Local Arts Groups Get Creative, Look for Funding as They Chart a Difficult Path Forward

Photo courtesy of Doug Catiller/Chance Theater

Holly Reichert and Ron Hastings as Bruce Bechdel in the Chance Theater production of "Fun Home." This was the last show performed on their stages before the coronavirus shut down.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors recently heard a passionate plea: don’t forget the value and importance of Orange County’s arts community.

That message was presented at a May 19 meeting of the OCBOS as it considered how to distribute $75 million in CARES Act funding to small businesses throughout Orange County that have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

At its most recent meeting on Tuesday, the board approved a distribution plan: each supervisor will develop criteria to determine which businesses would receive some of the $15 million allocated for his or her district. (The county is divided into five districts; the $75 million will be distributed evenly among them.)

Richard Stein, president of Arts Orange County, which represents and advocates for more than 700 local arts organizations, reminded the supervisors at last week’s meeting that the arts contribute significantly to the local economy.

“We develop and supply a creative workforce that is essential to Orange County’s innovation economy, employing 90,000 people and contributing nearly $1 billion in tax revenue,” Stein said in his prepared remarks at the meeting. “The arts are also vital to the financial well-being of our cities, whose restaurants, hotels and retail depend heavily upon the business of our audiences.”

Stein said the impact of the coronavirus on Orange County’s arts community would be devastating if support isn’t forthcoming. He estimates that more than $16 million in revenue has been lost in the first two months of the shutdown.

During his address, Stein announced some encouraging news: the formation of a new source of support for struggling arts groups. The OC Arts & Culture Resilience Fund, a collaboration between the Orange County Community Foundation and Arts Orange County, will provide assistance to individual artists and arts organizations through private philanthropy.

In an interview with Voice of OC after his presentation, Stein said the board wouldn’t be setting a precedent if it allowed arts groups to apply for government money to help them weather the coronavirus pandemic.

“The National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council have both made adjustments in how they’re dealing with their grantees. They’ve added a tremendous amount of flexibility to how organizations (can) utilize those funds. They want grantees to prioritize payments to artists. And funders have really eased restrictions on grant awards they’ve made for specific projects and allowed (the money) to be used for general operating costs instead.”

In a follow-up letter to the board on May 22, Stein pointed out that arts organizations have been benefiting from government assistance in other parts of the country.

“Under the CARES Act, the federal government broadened its Small Business Administration programs and the state broadened its GoBiz programs to allow eligibility for nonprofit arts organizations—recognizing that they, too, are small businesses that employ people and that comprise a core economic sector.

“Also, communities throughout the nation are including nonprofit arts organizations in their CARES Act relief fund distribution – one example, the City of Phoenix, Arizona, allocated more than $2 million to the arts & culture category alone.”

Listening to Subscribers and Making Promises

Stein’s plea comes at a transitional moment during the crisis. Arts groups are now beginning to assume that they will have to remain closed to public events for the rest of the year and possibly into 2021. That means that many previously planned 2020-21 seasons will have to be substantially altered, and earned income of any kind will remain elusive until early 2021 at least. “Most (local arts organizations) will not even be able to reopen for public gathering until spring 2021 — a full year of closure that will be devastating,” Stein estimated.

But that impediment isn’t stopping Orange County’s arts groups from planning a 2020-21 season that creatively copes with the pandemic.

“Pacific Symphony is partnering with the Segerstrom Center and other venues on a comprehensive plan for re-opening,” Pacific Symphony president John Forsyte told Voice of OC. “In the current phase, this includes potential utilization of the Argyros Plaza and, in the next phase, the Samueli Theater for chamber music events.”  (Both are part of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. The Argyros is a large outdoor space, and the Samueli Theater is a flexible indoor venue that can be configured for social distancing.) “We are also in discussions about returning members of Pacific Symphony to the stage safely for online performances without audiences.”

Paula Tomei, managing director of Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory, said it’s crucial at this point to listen to subscribers and cater to their concerns.

“We have invited our subscribers to tell us what they need in order to subscribe to next season. Right now, we have flexible payment plans and we’ve also extended the deadline to renew subscriptions. Additionally, subscribers have the flexibility to apply credit from their canceled shows this season to the 2020-21 season. It’s clear that, in order to accommodate their various comfort levels with respect to returning to the theatre, we will need to continue listening and be flexible.”

Forsyte agreed.

“Our main commitment is to maintain patron relationships and their trust. Our subscribers … have been renewing their subscriptions in large numbers for next year’s Classical, Pops and Family series, among others. We pledge to them that they will be able to have credit for postponed events, and, at the same time, offer them access to special online concerts and events as a way to express our appreciation. For those fearful of renewing, we have offered the ability to make a small deposit to hold their seats.”

Other arts leaders, especially those at smaller organizations, are more cautious about adapting to the challenging new circumstances.

“At this time, it would be close to impossible for us to re-open without a vaccine or a major adjustment to the guidelines,” said Oanh Nguyen, executive artistic director of Anaheim’s Chance Theater. “It just wouldn’t make any sense due the size of our stages, the number of seats, the cost of producing, and what we understand about the conditions that would ensure the safety of our artists and community.”

Stein is nevertheless optimistic that the arts community will find other creative and innovative ways to get back to the business of presenting work to the public, even if in a restricted form.

“If you look around Orange County, there are interesting things happening: drive-in movies, live concerts that have social distancing. Those kinds of events add costs and present their own challenges in terms of maintaining the safety of the audience. But the good thing is that protocols are being developed for arts organizations in both the visual and performing arts. They don’t have to re-invent the wheel. They have a model.”

Still, local arts leaders are realistic about the difficulties that lie ahead, even if a vaccine becomes widely available.

“Clearly, a vaccine would be a wonderful thing to have,” Tomei said. “But we anticipate that some of our audience members, even with a vaccine available, will have trepidation about returning. So, we’ll continue to follow the guidelines of the health authorities.”

Stein is hopeful that the board of supervisors will make non-profit arts groups eligible to apply for CARES Act money.

“The intent here is to help small businesses that have been forced to close and not-for-profit organizations that are directly serving Orange County residents. Arts organizations fall into both those categories.”

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