas Carol, with actors sitting in separate sound booths and the audience attending drive-in-movie style.
“When we contemplated the prospect of going dark for an entire season, it felt like we weren’t doing our due diligence to think about how we could do it with models, such as drive-in theater,” says artistic director, Susan V. Booth.
Other art forms — dance, for example — are harder to execute in person without touch. Dance is inherently a tactile art, which is why Atlanta Ballet has canceled The Nutcracker this year. The production calls for hundreds of dancers, a full orchestra and dozens of crew members.
“Social distancing is a reality,” says ballet president and CEO Arturo Jacobus, “and audiences are not going to feel safe. Then you think, ‘How safe is the orchestra going to feel in a pit with 40 musicians elbow to elbow? Not to mention the dancers.’”
The ballet has been offering virtual and physically distanced classes throughout the summer and designated studio hours to help dancers keep in shape. Spokesman Tricia Ekholm says that what surprised her most from the survey was that patrons wanted virtual content, and they didn’t care whether it was prerecorded or livestreamed, they just wanted access to dance. Atlanta Ballet is planning to return to live performances in the spring, but like most places, it’s a matter of wait and see.
Throughout all of this, it’s important to remember that arts institutions don’t exist without individual artists. Most are independent contractors, without any health, retirement or employer-provided benefits. Even union members — Actors’ Equity, the American Federation of Musicians, for example — must work a certain number of hours on a union contract to qualify for benefits. Without productions, thousands of metro musicians, technicians and performers will lose their benefits at year’s end.
The impact is exacerbated for artists of color, who tend to get less work. Eleven theaters — Actor’s Express, the Alliance, Atlanta Lyric Theatre, Aurora Theatre, Dad’s Garage, Georgia Ensemble, Out of Hand, the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, Springer Opera House in Columbus, Theatrical Outfit and True Colors — took part in the survey. Of the 80 productions they’d planned this season, only 15 had at least one role written for an actor of color.
HELP FROM THE ATLANTA ARTIST RELIEF FUND
The Atlanta Artist Relief Fund has tried to stand in the gap by providing resources to the artists in most need. Executive director Bridget McCarthy says that she and fellow artists started the organization after seeing how the loss of work impacted their community. McCarthy, an actor and writer, lost five gigs in 72 hours. The effort began with a GoFundMe campaign. After raising more than $30,000, the group decided to pay it forward.
At first, AARF volunteers shopped for, prepared and delivered meals. The organization has effectively grown into a social services agency that assists artists with everything from finding a therapist and filing for unemployment to accessing childcare. It also has an eye toward social justice.
“There are barriers to a career in the arts that have to do with the color of someone’s skin, that have to do with income level,” McCarthy says. “If we don’t support artists right now, it will be all white and artists of means that survive this crisis.”
The organization has helped more than 300 artists in the past 90-plus days. “It’s the safety net I wanted when I was an apprentice in Atlanta and was rationing my ramen noodles,” McCarthy says. “We have every intention of making sure that Atlanta artists are the most supported artists in America.”
This is where the Blank Foundation and the Relief Fund converge. Both want to help sustain the arts in Atlanta. The foundation is continuing its audience surveys through the end of September, releasing its results later this fall and hoping to help institutions find new ways to connect with audiences. The Relief Fund is planning to scale its organization to fight the next big issue: eviction.
In the meantime, artists continue to release content into the world, making all this uncertainty a bit more bearable.
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