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Light for Dark Houses

Written by Carrie Beth Wallace

For the first time in my life, live performances are a memory. My former state of anticipation has developed into a languid, daily revisitation of the moments in life I've treasured both on stage and off. As a performer and advocate for the arts, I've been fortunate to have live performances play an intentional role in my life for decades.

My interest in the arts was fostered by my parents. I grew up ten minutes from downtown Houston, which meant access to live performances featuring some of the finest artists in the world. My parents took my sister and I to symphony concerts at Jones Hall, summer musicals at Miller Outdoor Theatre, art museums, the Houston Ballet, and they flew us to New York City more than a few times to see shows on Broadway. Because of their willingness to share the arts with us, live performances became like an old friend to me - steady, familiar, a source of joy. And, as it happens so often in life with old friends, I fell in love.

Throughout school, music and the language arts were my passion. I was enamored with the way I'd seen words and music work together in so many different, impactful ways on stage. I went on to study voice in college, and discovered a love for writing about the arts there. Though I still sing regularly, I quickly realized that it was certainly my voice I was meant to use in the arts - just in a different way than I originally thought.

Now, my husband and I enjoy the symphony together as often as possible. We have made it a habit to take our children to see productions at our favorite local theaters, and they are already fairly familiar with much of the collection at our beloved art museum in town. As a mother, some of my most precious memories have been watching the same light come on in my children's eyes as they've taken their seat in audience for the very first time.

Sadly, those days are on hold for all of us now.

COVID-19 hit our nation like a freight train, and with it, brought difficult months of newly shared experiences for Americans. There's been a shared tragedy, and the consequences have been thrust upon all of us. We've endured it together, but have lived it apart.

We continue through months of unknown. Sheltering-in-place, donning masks, avoiding non-essential travel. We've have been asked to avoid some of life's most simple joys, and sadly - we've even been asked to avoid each other.

How long this new reality will last remains a mystery. The brightest medical minds in the world are working around the clock to find a solution in the healthcare industry. Those in food service have reinvented the wheel several times over to ensure that Americans are fed safely, efficiently, and well.

Our collective health and well-being are on the forefront of everyone's mind - and I believe that hope is still alive and well among us, whether our news feeds communicate it or not.

And yet, many gaps remain that none of us know how to fill. As with any tragedy, we each will presented with opportunities to fill gaps in the lives of others. But what will they be, and how to meet those needs, many of us don't yet know.

The most pervasive gap I find constantly on the forefront of my mind is the devastating effect COVID-19 has had on the arts as a whole.

The nature of the arts is to bring people together. But what about now? What is the role of the arts when it is unsafe for people to gather? When performance venues are limited to outdoor activities and/or required to endure restrictions so drastically distracting that they have the potential to take away from the art itself. How will these institutions continue to function?

Everything has changed, and yet, our collective need for the arts continues to grow. But do we even know where they stand?

Americans for the Arts has produced some incredible data about the state of the arts amidst COVID-19. Though difficult to process, this is where things stood as of this week:

- The national average of the current financial impact per organization to date is - $25,000.

- 96% of arts organizations across the nation have had to cancel events due to COVID-19, and

an estimated loss of 88 million people would have been in attendance at those events.

- The national average is a loss of 1,200 ticket sales per organization so far.

- 62,000 people have seen their jobs eliminated.

- 49,000 people have been furloughed.

- 72% of organizations have modified their operating status.

- 44% have been forced to utilize their financial reserves.

- Only 59% of arts administrators are confident their organizations will survive the crisis.

There's more there to it than that, though. Colleen Dilenschneider, Chief Market Engagement Officer for IMPACTS and the author of Know Your Own Bone, has collected and shared a series of data gauging audience perceptions, behaviors, and expectations of cultural entities after COVID-19.

In her study, Dilenschneider shares the alarming reality that cultural institutions are facing when it comes to the effects of COVID-19 on their audience. According to Dilenschneider, over 70% of visitors want cultural entities to require patrons to wear masks for the foreseeable future.

Dilenschneider's study also points out that many other factors determine guests' likelihood to buy a ticket. Cultural institutions' visitor numbers in 2020- early 2021 will likely depend on things like the type of venue they're running, geographical location they're in, and the procedures they put into place for their guests. Here's an example of one of Dilenschneider's graphs showing the implications of types of venue on audience intent:

Read about other factors that Dilenschneider's research has shown will indicate how arts organizations recover in the coming year. The direct impact is astounding, and there is much to be done.

But what can be done?

I won't pretend there's a definitive path forward. There simply isn't. I can't even assure you there is one for every organization. But what I know at my core is there are enough of us who are passionate about the arts and will fight for them. There is much to be done, but there are many of us who will step up and advocate for the arts as they fight for survival.

I'll share more in the coming months about tangible ways to help our local arts organizations as they recover from COVID-19, but in the meantime, here are a few things we can each begin doing now to bring some light to the dark houses in our community:

1) Donate Single Tickets: Consider donating the price of your ticket to a show you'd normally see, but are unable to attend. Single ticket buyers make up for a surprising amount of tickets sold each year. Don't be afraid to do what you can, when you can. Every little bit counts.

2) Keep Your Season Tickets: If you happen to be a season ticket holder at a local cultural entity, consider keeping your season tickets this year even if you're not sure how or when you'll feel comfortable attending a show. Season ticket holders have an opportunity to make a tremendous impact for arts organizations in the coming months, and renewing your commitment to keep your annual investment now could mean more than you know to the organization you support.

3) Remember Arts Education: Make a philanthropic donation to an initiative for arts education. Schools around the nation are seeing major cuts to their fine arts programming, and even a small donation can go a long way to bring the arts to children during such a crucial time.

4) Reach out: Unsure where the gaps are and what's needed to fill them? Just ask. Put a call into the office of a local cultural entity when it crosses your mind. Ask about their needs and offer to brainstorm ways to help meet them. Even if a major financial gift isn't something you can offer, don't underestimate the power of offering to lend a hand. Every organization needs the help right now, and there really is something everyone can do to sustain the arts in their city.

Next week, we'll feature a report from a local cultural entity about what they're doing to actively mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on their organization. Stay tuned for more in this new series on the state of the arts in our community. ◼︎

Other articles by Carrie Beth Wallace:

Click on the image to read each one.

Questions? Ask, and our team will do everything we can to find an answer.


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