Last spring, local arts groups were optimistic about the 2021-22 season. The Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Pacific Symphony, South Coast Repertory and other large institutions were planning a gradual return to normal programming. The Philharmonic Society, whose website announces its season with the bold words “together again,” scheduled large groups such as the Russian National Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra for early 2022, banking on full houses for its most expensive programming. The mood reflected a growing national consensus that waning infection rates showed COVID-19 was finally on the decline.

Then came summer, and the rise of the Delta variant. By the middle of July, it was becoming clear that we hadn’t seen the last of social distancing and other restrictions on public life. Arts groups were forced to rethink their programming plans, often after they’d pulled the trigger on contracts and commitments.

We asked several of Orange County’s arts leaders how they’re coping with the latest COVID complications. They also talked about the long-term effects of a pandemic that stubbornly refuses to go away.

Optimism with Caution

The current approach combines measured optimism with caution, a retreat from the outright enthusiasm that prevailed a few months ago. But audiences seem willing to endure strict protocols to experience live events again, and O.C.’s arts institutions are working hard to deliver that experience.

“(Recently) we held our first indoor performances with a rescheduled Pops concert that was to have occurred in March 2020,” said John Forsyte, president of Pacific Symphony. “It was very well received and emotional. There was electricity when the orchestra took the stage and lights dimmed. People are starving for live experiences, and while there was some trepidation about returning indoors, we enjoyed a full house.”

Major venues have invested heavily in robust infrastructure to ensure public safety and instill confidence, Forsyte said. “Thankfully, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall has world-class air handling and air exchanges. We heard good feedback that people felt safe with the new (systems and) protocols.”

Last month, as part of a campaign to reassure arts patrons that their safety wouldn’t be compromised, major O.C. arts groups agreed to a strict set of safety measures designed to prevent the spread of COVID.

Major Orange County Arts Orgs to Require Masks and Full COVID-19 Vaccination for the Foreseeable Future

Last month, a coalition of the largest arts organizations in Orange County made a joint announcement about how they plan to address attending events indoors at their venues.

The Irvine Barclay Theatre, Musco Center for the Arts, Pacific Chorale, Pacific Symphony, Philharmonic Society of Orange County, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Soka Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory will require ticket holders to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and wear a mask at all times while inside their venues.

“In August, we updated our safety procedures and issued new vaccination guidelines requiring all ticket holders to show proof of vaccination and mandatory mask requirement for all shows,” said Casey Reitz, president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, which hosts events for Pacific Symphony, the Philharmonic and other local arts organizations in addition to programming its own seasons for classical music, dance and other arts disciplines. “As we prepared to fully reopen our indoor venues, we wanted our audience, artists, staff and crew to know that providing a safe environment is our top priority.”

The new requirements are strict. “All persons attending indoor performances in any of our campus venues are required to show proof that they have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with a vaccine authorized by the World Health Organization or the Food and Drug Administration,” Reitz said. “The last dose of the vaccine must have been administered at least 14 days before entry. All persons attending indoor performances must also wear appropriate face coverings in accordance with current CDC guidelines.” The unvaccinated must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to entering the theater, Reitz said. “We are also strongly encouraging guests to wear a mask when attending an outdoor performance.”

At this point, no O.C. performing arts organization has indicated that it will return to social distancing and implementing six feet of distance between audience members at shows. “We are selling our concerts to full capacity based on state of California guidelines,” Forsyte said.

New Fundraising Challenges

The lingering pandemic has affected more than protocols for patrons. Fundraising has been impacted as well. The continuing generosity of long-term donors is being tested, and attracting new contributions has become even more of a challenge.

“Without a doubt the pandemic has affected many people’s personal finances,” said Paula Tomei, managing director of South Coast Repertory, Orange County’s largest theater company.  “But, thankfully, our board and other major supporters have remained steadfastly committed and active with their giving, as have most members of our existing donor base.” But attracting new donors has been difficult, Tomei said. “Once we are able to gather for performances again, the conditions for cultivating new donors will improve greatly.”

On the other hand, the fundraising climate has encouraged an extra burst of generosity in many veteran donors, who recognize the severity of the present crisis.

“Our fundraising has definitely changed, but ultimately for the better,” said Tommy Phillips, president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society. “After what seemed like a very long period of ‘shelter in place’ which also included sheltering contributions in many cases, our generous donor base, as well as some new donors, have continued their support. In fact, many of our supporters increased their financial support over the past 17 months.”

As Tomei implied, fundraising is often facilitated by bringing potential donors to performances. The absence of live concerts over the last 18 months has been a deterrent to donors, Phillips acknowledged. But creative alternatives have been discovered.

“Connecting with our supporters was more challenging in some obvious ways as concert halls went dark,” Phillips said. “But we focused on creating opportunities to engage through creative, high-quality virtual programming, private events, and safe, socially distanced, in-person events once mandates were loosened. Rather than cutting back on programming and riding out the pandemic, we decided to keep the music going, and supporters enthusiastically participated in every opportunity we offered to connect to music and to one another, which helped reinforce their connection to the Philharmonic Society.”

For the most part, core supporters realized it was time to step up, Forsyte said. “Many supporters of the symphony continued to give generously throughout the pandemic and did so all the way through our fiscal year close last June 30. The Symphony Gala … was our most successful ever with a net of over $2 million. Donors shared that they understood the hardships faced by the musicians and appreciated the large amount of free digital content that was generated.”

The Segerstrom Center went on the fundraising offensive during the pandemic, with considerable success. “We launched the Raise the Curtain campaign, the Center’s lifeline during the pandemic. Over 5,000 donors made a contribution to the vital campaign,” Reitz said.

Pondering How the World Will Change

Arts leaders agreed that the post-pandemic world will be fundamentally different, though they didn’t concur on what it would look like. Tomei predicted that overall attendance at her theater might decline somewhat, but that longtime subscribers would remain faithful. Others foresee changes in programming approaches and a more intimate relationship between artists and audiences.

“We all understand that COVID defined a ‘new normal,’ but for the performing arts that also meant a new, or renewed, appreciation for the music. I believe that the concert experience will be much more user friendly — that is, shorter performances in general, greater appreciation for the concert attendees, and a much warmer relationship between artist and patron as (they have) a renewed sense of appreciation for one another.”

Tommy Phillips, Philharmonic Society of Orange County

Forsyte emphasized the need to embrace new technologies and approaches. “We envision many aspects of concert life that have been so successful for many generations remaining, but there is also a need for continual experimentation, including performing concerts in new and unusual venues (and) offering the opportunity to utilize live camera feeds to see close-ups of musicians, whether on a hand-held device or screen, dismantling some of the formality of concert attendance.”

Forsyte even imagines serving people who aren’t ready to come back to the concert hall. “Live streams will be offered for those ticket buyers who feel uncomfortable attending in person.”

One positive result brought about by the pandemic is that arts organizations have found new audiences.

“Through our virtual programming, our demographics expanded to include a younger, more diverse audience, and we hope that these patrons will continue their musical journeys with us in person as well, ” Phillips said.

Said Reitz: “When we were able to safely provide outdoor performances again, we offered diverse community engagement programming to bring back guests to the Center. These diverse programs and performances brought in so many new community patrons.”  

Arts leaders agreed it was important not to lose existing loyal audiences as they sought to develop new ones. “It is inevitable that our audiences will evolve with changes we observe in county demographics and generational evolution in artistic preferences,” Forsyte said. “However, it also takes thoughtful consideration of the changing tastes of new generations of listeners without leaving behind those who love the traditions of concert life.” 

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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