Extremely difficult financial circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic are sending ripples across the local and national arts scene.

Now, even the largest groups are being battered. Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Orange County’s biggest performing arts organization, will lay off 63% of its staff (250 part-time and 77 full-time workers), according to Casey Reitz, the Segerstrom Center’s president. Ultimately, the layoffs will impact 505 people when factoring in employees who work seasonal and temporary shifts throughout the year.

With empty stages everywhere, Orange County arts organizations of all sizes are facing difficult financial decisions. South Coast Repertory, Pacific Symphony and the Chance Theater have all announced significant cutbacks and program reductions. But none have announced reductions as large as the Segerstrom Center’s.

Casey Reitz, president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“It’s very heartbreaking and very tough to have to deal with,” Reitz said in an interview. “This is one of the financial impacts of what COVID-19 has done to the Center. The shutdown has been significant. It has eradicated 75% of our income at the Center, which is ticket sales. We’re doing this in order to stay solvent as best we can.”

The remaining 37% of SCFTA staff will have their salaries reduced from 10%-25%, Reitz added. Those at the higher tiers will experience higher reductions, including Reitz himself, whose salary will be reduced 25%, he said. He declined to say how much he is making at the Center, where he has served as the new president since mid-December, replacing Terrence W. Dwyer, who held that position for more than 12 years.

While no departments have been completely eliminated, the layoffs are most substantial in the areas that are directly involved in presenting live performances, such as the box office, ushers and operating the building, Reitz said.

The layoffs were announced to the SCFTA staff on June 8, and will officially take place at the beginning of July, he said. Reitz sent a letter on Monday to patrons, supporters and friends of the Center announcing the layoffs and reductions. He also commented on these difficult times of economic hardship and social unrest.

“Now is the time for peaceful dialogue and finding common ground that will result in lasting, transformative change in the name of peace and unity,” he wrote. “The Center’s role in the dialogue is important not only in our words but also in our actions. We will re-evaluate and re-focus our mission to create a more culturally connected and vital community and participate in shaping the Orange County of the future.”

The Segerstrom Center is not the only arts organization to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Across the country and the world, performing arts venues have been forced to shut down and lay off or furlough staff. In Los Angeles, the Music Center — which includes the Ahmanson Theater, Mark Taper Forum, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and Walt Disney Concert Hall — has been similarly devastated by the pandemic.

The Plaza and Samueli May Be Lifelines

While certain restrictions are easing up, and museums and shopping centers are allowed to reopen under stage 3 of California’s “Resilience Roadmap,” most of SCFTA’s larger performances would fall under stage 4, which includes concert venues, live audience sports and nightclubs.

However, Reitz said the Center aims to present events in the Julianne and George Argyros Plaza and Samueli Theater as soon as late summer. Argyros Plaza falls under stage 2, which includes outdoor museums, and Samueli Theater falls under stage 3, which includes movie theaters.

“We actually have a good spacing plan for Argyros Plaza,” Reitz said. “There’s a plan that would allow for 300-320 people to come in. People can group in a cluster as many as six. The plan allows for all the social distancing protocols.”

For Samueli Theater, the Center has devised three different plans, one of which would involve proscenium-style stadium seating. The maximum capacity would range from 80 to 90 people, Reitz said.

“We can open Samueli under movie theater guidelines,” he said.

During the initial months of the pandemic and the “Stay at Home” order, the Segerstrom Center applied for and received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. The PPP funds allowed the Center to retain its full staff up through June.

However, that assistance money is gone now, Reitz said, forcing the Center to lay off staff and reduce salaries.

The Center has not applied for any other assistance under the CARES Act, Reitz said. Historically, the Center has been loathe to accept government funding of any kind, although it did finance its Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall through construction bonds, which were tax exempt.

SCTFA plans to open Segerstrom Hall and the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall under Stage 4, which may occur toward the end of the year. All necessary social distancing and sanitation guidelines will be strictly adhered to, as recommended by the Center’s own Re-Opening Ad Hoc Committee and Medical Advisory Committee.

“Our goal is to create the best possible procedures and practices to keep everyone who comes to the Segerstrom Center campus protected and safe,” Reitz said in a written statement.

OCMA Construction Continues

Meanwhile, on the Segerstrom Center campus, construction continues at a steady pace on the future home of the Orange County Museum of Art. The pandemic and shutdown order has not affected the timeline of OCMA’s new, $73 million building, which is scheduled to open in fall 2021. Under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 Executive Order, construction has been considered an essential activity.

“Construction has continued over the last three months,” said Todd D. Smith, CEO and director of OCMA. “We expect steel to arrive this week and continue to hold fall 2021 as our opening date.”

Yet, even OCMA has not been immune to layoffs and cutbacks, as it was forced to shut down its temporary OCMAExpand location in Santa Ana, across the street from South Coast Plaza.

“We had to lay off our part-time, front-line staff when we closed to the public in mid-March,” Smith said. That involved nine hourly positions, with each position averaging less than 10 hours per week. However, OCMA expects to rehire those workers when the museum re-opens in mid-July, he said.

Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at richiechang@gmail.com.

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