The Woodruff Arts Center institutions are financially sound enough to withstand the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but Woodruff President and CEO Doug Shipman thinks it could be 2021 before things return to a real sense of normalcy.
In the meantime, the Woodruff is looking for innovative ways to generate earned income and is working with smaller arts organizations to help them survive the loss of audiences and income.
“We have the ability to weather the storm, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be damage,” Shipman told ArtsATL. “We’ve worked very hard to get good at earned revenue. We have no earned revenue right now, so we’ll have to raise money.”
The Woodruff Arts Center just celebrated its 50th year as the hub of high arts in the city. The center was opened in 1968 with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the High Museum of Art and the Alliance Theatre under its umbrella. It stands in tribute to more than 100 of the city’s arts enthusiasts and philanthropists who died in a plane crash at Orly Field in Paris in 1962.
As this city’s most prominent arts leader, Shipman has counseled other institutions and individual artists on how to survive weeks and maybe months of being dark. “Organizations and artists can get help,” he said. “We’re studying the federal stimulus package closely. Arts leaders need to study the federal legislation, and keep on top of local efforts. And we all have to compare notes and take advantage of these opportunities. For a lot of smaller organizations, the federal legislation is a lifeline. But it will take paperwork and navigating bureaucracy.”
He also encourages groups to look for innovative ways to earn income as a bridge, particularly streaming online. The ASO is offering videos of concerts and listening parties on Facebook. The Alliance is streaming a video of its last production, Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed, for as little as $5 (although viewers are encouraged to make a larger donation). And the High has online education programs for kids.
“There are a ton of people at home who want entertainment and art: How can we do what we do for them?” Shipman said. “And creative people want to be creative. I tell people to do things virtually and explore payment models. Netflix and Disney are still charging for streaming, so arts organizations can do the same thing.”
But streaming won’t replace the income that would have been generated by live performances, and the coming weeks are going to be a challenge for many companies, venues, museums, galleries and individual artists.
Arts leaders hope to persuade the city of Atlanta to set aside money to help. “A quick recovery will be very beneficial to the city,” Shipman said. “We’ve seen such tremendous growth in the arts. And we’ve kept many artists here who used to leave. It’s created a huge number of jobs. I hope Atlanta — both through philanthropy and the city — will think hard about a specific package for our arts and culture.”
City Councilman Amir Farokhi (District 2) told ArtsATL that he will push for government help. “I’d love to see the city consider modeling what Seattle has done; they allocated $1.1 million to the arts,” he said. “But there’s a lot of competing voices calling on the city right now. We have to see what impact all this is going to have on the city’s revenue streams.”
That impact is likely to be significant. The shutdown of Atlanta will have a huge drag on revenues flowing into city coffers. And the domino effect doesn’t stop there. Shipman has concerns about the ability of major corporations to support the arts once this is over.
“Atlanta has a long history of incredible corporate support,” Shipman said. “The Woodruff benefits greatly from corporate support. But we don’t know what that will look like. Delta, for example, is taking an enormous hit right now. Some of the local corporate firms are hurting,and we may have to think carefully about counting on corporate support.”
A few of the country’s major arts institutions are already feeling financial pressure from the pandemic. New York’s Metropolitan Opera just had its bond rating downgraded to “junk” status by Moody’s Rating Service because of $60 million in losses at the box office. That means investors will be shy about buying the bonds, and the Met will face higher interest rates on its loans.
Shipman said 93 percent of the Met’s endowment is restricted, and it can’t use its endowment when it is not performing. That will not be an issue for the Woodruff. “We’re fortunate,” Shipman said. “We have a mix of restricted and unrestricted funds. We actually have more flexibility than a lot of organizations.”
He has urged local arts leaders with restricted funds to reach out to funders. “I’m telling people do not be shy about going to donors and asking them to lift restrictions on funds and endowments,” he said. “Donors seem very willing, but they need organizations to tell them ‘This is what we need’ and that they need flexibility.”
Many funders are also open to accelerating payments, which can help with an organization’s cash flow.
One cause of anxiety in the arts community is uncertainty about when things will return to a semblance of normalcy. Summer and fall events and performances are already being planned and scheduled. The question is: Even when people are allowed to gather again, when will they be comfortable doing so in large groups?
Shipman believes the comeback will happen in stages. “I heard someone say the only time we’ll get back to normal is when there is a vaccine,” he said. “I think the summer will be very tough. I just hope we can get out of our houses. From September to December, I think there’ll be less than what we may hope in terms of people coming out to events. Also, there were a lot of weddings and other events postponed from the spring, so the performing arts will be competing with those. It will probably be weaker in the fall than what we hope.”
He thinks it may be the beginning of the new year before audiences truly come back. “But we don’t know,” he said. “We have to be flexible. This thing happened so rapidly, we don’t know what next month will look like, much less six months from now.”
The important things for now is making sure people are healthy, and that arts organizations and independent artists can survive economically until stages and museums and arts schools are back in business.
“I hope people are reminded how important the arts are to our lives,” Shipman said. “And I hope this doesn’t last so long. I think we are all feeling what it’s like not to have communal experiences. I miss going to Serenbe and seeing Terminus dance outdoors. I miss going to see the symphony at Piedmont Park.”
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