Hodgins: Orange County Arts in Limbo as Groups Big and Small Ponder the Future

Photo courtesy of Nick Merrick/Soka PAC

Inside the Soka Performing Arts Center which, along with every other arts organization, has canceled performances until shelter-in-place mandates are lifted.

Paul Hodgins

A highly respected and award-winning arts journalist. In partnership with Heide Janssen, Hodgins has in just over a year established a community-focused, award-winning and widely respected Arts & Culture section at Voice of OC. In addition to his work here as an arts writer, columnist and editor, Hodgins teaches at USC. Previously, he was an arts writer and critic at the Orange County Register and the San Diego Union-Tribune and a professor at UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton. Hodgins holds degrees from USC, the University of Michigan and the Royal Conservatory of Music.

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Earlier this year, Orange County’s performing arts groups were enjoying a busy and eventful season.

South Coast Repertory was preparing to mount the world premiere of a staged adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel, “The Scarlet Letter.” At the adjacent Segerstrom Center for the Arts, American Ballet Theatre performed an exotic new ballet, “Love and Rage,” by Russian master Alexei Ratmansky. Pacific Symphony, in the midst of music director Carl St.Clair’s 30th year with the ensemble, was planning a “Beethoven Immersion Weekend” to celebrate the composer’s 250th anniversary.

Mid-size organizations, smaller groups and street-level performance were thriving, too. Soka University had booked rising-star pianist Beatrice Rana for May 16. Chance Theater scored a hit with “Fun Home” and was getting ready to produce the musical “Billy Elliot” in June. A lively hip-hop contest brought Santa Ana streets to life.

And the future looked bright. O.C.-born ballet star Skylar Campbell had announced he was forming a company of prominent dancers that would perform for part of each season in Orange County. 

Then the world changed. Like countless other aspects of life that we thought of as permanent and reliable, going to a venue and watching people act, sing, dance or play an instrument now seem like memories from a distant past. Concerts, plays and musicals have been postponed or canceled; Campbell’s dream company has been put on hold. Stages are dark.

As Californians, and most Americans, settle into the strange new reality of self-isolation, we’ve begun to take stock of all the ways in which our lives have changed – for how long, we don’t know. One of the things we have to suffer without right now: visiting a theater, museum, jazz club or concert hall.

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on America’s cultural world has been sudden and profound. Its economic impact on the arts and culture industry across the nation is estimated to be about $4.5 billion to date, according to a survey by the nonprofit group Americans for the Arts, whose members include museums, performing arts centers, dance companies, theaters, writing programs, historical sites, libraries and arts schools. Cumulative attendance is down about 55 million, and 94 percent of all arts events have been cancelled. 

Arts and culture represent a surprisingly large chunk of the American economy: it’s an $878 billion industry that makes up about 4.5 percent of the country’s GDP and supports 5 million jobs, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. For those who make their living in the arts, the last month has been a time of unprecedented challenges and changes. How does any enterprise that depends on drawing an audience survive our present situation? For most theaters, ticket sales and other earned income account for at least 50 percent of total revenue, which means shutting the doors for an indefinite amount of time is a big hit.

But anyone who makes his or her living in the arts understands adversity well. Voice of OC has talked to cultural leaders around Orange County, from companies big and small, and we discovered a lot of creative thinking and resourcefulness as they map out strategies to survive the next few weeks and months.

We intend to follow many of these companies during a period of great upheaval, reporting on their problems, plans, hopes and progress as they map a route to an uncertain future. This is the first story in a series that will last as long as the pandemic does.

‘The Past Month Has Been Really Rough’

For smaller organizations that have little in the way of an endowment or emergency fund, the sudden transformation has been brutal.

“Smaller (arts) groups are by their very nature more marginal, with fewer reserves,” said Wylie Aitken, a prominent Orange County lawyer who has donated much of his time and money to theater in Orange County, including South Coast Repertory and Anaheim’s Chance Theater. (Aitken also serves as board chairman for Voice of OC.) “I know a lot about the resources of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts and South Coast Repertory. They’re suffering, of course, but they have well-heeled donors who can step in and other sources to draw from. I feel badly for all of their employees who are affected, but I don’t feel they will have any trouble bouncing back. But it’s a whole different situation with the Chance and other smaller arts groups around the county.”

“The past month has been really rough,” said Casey Long, managing director of Chance Theater. “We just came off our most successful season last year, in terms of attendance and critical reaction. We got a great start to this year: an Ovation Award, a Critic’s Choice from the L.A. Times, a new outreach program, special talk back sessions. And then all this happened and everything came to a halt.”

Chance had already committed to producing the musical “Billy Elliot,” and one of its biggest outstanding expenses is paying off performers’ contracts for that show, which has officially been postponed to this summer.

“Expenses keep coming,” said Oanh Nguyen, Chance’s artistic director. “Unfortunately we had to furlough four of our employees. But we’re doing everything we can to close that gap. We’re planning to seek federal support through the CARES Act. (Congress’ massive economic relief plan includes emergency loans, paycheck protection programs and other ways for businesses to temporarily stay afloat.) The rest of the staff has taken a salary cut in order to keep us going. Right now we are in the process of kicking off a fundraising campaign to raise about $200,000, which will help get us to the next season.”

Many arts groups have reached out to their patrons for help. One common kindness is not asking for a refund for a canceled event that was already paid for.

“I think that’s something the public is really getting behind,” said John Forsyte, president of Pacific Symphony. “It might not seem like a huge gift, but for a group of our size it adds up. When you have $100,000 in tickets that are eligible for refunds and people (waive) it, that really helps. Paying out refunds right now would really weaken (us).”

Will Social Distancing Work in a Theater?

All cultural organizations, no matter their size, are faced with the same daunting questions. The first and most important one is whether or not audiences will return before a vaccine for the virus is found.

“Once restrictions (about social gathering) are gradually lifted, it’s all about how people feel about indoor venues,” Forsyte said. “What safeguards are going to allow someone to feel comfortable?”

Casey Reitz, president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, voiced a common concern among arts leaders about social distancing.

“How much could we expect to make if houses are only 50 percent full at a maximum? And will that be enough of a safeguard to bring people back? I don’t think anybody has put pen to paper on that. We just don’t know what (reduced occupancy) will look like.”

“We’re going to look closely at the big places like the O.C. Fair and Disneyland that customarily attract a lot of people,” Forsyte said. “Once venues open, will that create a (groundswell) of confidence and lessen people’s concern? That’s a metric I’ll be watching.”

Reitz thinks that for the time being, arts professionals – from artists to managers, talent agents to ticket takers – will have to accept that revenue will be down significantly, and adjust expectations as a result. “All of our partners will have to come together and make certain compromises and concessions.”

Reitz also warned of another issue that will materialize next season. “Broadway is closed right now. Usually, we have access to touring productions of recent (Broadway hits).” That product won’t be available for a while – and the annual Broadway season of touring musicals is the Segerstrom Center’s most popular offering.

More Than One Silver Lining

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the problems for arts organizations look frightening and even overwhelming. It’s a foregone conclusion that some groups won’t survive, just as many businesses of every kind will undoubtedly fail.

But local arts leaders see reason for measured optimism, at least once the worst part of the crisis has passed.

“This is a different kind of economic crisis,” said Richard Stein, president of Arts Orange County, an advocacy group for many O.C. arts organizations. “As opposed to the financial crisis of 2008, where we were really headed into unknown territory as far as the economy goes, we’re coming off 10 years of an unprecedented growth of wealth in our country, and so the people who are quite well to do are certainly way better positioned to weather it.” Now is the time for wealthy arts lovers, many of them board members with cultural organizations, to step up, Stein said.

The arts institutions that survive could be well positioned for a period of healthy growth, Stein believes.

“There’s going to be this pent-up demand as soon as this is over that’s going to lead to quite a strong boom. Yes, there will be those who don’t survive because they were already not in great shape. But I think this is likely to be fairly short term.”

Stein pointed out that other economic factors brighten the picture as well. “One of the most interesting things in the stimulus bill (is that) it includes money for the arts. It’s huge: $300 million.”

People understand that this crisis is not of the arts world’s making, and everyone is feeling the pain, which makes it easier to appeal for help, Nguyen said.

“We’re all in this together. We don’t have to explain anything when we ask for help. Everyone gets it and understands it.”

Arts leaders see other reasons for hope as well.

“This moment affords us a set of analytical points which we may never have again,” Forsyte said. “We’re all going to work and play and observe the world differently.” New and innovative ways to experience the arts through social media and remote participation could become permanent parts of our lives, Forsyte said, though he emphasized that nothing takes the place of live performance.

The pandemic is forcing us to reassess our values, and that’s ultimately good for the arts, Reitz believes.

“This crisis is teaching us what it means to gather, to share a community, to share a performance. We’re getting a big dose of what isolation feels like. What the arts provide is the opposite of isolation. What is it we’re all looking for in the arts? Great writing, acting, directing, dancing; a great experience that happens in the moment. 

“I’m finding that people are now finding a lot of solace in the arts through digital means. That makes me extremely optimistic. Food, shelter and health are critically important, but the next step is to ask, ‘What are we living for?’ The arts help us answer that question.”

Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.