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VOL. 45 | NO. 37 | Friday, September 10, 2021

From ‘It’s curtains!’ to ‘curtains up!’

The arts across Tennessee try to recover from COVID-19

By Joe Morris

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The show must go on? No, March 14, 2020, changed all that when the shows definitely did not go on. Theaters, concert halls and other arts venues around Tennessee were forced to cease operations as COVID-19 began its march across the state. A jarring situation, certainly, but given that a life in the performing arts is one that requires near-daily adapting to new challenges, everyone from actors and musicians to artistic directors and CEOs initially took it in stride.

Like everyone else, they thought the shutdown would last a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, tops. Everyone was wrong.

For 18 months, arts organizations and artists themselves have found ways to adapt, to keep performing for and engaging with their communities. They’ve cut corners and scrambled for grants and loans. And they have made, remade, shaped and reshaped plans for an eventual return to live performance.

For many, those began in some form over the summer. For others, fall events are in rehearsals with tickets often sold out.

Now those carefully crafted reopening plans might be imperiled by yet another COVID variant’s spread across the continent. Still, the state’s arts community remains hopeful that, in some form or fashion, a return to normalcy is on the horizon – and they are ready with masks, sanitizer, distancing guidelines and a host of contingency plans to meet it.

Smaller venues took early hit

Many more traditional businesses were able to weather the first round of COVID-related shutdowns, thanks to lines of credit, initial government assistance or their own savings. Arts entities, however, often operate on less secure financial footing in the best of times, so many of them, particularly smaller ones, were in crisis mode quickly, says Chris Freeman, general manager of the Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville.

“We shut down and were making some different kinds of plans about coming back after what we thought might be a month, maybe two,” Freeman recalls. “When we got to May and realized that this situation was sticking around, we knew we had to start figuring out a new strategy.”

For Flying Anvil, that meant a switch to virtual shows for the second half of 2020. The theater stood up a four-show fall season, two of which were written by Jayne Morgan, the company’s co-founder and artistic director, and specifically created for Zoom broadcasting, while a third was a one-man show recorded within the theater space and subsequently streamed online.

This “virtual mini season” helped the theater stay visible with patrons. It didn’t produce revenue, but it did help stay engaged with the community, Freeman says.

“We were trying to stay relevant, but by the end of 2020 we knew everyone was tired of looking at screens,” he acknowledges. “We came into 2021 planning for our reopening, when we could have shows with live audiences. We began to look at protocols, such as a reduced house, asking staff and patrons to be masked, and having our entire staff vaccinated.”

The Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville switched to online performances to stay afloat and relevent.

-- Photograph Provided

The Flying Anvil team also leaned on their colleagues within the Arts & Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville. That membership group of about 125 different organizations, most of them nonprofits, was providing advocacy and services such as never before, says Liza Zenni, executive director.

“Whatever our members need, we try to support,” Zenni says. “This is an arts-loving community, and the arts and culture industry here generate about $35 million in economic impact annually. So, when performance venues were shutting down and everybody was learning what ‘force majeure’ means in contracts, we were also making sure that the arts were going to be part of the conversation in terms of government and other financial support.”

That meant keeping on top of state and federal aid programs as they were created or enhanced, and then shepherding many groups through the sometimes-convoluted Paycheck Protection Program application process during spring and summer 2020, as well as preparing them on how to tap into Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and eventually the Save Our Stages Act funds.

“Some people got one PPP loan, some got two, others got the SVOG funds. To get any of it they had to pull a lot of information together,” she says. “And when they did get those funds that cash was eaten up fast.

“Sure, expenses were down, because people furloughed staff and cut back elsewhere, but few of these organizations could get down to zero expenditures. Overall, the organizations we serve lost about $31 million in revenue over the year from March 2020 to March 2021, so we have spent the time from then to now helping them hang on and now slowly build back.”

Zenni predicts that it’ll be around 2024 before Knoxville-area arts entities are generating revenues at their pre-COVID levels. For now, she says, the focus is creating the reopening plans, then adjusting them to deal with unknowns such as Delta and other COVID variant surges, so that an overall shutdown doesn’t have to reoccur. That’s bad for everyone, not just the venues and those who work and perform in them.

“They will come back, and in the meantime people have really seen the economic impact of arts,” she adds. “When someone who lives around here goes to the theater, they spend money on parking, on going out to dinner, on child care, on shopping if they’re downtown.

“And when someone from around the region drives in for a show, they are spending more because often they’ll stay the night, and part of the next day. Sure, they’re supporting the arts, but they’re also supporting a lot of other businesses; those patrons are what make the economic wheel go around.”

Chattanooga’s arts future

The same kind of all-hands-on-deck mentality took hold quickly in Chattanooga, says James McKissic, president of ArtsBuild, which also works to create strong ties between the community and its artists and venues.

Tennessee Performing Arts Center

-- Photograph Provided

“When you’re trying to connect people and everything has closed, it’s pretty rough,” McKissic says. “Our team moved all our meetings and activities into the digital space and began having weekly meetings with the arts sector to see how we could help them.

“A lot of those early meetings were all about getting PPP loans, how to access personal protective equipment, things like that. Over time, we built a strong network and platform for sharing all kinds of information.”

That has remained in place, with a few dozen people still joining in each week to talk safety protocols, reopening plans and more.

“Venues have begun reopening, and lots of outdoor festivals and events are happening,” McKissic adds. “Many events were moved to the fall, but that’s ‘moved’ versus ‘canceled,’ which is what we wanted to see.

“We’re still focusing on 15 to 20 grassroots organizations, those with budgets of less than $50,000, with a recovery fund we established. We knew it was important to help them hang on because the small organizations today are going to be the large institutions tomorrow. It’s imperative they survive.

“They have ranged from a small Shakespearean group to dance and puppetry companies. We can only do a little bit, but anything they get helps, and makes sure that we have a diverse arts offering in Chattanooga in the future.”

Bigger headaches

Now take the hurdles smaller entities faced and magnify them. Theater and concert halls that hold hundreds, even thousands, must be maintained.

Those physical challenges – along with larger staffs and bigger bills – faced the Nashville Symphony, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Tennessee Theatre, Bijou Theatre and Tivoli Theatre, all of whom responded with the same urgency and creativity as their smaller brethren.

“It’s all scale; it doesn’t matter how large or small the institution is, we all live on the edge,” says Alan Valentine, president and CEO of the Nashville Symphony. “As nonprofits, there’s the notion that we have to deliver on our mission even in a really challenging environment. So, if you’re going to advance that mission, you’re continually taking leaps of faith to move the institution forward.”

That leap was over an abyss in early 2020, because no arts organization, large or small, in the country had faced a pandemic unless it dated back to 1918 and weathered the flu epidemic that occurred then. So even with all sorts of contingency plans, and lessons learned from major catastrophes such as the 2010 Nashville flood, the symphony still had to scramble.

“There are always challenges around revenue in the arts, but now add to that having to furlough employees, and how this just felt different,” Valentine says. “We couldn’t interact with each other. We knew staff might not return. We knew that we had to look at our overall sustainability, and how we would build back so that if something like this happens again we will find ourselves in a better situation.”

Bijou Theater in Knoxville

-- Photograph Provided

The symphony received two PPP loans, and also pursued SVOG and other funding so that as its planned 2021-22 season kicks off in September, it can be as close to pre-COVID levels in terms of operational and artistic preparedness as possible.

“Our restart advisory subcommittee worked to devise what our reopening would look like,” Valentine says. “We had to figure out both the onramp, as well as where we would go once we were on the road. They created what we believe is a sustainable plan, even if we must put more restrictions in place to deal with a surge. We’re ready for that; necessity has been the mother of invention.

“We will have music in our concert hall; maybe not the full symphony orchestra right away, but a slimmed-down version to start. We will build that over time, and we are going to take everybody on this journey with us.”

Across downtown Nashville, the same scramble to find its footing and figure out what was next took place at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, or TPAC, says Jennifer Turner, president and chief executive officer.

“We closed down on March 14, and initially set a duration of four weeks,” Turner recalls. “We just didn’t know how far out to cancel or reschedule shows. We’d been preparing since January, but there was still so much we didn’t know. We had hand sanitizer, remote work plans, all the things we thought we’d need – and then the shutdown just kept on going.”

Staying in front of patrons and the public in general meant a swift pivot to online presentations, such as those for its Spotlight Awards, presented with Lipscomb University and honoring high school musical theater. Then came virtual musicals for schoolchildren to the new, free Salon Series of online evening events that offered up everything from cooking lessons to wine tasting, allowing TPAC to partner with various businesses to stay visible – and viable.

“That was pretty successful, and through that great public response we kept it going, and growing, even at one point hosting someone from the Consulate-General of Japan in Nashville to talk about the Cherry Blossom Festival, as well as provide a sneak peek into the new National Museum of African American Music.

“We’ve also partnered with Fisk University to make a film about the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ performance in TPAC, spliced in with interviews and information about their legacy. And one good thing about all this virtual work is that we’ve been able to reach 17 more counties, and thousands more students, than we normally do.”

TPAC quickly pursued PPP and SVOG dollars to help with expenses. It also benefited from the fact that just before the COVID shutdowns it had hosted a three-week, sold out run of the musical “Hamilton,’’ which meant more cash on hand for the closure’s early days.

Still, even with that bit of luck the pandemic’s reality has been the loss of millions of dollars in revenue, and Turner explains there’s much to be done to come back from that kind of a hit.

Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center

-- Photograph Provided

“As we look forward into our new season, we’ve been fortunate to work with HCA Healthcare and TriStar Health, as has the Nashville Symphony, on safety protocols,” she says. “We have learned so much about the science that’s fighting the pandemic, and the steps we can take.

“We’ve looked at everything from air flow to the way we set up our building. We believe that will give our patrons confidence when we welcome them back. We’re focused on the future and really ready to come out of this stronger than ever.”

Financial creativity and public awareness also has been the order of the day in Chattanooga, where Tivoli Theatre Foundation launched its Recovery Fund Challenge, which allowed supporters to pick a level of giving, tying those to everything from replacing a lightbulb to maintaining staging equipment. Those are being matched dollar for dollar up to $200,000 through a grant from the Bobby Stone Foundation.

“For nearly a year, the Tivoli Theatre Foundation has endured an unprecedented time in our industry for both live entertainment and the venues that play host to it,” Nick Wilkinson, executive director of the foundation, explains on the venue’s website. “Due to the pandemic, we have not been able to bring the world-class talent to Chattanooga that our community has grown to love since we were founded in 2015.

“While we have seen tremendous success from fundraising and other opportunities to date, the Tivoli Theatre Foundation still has a long road ahead to return to form. We’re excited to launch the Recovery Fund Challenge in hopes of bringing us one step closer towards that goal.”

Historic venues use downtime

While facing the same challenges as their newer brethren across the state, Knoxville’s Tennessee and Bijou theatres also had to factor in the kind of ongoing maintenance that, open or closed, venues at or over a century old need.

Funding from the SVOG program helped them replace funds spent down from “rainy day” stockpiles, but there’s still much to be done to regain more sound financial footing, says Becky Hancock, executive director of the Tennessee.

“We announced our closure on March 14, and that was when things began rolling downhill fast,” Hancock remembers. “It was a Saturday, and the show we’d had scheduled that night canceled on us the Wednesday before. That’s when we’d begun reading the tea leaves and opted to close, for everyone’s safety. It was like slamming the brakes on a freight train and took a lot of planning and coordination.”

Also like her colleagues, Hancock thought the shutdown would run a few weeks, maybe a couple of months. When it didn’t, dates that had been pushed forward a time or two changed to ‘canceled until further notice.’ More cost-cutting measures were put into place, including staff furloughs and pay cuts. Donors were recruited, rainy day funds tapped.

Now, as national tours inch their way back toward the road and the Tennessee hosts events with safety protocols in place, Hancock says she hopes the official state theater can begin to recover from a year when revenues were down 87%.

“The shows we have put on sale have been booked solid; our activity on that front is equal to the previous year,” she says. “Our Broadway season has broken records in terms of sales. Getting the SVOG funds meant that we had money to apply to the expenses we occurred during the shutdown such as payroll, utilities, regular maintenance and operating expenses. It’s helping us recover those cash revenues we spent down so we can get back to where we were in February 2020.

“That money is a huge shot in the arm.”

Across Gay Street and down a couple of blocks, the Bijou did much of the same, says Courtney Bergmeier, executive director.

“When it was pretty clear that we had no visibility to when this would all end, no real restart calendar, we got creative,” Bergmeier says. “We invested in some video equipment and did some limited-capacity, socially distanced shows with a streaming component. That “Live from the Bijou” series let us showcase some local bands and let us highlight the local artists in Knoxville. We are a lean, mean machine, and so we were able to rely on our reserves to keep the bills paid.”

As fall 2021 loomed, questions still remained but the success of a sold-out early August show with comedienne Heather Land indicated that the Bijou could get back to safe operations.

“We have recognized that there are still safety concerns to be addressed, but at this point everyone also recognizes that the show must go on,” Bergmeier says. “The theaters need it. The artists need it. The community really needs it. We are in the center of the community-gathering industry, and that’s been a tough place to be in a pandemic.”

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