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.
The pandemic finally seems to be winding down, and other serious events and issues now occupy the headlines. It’s easy to forget one of the stories of quiet triumph: Most of Orange County’s smaller arts organizations have weathered the storm and are slowly getting back to business as usual.
Survival wasn’t easy in a largely not-for-profit world that depends on donations and audiences. Emergency fundraising efforts, virtual performances, widespread layoffs, an infusion of government financial aid, pleas to retain season subscriptions while stages were bare — the challenges faced by institutions large and small are different in their details but identical in their common theme: finding innovative ways to make it through the tough times.
It has been almost a year since Arts Orange County, which monitored the health of cultural groups during the pandemic and helped organize financial aid, surveyed the local arts community. In April 2021, it reported financial losses of more than $121 million and about 2,700 staff reductions. As of last July, at least 138 institutions and 175 artists had received $7,752,123 in relief funds from various governmental sources. By late last summer, that was supplemented by $78 million to O.C. arts venues (including large commercial entertainment businesses) from the federal Shuttered Venue Operator Grants (SVOG) Program.
At that point in the crisis, ArtsOC estimated that Orange County’s arts groups would not return to pre-pandemic revenue numbers until July 2022 at the earliest.
I checked in with some of the county’s cultural organizations as they contemplate a tentative return to normalcy. We concentrated on smaller groups that were less protected against the tsunami of changes that COVID brought.
Most community-level institutions were understandably caught flat-footed by a crisis that nobody predicted.
“It was a dire situation for us when the pandemic shut our doors back in March 2020,” said Casey Long, co-founder of Chance Theater in Anaheim. “We had some reserve funds, but not nearly enough. We also had to cancel two shows that were in rehearsals and our annual Chance-a-thon community fundraiser. We held out on canceling our other productions as long as we could, but ultimately shut down the remaining 10 months of scheduled productions in 2020 and had to reimagine a responsive hybrid-type season for 2021.”
Salwa Rizkalla, artistic director of Festival Ballet Theatre in Irvine, said, “We weren’t prepared to endure the difficulties of the pandemic. We had some money in reserve to spend (because of) productions that did not occur and were able to use these funds to cover a few months of our expenses. When our bank account decreased, we had to eliminate some productions and projects just to be able to cover our storage rental and employment of one part-time employee.”
Others were better equipped to weather the storm, at least for the short term.
“We felt well prepared as the pandemic struck,” said John Spiak, director/chief curator of Cal State Fullerton’s Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. “We made plans for both short-term and long-term (shutdowns), planning out worst-case scenarios and strategized our budget planning.”
“We were fortunate to have cash reserves on hand when the pandemic hit,” said Eliza Rubenstein, artistic director of the Orange County Women’s Chorus, which lost 60% of its planned revenue for the season when the virus forced a shutdown. “Our (savings) totaled a little more than three months of average operating expenses in March 2020, and while they were designated among programming, commissioning and touring funds, most of the amounts were designated by the board, not by donors, so we knew we could access them if and when necessary.”
“I had my typical operating budget in place. It wouldn’t sustain for a year but would get me through four months or so,” said Brian Newell, artistic director of Fullerton’s Maverick Theater. “After that, we were gonna be in trouble.”
Donors, Landlords and Western Union Step Up
Fortunately, help arrived from many quarters. In addition to government financial assistance, and in some ways more symbolically important than federal and state money, was the support of the community. Many arts groups were buoyed by the generosity of their fans.
“Our patrons continued to support us throughout all of the pandemic,” Rizkalla said. “We planned two productions that were canceled only two weeks before they were scheduled and a number of the patrons donated the cost of their tickets to our organization instead of receiving a refund.”
“Our community of patrons and donors supported us by converting many of the tickets they had purchased to the canceled March and June 2020 concerts to donations, and by continuing to give throughout the pandemic,” Rubenstein said. “They participated in our online fundraising events and made donations in response to our online program content, which we provided free of charge.”
In some cases, landlords and other businesses helped out as well — some with no direct financial stake helping an arts organization survive.
“Within days of the shutdown my landlord came to me and said, ‘Don’t worry, your rent is (cut in) half. When you get to the point where you can’t afford that, we will (negotiate) some sort of payback plan, but it won’t cripple you.’ That relieved tons of pressure,” Newell said.
“With our budget planning, we did not have to rely on government or local support funding,” Spiak said. “To our surprise, our very first new project developed during COVID generated generous donations.” The Grand Central Singing Telegram Co. was developed with artist Pablo Helguera. “Using Zoom technology, individuals were able to order free singing telegrams that could be sent anywhere in the world to a family member, loved one, or friend.”
As the project was being promoted, Spiak received a message from Western Union. “We thought it might be a cease-and-desist letter, as apparently Western Union owns the copyright to singing telegrams. Instead, they loved the project and asked if they could help support it.”
Western Union made a donation to Grand Central Art Center and assigned a creative team to produce a video piece that documented the project. The company then shared it through all its social media outlets.
No Longer Sweating the Small Stuff
Most of Orange County’s community-level arts organizations are emerging from the pandemic intact but not unscathed. One universally shared concern: Will audiences come back?
At Soka University’s Performing Arts Center, public tentativeness has resulted in slow ticket sales for the 2022 season, said general manager Renee Bodie. A recent concert by popular classical pianists Garrick Ohlssen and Kirill Gerstein was sparsely attended.
“Last time (Ohlssen) played here, we sold out quickly,” Bodie said. A concert last week at Soka featuring violinist Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields was more financially successful. Bodie speculated that patrons, perhaps made wary by continuing mask and vaccination requirements at concerts, are attending only must-see events.
Some groups are programming work that’s attuned to the times as people reestablish old patterns and come to terms with an altered world.
“This April, ‘Cry It Out’ is about new parents struggling to identify the best way forward – stay at home as a caregiver to their babies or return to the workforce either out of financial necessity, professional ambition or familial pressure,” Long said of an upcoming play at Chance Theater. “Although these are struggles that working parents have dealt with for many years, there is something about finding the right path forward that I think will resonate with our audiences.”
Many groups are playing it safe, even with more ambitious works.
“The major work we had hoped to perform this spring (Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass) is a piece of music that is both fabulous and economical,” Rubenstein said. “Haydn wrote it during a time when his employer’s budget for instrumentalists was lean, so the orchestral forces he used are minimal — strings, trumpets, timpani and organ. Haydn was a master at making virtue out of necessity, and we’re happy to do the same.”
There’s a silver lining after two years of struggle: Many groups adopted new technologies and marketing approaches that they plan to keep after the pandemic is in the rear view mirror.
“The new connections and use of online technologies have expanded our possibilities and approaches, and we will continue to explore innovative approaches to connecting in new ways with audiences around the globe,” Spiak said.
“I think what has changed the most is that our audiences are more adept at virtual tools and smartphone technology,” Long said. “Our patrons are now much more comfortable getting on a Zoom call or scanning a QR code to read the show’s playbill than they would have been before the shutdown. As an organization, we’ve also become better at online programming – our ‘Some Good News O.C.’ series, which combines positive news from our community with comedy bits and artist interviews, will be continuing for the foreseeable future.”
Other arts leaders say the pandemic has changed their approach to their art form, making them more patient and better able to put problems in perspective.
“I’m sure our singers would say that I’m just as much of a nitpicky perfectionist as ever, but deep down I have to admit that tiny musical imperfections just don’t eat at me the way they used to,” Rubenstein said. “I’m doing a better job of not sweating the small stuff. We know we’re fortunate to be singing again, we won’t take that for granted, and when the next crisis comes along, we know we’ll be ready to adapt and keep on singing.”
Long voiced an opinion shared by everyone I talked to: The arts proved by their absence that no virtual experience equals the impact of experiencing a play, concert or work of art communally in real time.
“During the shutdown, it became emphatically apparent that there is absolutely no substitution for the live theater experience, so we will do everything in our power to never shut our doors again. Although I am very proud of how my staff pivoted and … stepped up during the shutdown, it was never going to be a permanent alteration to the makeup of our organization.
“Live theater is essential for a community because it is a forum where people can come together, share an experience then talk about the viewpoints explored in the show with the artists and with each other. As our global community becomes more and more socially online, that type of personal connection is invaluable.”
Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.