The Arts & the Pandemic • Where Are They Now?

One Year After the COVID Lockdowns We Check in with 7 Pivotal Arts Organizations in the Great Lakes Bay Region

    icon Apr 01, 2021
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There is no doubt that all of us - rich or poor; young or old - have been impacted by the COVID Pandemic in ways we never could have imagined. One of the most severely hit sectors of society has been the Performing Arts, who through the trauma of empty concert halls, bare stages, deserted galleries, and isolated artists, have been yearning to connect with an audience and no doubt praying to St. Cecilia - the Patron Saint of Music - to give them the resilience to survive and the innovation needed in order to return to their former greatness that has been muted for over a year now.

Americans for the Arts estimates a $1.8 trillion total financial loss to the arts & cultural sector of the United States from the COVID-19 pandemic and nearly 490 million fewer attendees to arts & cultural events.  The total financial loss to Michigan arts & culture institutions is estimated at nearly $20 billion, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the $338 billion loss in New York.  Indeed, out of 229 Michigan Arts Organizations surveyed, about 7 percent reported they were “not confident of survival.”

As society starts to re-open and recover from the Pandemic, The REVIEW reached out to several pivotal arts organizations throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region to see how they are surviving, discuss difficulties encountered over the past year, ascertain what their formula was to cope with these unforeseen trials & tribulations, and check the pulse on what their thoughts are about the future.

Participants in this extraordinary Arts Roundtable Pandemic Summit consisted of Pit & Balcony Community Theatre’s director Amy Spadafore, the Dow Event Center’s director Jonathan Block, the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra’s director Bonnie VanVoorHees, director Mike Kolleth who oversees both The Temple Theatre and The Saginaw Art Museum, managing Director Jessica Lowe from Bay City Players, plus Tamara Grefe from The Saginaw Choral Society and Jeanne Conger from Positive Results in Downtown Saginaw (PRIDE).

REVIEW: How has your organization or business coped with bare stages and deserted galleries over the past year and how severely has it affected your financial stability and your ability to move forward over the remainder of 2021?

Amy Spadafore:  At the beginning of this whole thing, after cancelling the second half of our 88th Season, Pit & Balcony made a commitment to ourselves & our community that we would reopen as quickly as possible and as safely as possible.  We feel that we have a responsibility to our community of artists and audiences to give them the ability to create and heal through art. 

We've had to re-program almost every show in our season to accommodate publishers' rules about virtual performances and the ever-changing guidelines for gatherings which affected our ability to rehearse more than anything.  We have only had to outright cancel one production.  We implemented cost-cutting measures elsewhere so that we could produce; we worked from home for as long and as often as possible, we turned the thermostats way down, we limited our production costs.   I'm proud to say we were able to pay every artist we would've paid pre-pandemic.  Some of them graciously donated their paychecks back.  The community support we've received has been substantial.  In the beginning - when we all thought this would only last a few months - patrons donated their unused tickets back to us instead of requesting refunds, we received contributions from a number of new donors this year, including a couple of bequests, which made some of our decision-making easier.  It hasn't always been easy.  In fact, it's pretty much exclusively been hard.  But we're entering the beginning of the end and I believe sticking to our mission, reducing expenses, and strong community support have all contributed to our ability to move forward.

Jon Block: It has been a challenge to cope with not being able to do what we love: bring people together for arts & entertainment. Financially it has significantly reduced operating revenue and has forced us to make difficult decisions to mitigate the financial impact both short-term and long-term. Many mitigation steps have been taken including reducing utility usage & pausing service agreements that are not currently necessary and reducing payroll. Our team has sacrificed a lot in order to ensure that we will be able to return stronger than ever once this pandemic is behind us.

Bonnie VanVoorhees:  The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the arts as a whole. It has forced us to face the challenge of how to remain relevant for the future in the reality of COVID-19. The loss of concert-dependent revenue, income for our musicians and declines in charitable contributions to the Orchestra have been financially difficult for everyone.  The reduction in ticket sales has been offset by a reduced number of musicians who can perform on stage due to socially distanced guidelines. The response to our virtual concerts has not been what we had hoped but it has given many new patrons the opportunity to be able to purchase tickets and to listen to our concerts as many times as they want for one month.

In the wake of all this, the SBSO has been fortunate to receive both rounds of PPP funds and a Michigan Small Business Restart Grant. Many of our season ticket patrons have donated their cancelled concert tickets and contributed to our 85th Anniversary Campaign that was originally created to assist in offsetting concert costs, but now offsets our operational costs.

Looking towards the remainder of 2021, we hope to be able to have a limited socially distanced live audience for our upcoming May 1st concert. It is our hope that for next season, which opens in October 2021, audiences will be eager to return to live events, but cautiously, we are prepared to pivot to a virtual concert should severe seating restriction guidelines remain in place.

Jessica Lowe:  With a total loss of income from productions, we have relied on operational funding from government, community foundations, and individual donors to maintain our facility during the closure and retain our part-time employees. We received a  PPP loan that was fully forgiven and operational grants from the Bay Area Community Foundation, the Michigan Small Business Restart Grant Program, and the Michigan Stages Survival Grant Program. Last, and certainly not least, we have received an outpouring of financial support from our generous donor base. We are extremely grateful for the support we have received from all of these sources.  Because of this assistance, we are well positioned to restart our programming this summer with our outdoor production of Godspell.

Tamara Grefe:  Like other arts organizations, Saginaw Choral Society has not presented a live concert nor held rehearsals since March, 2020. We have coped by maintaining contact with singing members through email and zoom and with patrons through social media. We are thankful that with our cash reserves, emergency grants through Saginaw Future and MCACA, a first round PPP loan, and generous donors, we were able to retain financial stability through 2020 and thus far into 2021. Moving forward, we will need to regain an income stream from tickets in the next concert season.

Jeanne Conger: Due to the Covid virus, PRIDE in Saginaw had to cancel most activities from March through December. We were able to host Harvest Days at the Market but the event was totally streamlined to follow covid regulations so there was not much happening other than the market being open and we were there to promote Saginaw. Our organization is supported by an Annual Fundraiser and the events that we do such as Friday Night Live, Christmas Parade and Holidays in the Heart of the City, all of which was cancelled. Some of our sponsors allowed us to keep their sponsorship contributions and we did our best to have them recognized at any activities we could host. Therefore we were able to remain somewhat stable because we had less expenses to host events. We were able to quality for the Payment Protection Program Grant which helped to sustain us and we received some funds from the Michigan Business start-up through Saginaw Future.

Mike Koleth: While the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on all theaters and museums artistically and financially, we have worked hard to keep the museum doors open and the Temple in use for safe digital productions. We deeply believe that art has and will continue to play an important social role as we work through the pandemic. The museum is open with adjusted hours. We have safely created and streamed, award-winning digital content from the Temple Theatre during the past year. We have remained, active, engaged, and vital.

Review:  What types of innovations have you made to navigate through and adapt to this crisis and remain connected with your audience; and when do you anticipate returning to your former greatness?

Amy Spadafore: Like many theatre companies, we made virtual programming a centerpiece over the last year.  We started with "staged readings" on Zoom, with actors performing from their own homes in a Zoom meeting style.  Once our 89th Season opened in November, we presented a fully produced fully virtual production from our stage.  December brought us the only show we had to cancel completely due to rising covid cases, but we hosted a fully virtual and very successful fundraiser, the likes of which we'd never done before.   As soon as we were able, we measured the space between seats and opened our doors to live audiences and offered a hybrid virtual & live production to begin 2021. 

We have pivoted and remained nimble throughout this year and that has kept us connected with our audience and community.  We will continue to follow all the guidelines set for us.  The sooner we can rely on public comfort and confidence that it is safe to come out and gather in groups, the sooner we will be able to more fully open.  It won't be until next season that we are able to fill all 280 seats in our house or offer concessions but until then we will continue to give the Great Lakes Bay Region a creative outlet and source of hope.

Jon Block: On the show side, we have promoted an online show program called Passport Shows. Passport Shows brings entertainment from Ben Seidman, Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Colin Mochrie & Brad Sherwood and Max Major to people’s living rooms for a live interactive experience. These programs were well received by the public and we were proud to be involved.

One of our other focuses has been to stay engaged in the community through various partnerships. We have hosted a mask drive with WNEM, The Workwear Store & the Saginaw Community Foundation. We hosted many blood drives in our atrium and hosted a book bag drive with WTLZ. We also partnered with Saginaw County on four drive through vaccination clinics and also by hosting Saginaw County Trial Courts hearings & jury trials. As you can see, these are not typical events for us, but great ways for us to utilize our resources to support the community.

As for returning to what we were pre-pandemic, As we all know, making predictions about a full return to live entertainment has been very difficult during this uncertain past year. We anticipate to be able to host some community events and a few postponed concerts in Huntington Event Park this summer, under capacity restrictions. Beyond this summer, the touring industry looks to be targeting late 2021 and early 2022, for a return to full-capacity live events if allowed. I can tell you that as soon as we are allowed to host full capacity events, our team will be ready.

Bonnie VanVoorhees: For the SBSO, we moved to scale down our original season and adjusted programming to a smaller number of musicians that could assemble while socially distanced and be filmed for virtual concerts. We also eliminated our March concert to assist in reducing our deficit. We contracted with Delta College Broadcasting to air our virtual concerts so that those audience members who could not stream are able to enjoy the virtual concerts.

Our musicians worked with us and created digital at home events through Get to Know the SBSO and SBSO At Home that premiered on our Facebook page and are archived on our website and YouTube channel. Last summer, we took the opportunity to use soloists, duets and trios to do neighborhood Pop-Up concerts at area hospitals, farmer’s market and downtown area to say thank you to essential workers. We hope to return to live concerts with a full orchestra in October, but also be able to pivot to a virtual concert should mandated restrictions still be in place. We will also continue to provide video-streamed concerts to those who will not yet be comfortable attending a live concert.

Jessica Lowe: Hoping the crises would pass faster than it has, we created guide lines for all standing committees, for stage use, for house use, for Players general attitude and behavior toward this emergency. Sadly, we needed to go dark before we could follow much of this advice but it was a positive feeling to know we were moving ahead, even if only for a short time. Players will conclude Season 103 with a performance of GODSPELL, July 15-18, in the performance shell in Wenonah Park in downtown Bay City. This is an open-air venue and double the stage space in our theatre. Both high positive in defeating COVID.

Tamara Grefe:  Early on in the pandemic it was determined that choirs were super-spreaders of the virus and should not meet. Because of this, the Choral Society knew that even by December, we would not be able to perform. We turned to a new platform. For our annual holiday event, we presented a three-part video titled At Home for the Holidays with Saginaw Choral Society, that aired on social media for FREE. It connected with our audience and achieved more than we hoped, having thousands of views on social media. It is hard to say whether we will return to the same performance model we have maintained for years. Covid has “offered” the opportunity to re-evaluate how we will continue to engage both our singers and out patrons in the future. 

Jeanne Conger:  In August and September we created six Friday Night Dinner Dash events in which food trucks were set up in Morley Plaza for take-out dinner. Covid regulations were followed and the events were very well received. It was not a money maker for PRIDE but it was helpful to the vendors that were suffering through the lock downs. It served the community well and that is a main goal of PRIDE’s mission. It was also helpful in reminding people that there are always things to do in downtown Saginaw.

For Holidays in the Heart of the City, we were able to have a video created and show a virtual lighting ceremony for people to watch on Youtube and Facebook Live. It premiered on the typical Friday evening of Holidays in the Heart of the City and had over 15,000 views. Christmas lights still went up on the streets, in Morley Plaza and around the city so that people were able to enjoy the season on their own.

Mike Kolleth: Thanks to the expertise, commitment, and creativity of our staff we were able to utilize digital channels to reach our audiences in ways that we had done before. In the months where the museum and theater were completely closed by law, we streamed works of art on daily basis, created a Saginaw Art Museum podcast and developed a tremendous YouTube Program called Under the Golden Ceiling featuring local performers. Necessity was truly the Mother of Invention.

Review:  Will your methods of presentation and engagement change as COVID restrictions are further lifted?

Amy Spadafore: I think all theatre people are excited to get back to the thrill of a live show, but I anticipate we will continue to offer a virtual fundraiser each year and I plan to investigate how we can use our new experience in the virtual realm to increase our reach and broaden our audiences in the future. 

Jon Block: I think the presentations will remain the same for the most part, but you may see some additional opportunities for the public for larger shows including live streaming sold out concerts. I think a lot of what will change is what occurs behind the scenes at events as far as sanitization and cleaning procedures. Fans will notice a significant increase in availability of hand sanitizer and new contactless payment options at different areas of our facilities. This is all a small part of our ASM Global VenueShield plan, which will create a safe and fun environment for guests, employees and touring shows. 

Bonnie VanVoorhees: We will continue to video concerts and make them available for streaming, as some patrons may not feel comfortable returning to live audience concerts as well as continuing our digital program format. For next season, even though COVID-19 restrictions may be lifted or eased, we will continue our fundraising events like Holiday Housewalk to be a hybrid event.

Jessica Lowe: That’s our every intention. We want to be safe and within restrictions, but when aspects are lifted that improve the situation for a production, we will move ahead in making the changes.

Tamara Grefe:  With change comes opportunity. As restrictions are lifted, we will begin in-person rehearsals and plan public performance. But we will also turn to our mission, “Building and uniting our community through music” to guide us into new and perhaps uncharted waters to plan ways to represent and engage our community. 

Jeanne Conger: We are planning for the return of events in 2021 including Friday Night Live, Christmas Parade and Holidays in the Heart of the City. We will follow any restrictions with a prepared plan to help protect the general public and our volunteers.

Mike Kolleth: As we begin to host live events again, the amount of digital programming we create will inevitably decrease. One cannot fully replace the glory of the Temple Theatre experience digitally nor can viewing a fine work of art online ever compete with experiencing it in person. We are foremost places for our community to gather in person and celebrate the arts.

Review: What have been your primary goals while locked down and have you instituted any renovations or restructuring to improve your venue once it does open to full capacity?

Amy Spadafore: Our primary goal has been to produce as quickly and safely as possible so there have been no renovations or restructuring of the actual building.  Our focus has been almost entirely on delivering a high-quality product as safely and at as low cost as possible. 

Jon Block: As soon as the March, 2020 millage passed and the shutdown began we started planning for various capital projects around our facilities including installing a new roof, upgrading the ice plant, and making structural repairs and other upgrades to the parking ramp. We currently have selected Spence Construction as the construction manager for these projects and they are very close to bidding out the targeted projects.

Bonnie VanVoorhees: First, we scaled down our original season and adjusted programming to smaller number of musicians and provided virtual concerts for our patrons to enjoy. Second, we created digital at home events through Get to Know the SBSO and SBSO At Home. Third, last summer we used soloists, duets and trios to do neighborhood Pop-Up concerts and developed a 3-day virtual Summer Youth Camp. Fourth, we have increased our social media presence to promote our virtual concerts and events and to reach out to potential new patrons. Fifth, we have communicated with our patrons through quarterly newsletters and a biweekly E-news email to keep them informed during the pandemic.

We continue to work with Temple Theatre management to determine the best ways to bring audiences and our musicians back safely.

Jessica Lowe: A major goal during lock down has been to keep staff and volunteers. It has still been necessary to communicate with patrons and agencies, so lock down does not mean a total shut down. More like not business as usual. Our building committee has still been active regarding maintenance and improvement.


Tamara Grefe: While there is nothing quite so thrilling as singing on the concert stage for a large audience, our primary goal has been to protect the welfare of our singers and audience. We are using this time to consider restructuring ideas so that we achieve this while the world slowing emerges into full capacity. As we do not have our own venue, we are also excited for our venue partners and colleagues as they, too, emerge from being shuttered. 

Jeanne Conger: We haven’t made any significant changes but continued to work toward the reopening of our venues.

Mike Kolleth: Indeed we have. Before the pandemic, the Temple had been engaged in a capital campaign. We had raised funds to replace the roof and refinish the stage, both of which are mission-critical for ongoing operations. We accomplished both during the pandemic.

Review:  It is anticipated that the total financial loss to Michigan arts & cultural institutions will be nearly $20 billion; do you feel your organization will be able to fully recover?

Amy Spadafore: In short, yes.  If this had happened 5 or even 3 years ago, I wouldn't be so confident.  Pit & Balcony has done a lot of great work to get itself to relative financial stability.  We're not rolling in the dough, but we have the support and leadership in place which are required to weather a storm such as this.  

Jon Block: Yes, we feel like we will be able to fully recover and there is some expectation that once we are allowed to fully reopen, there will be very high demand for usage both from touring shows and from fans. Artists are excited to get back to work and fans are ready to return to enjoying live shows in a safe environment.

Bonnie VanVoorhees: It will take some time, but I think in order for our Orchestra to fully recover, we need to continue to think outside of the box on how we can reach our audiences who can no longer attend concerts, see how our audience responds to coming back for live concerts if COVID-19 restrictions are still in place, how we can collaborate with other area non-profits and how we further develop our fund development programs and opportunities.

Jessica Lowe:  Yes.

Tamara Grefe: We believe Saginaw Choral Society will recover fully over time. It will take careful examination of our current programming and thoughtful strategic planning to remain impactful through our voices. As we are emerging for the virus, we are also sensing a public recognition and enthusiasm for the role that the arts play in our collective well-being and quality of life. 

Jeanne Conger: Yes, we believe we will recover because people need these venues to build a strong community and contribute to their quality of life. Positive Results Downtown has been providing events and opportunities to the Saginaw Community for over 45 years and we are proud to continue to do so.

Mike Kolleth:   Clearly, every arts organization in the state and beyond and been stung by the pandemic. We are certainly no exception. Through a combination of belt-tightening, government support, and the selfless contributions and support of foundations and individuals across the region, both the Temple Theatre and Saginaw Art Museum are – and will continue to be – in a position to serve our community for generations to come. We will be launching a major fundraiser later this year to help us reach full recovery more rapidly.

Review:  What has been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome and is what is the biggest insight you have learned navigating this crisis that gives you a sense of hope about the resiliency of the arts? 

Amy Spadafore: I didn't know it at the time, but the biggest challenge was the decision to "just do it."  It was realizing that every decision after that was going to be BIG and IMPORTANT and have so much riding on it, but also realizing that as long as we were keeping people safe there was really no wrong decision.  There's no blueprint for this.  I've learned to trust my gut and to lead with grace and authenticity more than ever before.  The biggest insight I've had navigating this crisis is that art is what we work for. 

Art is what we live for.  It is the pinnacle of the human experience.  Art will always be here, music, theatre, culture, will always exist because we need to tell our stories, we must find the beauty around us and connect through creativity.  If we don't, what are we working for?

Jon Block: The first challenge was the sudden shutdown of many revenue streams into The Dow Event Center. It wasn’t a gradual slowdown, but instead we were shut down in what seemed like an instant. Our team had to pivot instantly to mitigation mode from event planning mode.

The second biggest has been just the overall uncertainty of this pandemic and the shutdown. I have predicted many times of when we would be “back to normal” and have been wrong every single time. It is difficult to communicate with our team and community partners when you can’t predict what will happen next. Everyone has the same question during this pandemic: “When will this end?”

The biggest insight we have learned is to stay light on our feet to be able to adjust to a constantly changing environment. Be creative & think outside of the box, which I think many arts organizations in this region have done an exceptional job at during these challenging times.

Bonnie VanVoorhees: One of the biggest challenges I have learned is the ability to be flexible and change when situations change that I have no control over. We have had to adapt this season several times as updated mandates and restrictions changed. The thing that has given me the most hope, is our patrons, who in my conversations with them, are anxiously looking forward to getting back and enjoying all that the arts has to offer in Saginaw.

Jessica Lowe: There is no single challenge towering over all others. Everything needed to change. At times, it’s income. At times, it’s communication since our customary word-of-mouth has had no words. At all times, it is safety and security for all entering the building at all times. We have had a positive experience with our patrons, many of whom did not seek refunds for season tickets purchased for a season that was shut down. We hear from patrons who are anxious to back in our auditorium. It’s nice to know they like us.

Tamara Grefe:  The biggest challenge is the “unknown” that accompanies the year-long pandemic. We don’t know how the pandemic will have affected our audience or our funding patrons. Regarding our singers who have not met for a year, we can’t be sure all of them will feel confident about singing in a large group after knowing that choirs were deemed super-spreaders. What gives us hope is that we know they miss singing and they miss each other. Singing is a powerful means of expression and communication and it’s the singing that gives us confidence in our resiliency.  Chorus America statistics show that more people sing in a choir that participate in any other art form; with this in mind, we have the sense of hope our future.  

Jeanne Conger: The biggest challenge was trying to prepare events not knowing if they will be approved and allowed to move forward.

Mike Kolleth: There is data that shows when a group of people are together in a theater watching a production that in time their hearts start to beat as one. Gathering together to see a play, hear live music, or to see a great piece of art in a museum is a fundamental part of the human experience. The pandemic will not change that. That is perhaps my biggest insight from the pandemic. Art prevails.  We are sensing strong pent-up demand for the arts and connecting in person with families and friends to celebrate the best that humanity has to offer on stage and in the halls of our museum. We are extremely optimistic about the future.  The biggest challenges have been financial – we are not unique in that sense.

Review:  Feel free to comment on any topic I may not have touched upon.

Amy Spadafore: The arts & culture sector contributes over $13 billion to Michigan's economy every year.  For every ticket sold to an arts & culture event an additional $31 is spent in that community. The losses in the arts & culture sector over the last year will not only be felt by artists but by business owners, city governments, and residents. 

If we can't support the arts & culture sector in the same way we support bars and restaurants, a large hole will be left in all of our communities.  Cities will struggle with talent retention, business attraction, quality-of-life, and tourism.  Arts & culture organizations are not just "nice to haves" in a community.  They are a pillar of economic development and strength and must be treated as such. 

Bonnie VanVoorhees: Due to the pandemic, the Saginaw Bay Symphony Orchestra cancelled its final two concerts last season, the Young People’s Concert for 4th through 6th graders, the youth orchestra’s spring session, and their May concert at the Temple Theatre. The total budget decreased 26.6% and we ended the fiscal year with a loss from operations of $30,499. We are projected to have a loss from operations this season as well.

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