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The last nine months have been a trial of fire for the performing arts as the pandemic has strangled their livelihood and drained their coffers. But governments at various levels, along with generous corporate and private donors, continue to extend crucial lifelines for cultural institutions big and small.

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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In the spring, the CARES Act and other forms of assistance kept desperate arts groups afloat. In Orange County alone, 137 arts organizations and businesses in 27 cities received relief funds totaling more than $2.7 million.

For a while, it looked like the federal government wouldn’t be offering anything more after its $2 trillion relief bill in March. But on Dec. 22, Congress passed H.R. 133, a massive $2.3 trillion spending bill that included substantial relief for the arts.

The bill included an extension of Federal Pandemic Unemployment programs that provide an additional $300 to all weekly benefits, $284 billion for forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans that allow many arts groups to apply for a second desperately needed payroll boost, and $15 billion in relief grants for arts organizations and individuals.

The bill also included an increase of $5.2 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities, expanding their budgets to $167.5 million each in 2021.

One of the most promising aspects of Washington’s latest round of pandemic assistance is the Save Our Stages Act, which has earmarked $15 billion for independent performance venues, movie theaters and other cultural institutions, as well as promoters, managers and agents. Organizations that have lost 90% of their gross revenue from 2019 will be able to apply in the first 14 days of the process. Those that lost 70% can apply in the second 14-day window. The bill also sets aside $2 billion specifically for organizations with 50 or fewer employees.

S.O.S. was structured so that organizations most in need of funding are at the head of the line, said U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a longtime music lover and one of the authors of the bill. “We want to make sure the bulk of their needs are met first,” she said. “We took special care to take care of small venues.”

Seeing Light at the End of the Tunnel

We checked in with local arts groups of different sizes to see how they’re faring as the pandemic approaches its one-year anniversary. We inquired about the specific hardships they’ve been facing. We asked how the latest round of assistance has affected them. They revealed what they’re doing to make audiences feel safer in a post-pandemic and more germ-conscious world. And we also dared to raise the question we’ve wanted to ask for months, and which finally seems timely: What are their plans to reopen as the vaccine (hopefully) brings the performing arts back to life in 2021?

Many groups will be tapping the new funding to help keep expenses paid and make payroll. “We’re definitely planning on applying for another PPP grant and another California state grant to offset the significant losses we’ve had for the operating budget,” said Larry Rosenberg, artistic director of Anaheim Ballet.  (The Paycheck Protection Program, administered by the Small Business Association, is designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll by providing low-interest loans.)

“We didn’t apply for PPP the first time, because we didn’t anticipate closing for that long of a time.  We are planning to apply for the new round of PPP,” said Salwa Rizkalla, artistic director of Festival Ballet Theatre in Fountain Valley.

For some arts administrators, the new sources of funding will help pay for crucial physical improvements to their operations that the pandemic forced them to undertake.

“In addition to our payroll needs, we could use help in offsetting an estimated $50,000 in structural changes we made (including doubling the number of our practice rooms to enable us to spread our students further apart from each other); equipment purchased specifically in response to mitigating the risk of spread of the virus,” said Douglas K. Freeman, executive chair/CEO of OC Music & Dance in Irvine.

Some institutions have been taking advantage of the downtime to prepare themselves for the new health standards that will undoubtedly be a part of the post-pandemic world for the performing arts.

“We’ve (installed) touchless faucets in all the restrooms and a touchless ticketing system,” said Casey Reitz, president of Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center for the Arts. But the most important physical improvement was made to the Center’s ventilation systems, Reitz added. “We upgraded our circulation systems and filters so that they now meet with the highest standards that the CDC follows. We’ve done airflow studies and filter tests and everything now looks really good. We feel confident that our environment is cleaner than it’s ever been.”

(The Segerstrom Center applied for and received a first-round Paycheck Protection Program loan. The PPP funds allowed the Center to retain its full staff up through June, until it had to make some drastic cuts.)

Outdoor Dance Classes and Other Creative Solutions

All the arts leaders I talked to expressed the same sentiment: There’s no avoiding the feeling of helplessness that sets in when your passion is sidelined, with no sure sign of when life will return to normal.

“The loss of regular in-studio classes and live performances throughout the year proved painful to dancers and dance lovers alike,” Rosenberg said.  “The studio is a second home to many. Being excluded from that setting is being locked out of home. We miss the familiar surroundings, the fellowship of others who understand and enjoy the same things we understand and enjoy. We miss the opportunity to fly across a large space and jump with abandon.”

“We always thought we’d be back in the summer (of 2020),” Reitz said. “Then it was by Labor Day. Then January. Now, even with the vaccine it seems pretty clear to us … that it’s probably going to be the fall before anything of meaningful size and scope can come back. That’s frustrating to everyone.”

The recent tightening of restrictions by Sacramento has eliminated even creative and seemingly safe practices. “Back in November when we were recording our artists for the holiday cabaret show, what we did was OK,” said Casey Long, managing director of the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills. “We brought artists into the empty theater and they sang and we recorded them; we were very careful and they adhered to social distancing rules. But we can’t even do that now. We’re going to have a lot of conversations about more creative problem solving.”

Reitz lamented that the same new restrictions cut short a popular series of events on the Segerstrom Center’s Argyros Plaza. “Audiences loved them, and we were following all the rules carefully. But we will always abide by the law.”

But “creative problem solving” can’t be killed by a few new restrictions. Where there’s a will — coupled with youthful enthusiasm — there’s a way.

“We’ve been doing outdoor classes and Zoom classes,” Rosenberg said. “We’re outside in the air adjacent to where (the studios) are. We lay out the (dance floor) and the barres and lights and music.”

Outdoor classes take place throughout the day, Rosenberg said. “We do them in the afternoons. On Saturday they’re the morning, at 9:15. We also do a 6 p.m. class. It gets nippy. But dancers are pretty tough, so their love of dance overrides a little fear of chill.”

“We’ve had to learn a number of new skills and find new ways to engage with our singers and audience alike,” said Mary C. Langsdorf, president of the board of directors for Orange County Women’s Chorus. “We are exploring ways that we may be able to provide a recording or live-stream for future performances, as one silver lining to our pandemic experience was the ability for far-flung friends and family to hear a performance for the first time.”

Most of the arts leaders agreed that the post-pandemic world will probably bring permanent changes to the performing arts, but they were confident they wouldn’t dissuade arts lovers from coming back to theaters and concert halls.

“My hope is that things look at much as they did previously and a lot of (the changes will be) invisible,” Reitz said. “I think it has so much to do with how effective the vaccine rollout is and when we hit that magic number of herd immunity. I feel confident that the outdoor venues will be open and vibrant. I hope that even if we’re not allowed to have full capacity (indoors), we will have partial capacity. I’m hoping that by the time we have our next touring Broadway show in early October, we will be back to full capacity.”

“At present, we don’t anticipate rehearsing together until the fall of 2021,” Langsdorf said of the Women’s Chorus. “We are hoping to be able to offer our first program in December 2021 with unmasked singers and audience members. Our invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall has been re-issued for June 27, 2022, and we look forward to working towards that goal.”

Some arts groups will try to return to the stage even sooner if possible.

“We are hoping to be able to present ‘Swan Lake,’ which is scheduled for March 20 and 21 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre,” Rizkalla said. “We postponed the performance twice, but many of the audience who bought tickets to see us are still waiting for our performance and didn’t ask for money back.”

Restoring confidence and bringing back live performances are crucial to any post-COVID recovery at his institution, Freeman said.

“Task one is to gain the confidence of parents that all is safe. Task two is to fill the most critical gaps in students’ experience in their discipline. The biggest demand is to resume ensemble playing and public performances. Students study music or dance because they want to play and perform. Endless lessons, whether in person or remotely, is not a goal but a pathway. It’s all about performing.”

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

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