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'We're driving straight up the cliff': Theater is back, but recovery proves perilous

Jessica Gelt, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

LOS ANGELES — Throughout the first long, agonizing year of the pandemic, leaders in the performing arts united around the hope of safely reopening and resuming live performances. If only that could eventually happen, the reasoning went, things would turn out all right.

The eventual hot vax summer gave way to the delta surge, crushing the hopes and meager finances of organizations clinging to the idea of returning to the stage during warmer months. Performances bowed sporadically in the early fall, but curtains did not rise again in earnest until the holidays, just in time for a rash of omicron-fueled cancellations.

With the spring of 2022 fully sprung, theaters and other performing arts venues are finally fully open, but everything is not coming up roses.

A recent study conducted by a group of arts organizations, L.A.'s Performing Arts and Reopening Survey, found three troubling trends: Both operating capacity and audience attendance are down to almost 50% of pre-pandemic levels, and ticket revenue is about one-third of what it was before COVID-19 struck.

Expenses, in the form of COVID safety, as well as general inflation and rent increases, are also way up. Artistic directors say this is not sustainable.

"There's a foreseeable financial cliff ahead of us. And I think that's what we're really concerned about," says Gustavo Herrera, executive director of Arts for L.A., which advocates for equitable access to the arts throughout the region. Herrera helped produce the survey alongside various artistic leaders including Leticia Rhi Buckley, chief executive of LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes; Danny Feldman, producing artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse; and Thor Steingraber, executive and artistic director of the Soraya at Cal State Northridge, with support from the Parsons and Ahmanson foundations.

 

Many arts organizations stayed afloat during the worst of the pandemic shutdowns through government pandemic grants and loans, augmented with generous donor support. That aid has long since dried up, those interviewed say.

Additional surveys reveal more of the perilous road ahead, including one by the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co., which suggests that it could take more than five years for the most affected sectors of the economy, including the arts, to get back to 2019-level contributions. Another survey by the National Endowment for the Arts found that in the first year of the pandemic, "few areas of the U.S. economy were hit harder than the performing arts" — and that during that time the arts economy lost more than half a million jobs.

SMU DataArts, an organization that seeks to gather and quantify information to help the arts and culture sectors with various decision-making processes, found that unemployment in the arts doubled the national average during the pandemic, spiking at 30%. The survey also found that BIPOC and disabled workers in the arts experienced disproportionately higher levels of unemployment.

Steingraber agrees that the arts' recovery to pre-pandemic levels might take many years, much like its lengthy recuperation after the financial crash of 2008. Unlike that recovery, which went up in slow, steady line, the timeline of this recovery — due to the terminal vagaries of what the virus might do next — is all over the place.

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