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'Ramping up': arts nonprofits have smaller budgets and staffs, but shows go on

'Ramping up': arts nonprofits have smaller budgets and staffs, but shows go on


The Roanoke Valley Children’s Choir sopranos filled most of the parking lot at the American Legion in Salem, not because their numbers formed a huge crowd but because they had to sit so far apart in order to safely rehearse.

“Go a little faster,” said choir director Kim Davidson as she led the teenagers through their warm-up exercises. “Come on, singers!”

All the singers wore face masks and stayed 10 feet from each other as Davidson conducted, her voice amplified through a wireless headset. “Somebody got their eighth notes and quarter notes mixed up. Just today, right?”

The children’s choir would go on to join forces with Opera Roanoke and essentially kick off the first post-pandemic performance season in the Roanoke Valley, in a sold out May 2 concert that had singers from both companies spaced out across the full length of the Salem Football Stadium field.

Such concerts had been nearly nonexistent over the months since March 2020, a fraught time for arts and culture nonprofits nationwide. With COVID-19 related restrictions on audience sizes loosening, the region’s arts organizations are emerging with their operating budgets reduced by an average of about 21% and questions hanging in the air about whether supporters will feel safe turning out for in-person events.

Signs have been promising so far.

Take for example Local Colors, which returned May 15, to River’s Edge Park North instead of Elmwood Park, with food vendors but without the multicultural parade the festival is famed for. Although attendance of about 2,000 was well below capacity for the park, director Lisa Spencer declared success. “Food lines stayed long throughout the day and people camped out,” she said. “You could tell everyone was glad to be out!”

In the Roanoke Valley and beyond, canceled shows and closed exhibitions littered the landscape in the weeks immediately following Gov. Ralph Northam’s orders in March 2020 to shut gatherings down. Though locked doors and lost revenue were soon followed by layoffs, the organizations met the crisis with thoughtfulness rather than panic.

“Organizations moved at the pace that was right for them,” said Roanoke Arts and Culture Coordinator Doug Jackson. “They worked with their boards very closely to tailor their response.”

The Science Museum of Western Virginia switched from operating as a museum to operating as a learning lab, with classrooms held throughout their facility. The Taubman Museum of Art and Center in the Square’s children’s museum, Kids Square, came up with activity kits.

Most organizations concentrated on virtual offerings of some kind, be it tours, plays, concerts, movies on demand, even entire festivals reimagined in video format. Southwest Virginia Ballet and Local Colors forged new partnerships with Blue Ridge PBS to share videos connecting their missions with bigger audiences.

While online offerings gave arts and culture organizations opportunities to keep in touch with the patrons they serve, they were often streamed free, and what income they did occasionally produce fell well short of standard ticket sales.

“I haven’t heard anybody say, ‘Wow, that concert that we saw through YouTube was like being there,” said Roanoke Symphony Orchestra Executive Director David Crane. The symphony’s first live concert since the pandemic began, played for free May 8 at Elmwood Park, had all 1,200 available reservations claimed within 36 hours.

A number of nonprofits involved in either putting on or presenting music, art, theater and cinema events are having to hurry up and wait. Many different types of organizations are eligible to apply for a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, which were created in the Dec. 27 federal economic aid act signed by then-President Donald Trump and further modified and expanded in the American Rescue Plan Act signed March 11 by President Joe Biden.

Loaded with $16.2 billion in potential aid for a variety of arts-related organizations and businesses, the grants were supposed to be open to applications April 8, but the launch failed when the website malfunctioned. The application portal relaunched successfully April 24. Regional organizations that have applied are still awaiting results.

Originally venues were not allowed to apply for both shuttered venue grants and paycheck protection loans, but the new rescue plan changed that. Now, the amount of any PPP loan awarded a business will be deducted from any SVOG grant received. Payments could start arriving at the end of May.

“The grant was extensive and very challenging, but we feel confident that we’ve done it correctly, so we’re hopeful,” said Jefferson Center Executive Director Cyrus Pace.

In March, the Roanoke Valley Children's Choir sopranos rehearsed outside while masked and spaced 10 feet apart as a pandemic safety precaution.

Accelerating recovery?

In terms of jobs lost, among all the different kinds of nonprofits, arts and culture organizations were proportionally hit the hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to statistics tracked by the Center for Civil Society Studies at John Hopkins University.

The Johns Hopkins center’s tallies show that the nonprofit sector lost about 1.64 million out of 12.5 million jobs nationally during the first three months of the pandemic. As of the end of April, a little over half of those jobs had been recovered.

The largest nonprofit category, health care, remains the healthiest, with 236,000 jobs lost — or 4% — out of an estimated 6.8 million prior to COVID-19. By contrast, arts and culture nonprofits, with nationwide jobs that numbered about 356,000 in February 2020, were still down about 99,000 jobs, or 28%, at the end of April.

The center’s figures show the arts and culture sector regaining jobs at an accelerating rate over the past three months, with additions of about 5,100 in February, 10,000 in March and 14,000 in April.

Data compiled from 26 Roanoke Valley and three New River Valley arts and culture nonprofits that responded to a Roanoke Times survey indicates that regional organizations saw a combined job loss of 38% when comparing February 2020 to February 2021. Nationally the same comparison shows a 35% loss.

In terms of employment impact, the real regional toll is likely higher, as not all answers included contract performers such as musicians, technicians and actors. Arts institutions attached to parent organizations like churches or universities were not surveyed.

Center in the Square kept a commitment to retain all 13 full time employees, said president and general manager Jim Sears.

In March 2020, Mill Mountain Theatre went within two weeks from preparing to launch a new season to furloughing 10 employees. On March 29, the professional theater company announced new hires and rehires for about the same number of positions.

With operating budget reductions and layoffs of full time employees that exceeded 60%, Roanoke Symphony Orchestra appears to have been proportionately affected most by the COVID-19 shutdowns.

“We have not been producing concerts, which have a very large expenditure to them,” Crane said. “It’s not just the musicians. When we don’t do pops concerts, we don’t hire the vendors, the sound company, the light company, we don’t rent the hall, we don’t spend dollars on marketing, advertising, travel.”

He described RSO’s navigation of the pandemic as treading water and making an unpleasant but necessary choice to reduce expenses to a minimum. “There’s a bit of a yin and a yang to all of that, right? The income’s not in but the expense is not out.”

Having offered virtual performances during the past few months, the symphony is prepared to resume live concerts again, with plans for a new season announcement come mid-June. “That’s very exciting,” Crane said.

The Grandin Theatre had 20 part-time staffers in February 2020 and two in February 2021, a result of a three-month closure followed by a drastic reduction in the amount of screenings held.

However, the Grandin has won praise for the innovative ways that the nonprofit movie theater continued its mission during the pandemic, such as offering private rentals of its main theater, lobby and art gallery and holding single sold-out showings of popular and classic films instead of multiple screenings that would increase the amount of cleaning needed.

As of last week, Gov. Northam’s loosening of restrictions allowed the Grandin to sell 150 tickets per show instead of 90, said Ian Fortier, executive director of the Grandin Theatre Foundation. Private rentals, for now, are still capped at 50 people.

The Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg, too, has been offering its 447-seat theater for private rentals. A local ordinance has restricted audiences for movie showings to 50. “We’ve been open for five days a week,” said Lyric Executive Director Susan Mattingly. “Finding new and interesting films that aren’t available on a streaming platform has been very challenging.”

The Lyric acquired equipment that allows the movie house to livestream musical performances. Plans for renewing the theater’s music series, Live at the Lyric, are underway, Mattingly said. “We are optimistically booking a fall season and hope to have some announcements ready soon.”

5 Points Music Sanctuary in Roanoke has organized outdoor concerts at Wasena Park and continued its music therapy program with social distancing protocols in place.

“The market conditions make it difficult to plan too far out,” said 5 Points Director Tyler Godsey. Despite the many uncertainties, 5 Points has tentative plans to expand its operating budget from $190,000 during the pandemic year to $300,000 in the upcoming fiscal year. “We have been somewhat successful improving our fundraising efforts,” which encourages a hopeful outlook, Godsey said.

3 museums, 3 paths

In a remarkable bucking of trends, the Science Museum of Western Virginia increased its budget by 21% in the 2020 fiscal year and added four full time employees. A dramatic pivot made that possible — for the past 10 months, the museum was closed to visitors, using its spaces in Center in the Square for classrooms instead.

The aim of this education program, called The Lab @ SMWV, was “to create a space that was safe and that was structured,” said Koren Smith, the science museum’s director of marketing.

The Lab provided an alternative to virtual learning for parents, Smith said. “We did our best to replicate what kids would do in a classroom. We wanted to provide them with educators who could guide them through all of their assignments and take that pressure off parents. We also wanted it to be a space where they would be around their own peers, so they could continue to develop those social skills that are so important at this age.”

In March, museum instructor Kat Hill led a group of second graders in an activity that involved building a miniature mine lift, meant to teach her pupils about minerals and pulley systems.

Now, with most students back in school classrooms, the Lab only happens on Fridays, and in the meantime the staff has shifted to preparing new exhibits and revamping old ones for when the science museum officially reopens to visitors June 1.

The science museum used this opportunity to replace a number of long-in-the-tooth exhibits with about 10 new ones, including some designed in collaboration with Virginia Tech, said Rachel Hopkins, the museum’s executive director. One new exhibit ties into the impact tests done at Tech to determine the effectiveness of sports helmets, while another that Hopkins called “pretty timely” deals with microbes.

“There’s a lot of new things we’re introducing other than exhibits,” Hopkins said. “Every Wednesday and Saturday now we’re going to have live animal demos. That’s always been something we’ve done for like school programming, but now it’s going to be something on the floor. You can depend on it.”

The combined History Museum of Western Virginia and O. Winston Link Museum inside the old Norfolk and Western passenger station across from Hotel Roanoke has been open since July 31. Both museums are operated by the Historical Society of Western Virginia. The history museum moved from Center in the Square to the Link Museum site in 2017.

During the pandemic months, the historical society’s two full-time employees focused on organizing their newest exhibit, the largest to be debuted since the museums were combined. Opened April 24, “Botetourt County: 250 +1 Years of Delight” was originally intended to tie into the county’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2020, which was derailed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Because the history museums’ show was only loosely connected, they pursued it on their own, with three years of advance planning culminating in four months of set up that started in January.

“We’re lucky we had this exhibit. I think it pushed us through,” both because it provided a goal and because it drew in grants and sponsorships, said museum curator Ashley Webb.

The two-story exhibition features a range of Botetourt-centric crafts and goods, from furniture to rifles to quilts, from the art found on antique can labels to creations by contemporary Botetourt artists. In a nod to crowd restrictions, the joint museums have not held a grand opening.

The historical society hopes to unveil a catalog for the show in July and hold an event to celebrate it, Webb said.

The Taubman Museum of Art, one of Roanoke’s largest arts nonprofits, reduced its operating budget by 35% during the first fiscal year of the pandemic and reduced a full-time workforce of 28 by seven.

Open to visitors on reduced hours, Friday through Sunday, with its Art Venture activity center for children closed, the art museum has continued to mount new exhibitions. The Taubman also launched several collaborative art programs and assembled more than 75,000 activity kits that have been distributed through partnerships with Feeding Southwest Virginia, Roanoke Rescue Mission and others.

The Taubman’s efforts received national notice, as Crosby Kemper, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, selected Roanoke’s art museum as one of 30 finalists for the 2021 National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

Though the Taubman did not ultimately win a medal, Kemper said that all the nominees were being honored for their extraordinary efforts through the pandemic months “to serve, heal, and bring together our communities.”

Taubman Executive Director Cindy Petersen said the museum is still evaluating whether it’s feasible to hire more staff or increase visiting hours. The museum is about to resume staying open until 9 p.m. on the first Friday of each month.

A future safety net

Federal aid packages helped almost all of the larger arts and culture organizations in the region to stay afloat to some degree, and even the all-volunteer nonprofits responding to the survey that got none of that aid in 2020 — such as Showtimers Community Theatre in Roanoke and Attic Productions and Buchanan Theatre in Botetourt — have continued to operate in some way.

Without that federal aid, though, the outlook for the arts and culture scene could be quite different now.

Roanoke in fact has an organization set up that’s meant to provide help with this sort of crisis — but the Roanoke Cultural Endowment is still years from being able to give grants. Created in 2014 as a public-private partnership, the endowment will start giving grants to Roanoke arts organizations for assistance with operating budgets once it reaches $20 million.

As of February, RCE had raised $3.2 million toward that goal, said Shaleen Powell, the endowment’s executive director. The endowment has also secured a $5 million legacy gift, though those funds are not yet in hand.

Not wanting to compete with the organizations the endowment is meant to serve, RCE put fundraising on pause in March 2020. At the end of 2020, the endowment sent out its first ever appeal for donations via mail, which helped connect RCE to new benefactors, Powell said.

As for the public portion, in the 2019-20 budget, Roanoke’s city government allocated $125,000 to the endowment but cut those funds out in 2020-21. The original proposal was for Roanoke to contribute $250,000 a year.

The Roanoke Cultural Endowment is a piece essential to solving the sustainability puzzle, Powell said. “We’re living through exactly what financial support will look like in the future ... Something is going to happen again. It’s life, right?” Once RCE achieves, and hopefully surpasses, its $20 million goal, “we’ll be poised to contribute, we’ll be poised to provide grants.”

Meanwhile, the endowment has kept in touch with arts leaders. “We’ve been trying to highlight through our newsletters some of the work that they’re doing,” she said. “Because ultimately that’s who we want to support someday.”

Though things are looking up, Jackson, Roanoke’s arts and culture coordinator, cautioned that arts and culture organizations can’t be declared out of the woods. “You can run a bare bones organization, but can you run a bare bones organization that’s able to still have some muscle memory and strength in order to put on events? When you start ramping up, is the organization going to bear the weight of it?”

“Maybe the real gift of the pandemic is that people will be kind and say, here’s someone doing the best they can with what they know at this time, and let them be,” Pace said. “Celebrate them, that they’re trying to figure it out.”

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