Arts institutions of all sizes across King County are asking for financial support and gaming out ways to keep shows on the stage after state and county officials mandated new social distancing measures Wednesday morning.
Gov. Inslee banned events with over 250 guests statewide, and King County Executive Dow Constantine banned all events with under 250 guests countywide, unless those venues can keep people 6 feet away from each other and regularly disinfect surfaces.
Officials said these measures will stay in place through March but may go beyond that, which will imperil the programing and finances of some of the city's most beloved art houses. And, of course, the artists who are going to get hurt the worst during all this are small, independent artists and stage workers who depend entirely on performance revenue.
Bernie Griffin, managing director of the 5th Avenue Theatre, said the ban won't allow her to produce musical theater in a house with a 2,000-person capacity. In the short term, that means the production of Sister Act will not proceed as scheduled. She's projecting a revenue loss of "about a million dollars," which is "big" loss for a nonprofit. The theater is working on "30-, 60-, and 90-day contingency plans" that will "become more draconian as time goes on."
Griffin said the news is "devastating," and stressed that the 5th and the rest of the arts community need help. "If you bought a ticket for your local nonprofit, do not ask for a refund. If you can make a gift, make a gift. This will be a difficult time," she said.
At the Pacific Northwest Ballet, artistic director Pete Boal and executive director Ellen Walker canceled upcoming performances of One Thousand Pieces (which looked so fucking good), and Beauty and the Beast. Associated artists and staff have agreed to "let the dress rehearsals of these programs be streamed online for our ticket buyers," according to a release.
Over the phone, Walker used the same word Griffin used to describe the mandatory measures: "devastating." She said PNB will likely lose $1 million in "unrealized revenue" for March and $1.5 million for April.
Walker added that the sector was already vulnerable before these mandatory closures, noting retracted corporate support and historically low government funding. (Washington state is 5th from the bottom in terms of statewide arts funding.) "We're already in a sustainability challenge if not crisis," she said.
Walker said PNB and other arts orgs have been in conversations with Constantine's office about potential relief through public funds. "We've articulated the need, and so we're really advocating for a response from public officials around the use of government funds to keep our organizations open," she said.
"I think the arts scene is probably looking at aggregate losses on the order of $2 to 3 million a week at least for the duration of these measures," said Josef Krebs, co-owner of Scandiuzzi Krebs, a consulting firm for arts and culture. "The task ahead is to convert unhappy and disappointed ticket buyers into happy and emotionally fulfilled donors."
Over at On the Boards in Lower Queen Anne, executive director Betsey Brock said the contemporary performance venue will continue to operate OtB TV free through April "for anyone who needs art in their lives." (Promo code: ARTATHOME20.) The service allows viewers to stream past performances.
They've canceled some smaller fundraising activities and their studio supper for next week's show, Timothy White Eagle's The Violet Symphony, and staff is working with artists in upcoming programs on changing the format of performances.
"We're wondering if there’s a way they can become more salon-style shows, or installations that a few people can engage with at a time. We don’t know what’s possible yet," Brock said. An announcement on that will be made tomorrow.
OtB will continue to pay artists and staff for these upcoming shows, no matter what form they take, but Brock said the organization anticipates "a huge economic ripple we're only beginning to grasp."
Brock is looking at everything scheduled in March and April with the understanding that those dates are in flux, and they can handle that financial uncertainty if they're "pretty scrappy" about it, but they may not have that flexibility if the ban continues through May.
"I really feel for organizations that are smaller than us," Brock added. "I've been in conversations with colleagues at Base, Velocity, and Northwest Film Forum. We need each other, and we need to figure out how we’re going to muddle through this together."
David Gassner, producing director at 18th & Union, a 48-seat theater in the Central District, said he's in the midst of deciding what to do about this weekend's production of 1984. Upcoming productions in the next two weeks are in the air.
Though times are uncertain, he added that ticket sales have continued. Last weekend he had a full house on Friday, but on Saturday only 1/3 of the audience showed up.
"The problem that all the small and mid-size theaters have is nobody knows how long this goes on," Gassner said. "In many cases, a shutdown of three months could kill these organizations. At the same time, as the government is telling us what they want us to do, I’d hope that government agencies would also be looking for ways to support arts organizations, because these kinds of shutdowns could be catastrophic."
King County Council Member Jeanne Kohl-Welles said she's "intending to introduce legislation" in coordination with the Executive, but nothing is firm yet. "I think we need to do that for them and other small businesses," she said. She added that on a personal note she's not going to events for which she has tickets but isn't asking for refunds, either.
Kate Becker, creative economy strategist in Constantine’s office, said “all things are under consideration right now” before running off to meeting with other arts leaders.
Stephen McCandless, who's been the managing director at Annex Theatre for 20 years, says he's swinging for the fences. They plan to stream their next production, One Horse Town, which opens at the end of March and runs through April. "This is a wild-ass experiment on our part. We’ll be making these available to the public, and we’ll be hoping in return that the public will indulge us." They'll also host a 24-hour telethon sometime in April.
He's energized to figure something out, but clear-eyed about the future. "We're gone in three months if we can’t make this work, and that’s stretching," he said.
McCandless, who remembers competing with larger orgs for grant scraps during a recession, is skeptical of government promises for funding. "I mean, the city is going to have to float the opera, and the symphony, and the ballet," he said. "I’ve seen this happen before. Everyone’s nice, and everyone’s here for each other, and everyone’s every polite and feels like the community is important. But they’ll do whatever it takes to keep their organizations alive."
Updates about show cancellations from larger organizations began rolling in Wednesday afternoon.
In a press release, the Seattle Symphony has canceled or postponed all events at Benaroya Hall in March. President and CEO Krishna Thiagarajan said, "As we come together to protect the health of our community, the symphony remains dedicated to providing comfort, strength, and joy."
Seattle Theatre Group—which operates The Paramount, Moore and Neptune Theatres—said in a release that staff is working to reschedule all shows through the end of March. They plan to "directly email patrons regarding the status of each performance" and automatically refund tickets for canceled events paid by card.
At ACT Theatre downtown, marketing director Gail Benzler said their production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Sweat, by Lynn Nottage was supposed to begin previews next Friday. That's on hold now, and the theater is "closing our building to the general public through March 31."
"We are exploring all options at present. Obviously, this closure represents a major financial loss for ACT," Benzler said, though she added she's also looking toward the future. "We remain focused on getting great work on stage and have a number of exciting plays and programs for patrons once the prohibition on public gatherings has been lifted."