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.
Welcome to the Age of Anxiety — a confusing time when the performing arts in America, along with many other aspects of life, face a host of perplexing questions that don’t have easy answers:
- Are we entering a recession, or do the robust job numbers mean we’re heading for a soft landing?
- Is the pandemic over, or not?
- Will inflation make tickets too expensive and chip away at disposable incomes?
- Will the climate continue its increasingly dramatic journey to strange new extremes?
- How will the earthshaking social changes of the last few years — the #MeToo Movement, Black Lives Matter, increasing political partisanship — alter programming choices, personnel decisions, and the fundamental power structure of cultural institutions?
As the 2022-23 season begins, these questions will play a role in what we see and where we see it. (There are local upheavals, too, such as the recently announced departure of Ellen Richard as executive producing director of the Laguna Playhouse.) The performing arts, after all, live or die on their ability to connect with audiences’ fickle tastes and shifting economic and social conditions, which means they either change adroitly with the times or perish. Nor are the arts immune to the seismic shifts in the American workplace. More than 4 million people per month have left their jobs since February 2021. In July, job openings in the fields of arts, entertainment and recreation increased by 53,000 nationwide.
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We talked about these issues with some of Orange County’s performing arts leaders in a bid to take the current temperature of the local cultural climate. Their answers revealed a surprising range of opinions, innovative thinking, and some ingenious responses to the shifting winds that have rocked the country over the last two years. Running through their answers was a feeling that has been largely absent until now: guarded optimism.
Arts leaders agreed that the pandemic has permanently altered their institutions in ways that they’re only now beginning to grasp.
“Our sector was the first to close and will be the last to recover,” said John Forsyte, president and CEO of Pacific Symphony. “The financial damage from being closed for over a year remains real, and it is a gradual process to rebuild the habits of people who stopped coming to concerts or donating to the annual fund campaign.”
Tommy Phillips, president and artistic director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, said his organization has become more careful about programming.
“We’ve taken a more focused approach and are constantly striving for quality musical experiences of the highest level. This is something we were already doing pre-pandemic … but is definitely much more top of mind now as it has become clear that people across the country (and world) are much more discerning when it comes to how to spend their time.”
“We will never take for granted again the ability to gather and share live music,” said Renee Bodie, general manager of Soka Performing Arts Center. “That sounds trite, yet it literally informs everything we do now. We never thought of planning for the contingency of ‘what if we couldn’t welcome people into our hall for an extended period of time’ in the past. Now, we need to include that scenario in our budgeting, staffing, planning and programming.”
David Ivers, artistic director of South Coast Repertory, said he and his theater are still absorbing the magnitude of the changes that the pandemic has brought.
“I think it’s fundamentally altered the landscape of the American theater in ways that we’re still trying to understand. Not just COVID, but all the events that happened along with it. The circumstances of the world have created opportunity and challenge that is unprecedented in our field. So for me, it has changed the approach to virtually everything.”
Andrew Brown, president and CEO of Pacific Chorale, said his group is challenged by the task of attracting audiences back to seats.
“Like so many arts organizations, our overall audience numbers are down. We, and the performing arts in general, are still evaluating if this is a permanent reset, or if there may be some gradual rebuilding over the next several years. We faced a lot of competition for patrons’ time and attention before the pandemic, and those forces have only increased.”
Casey Reitz, president of the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, said his institution was forced to learn about completely unfamiliar subjects on the fly and incorporate them into all aspects of their operations.
“No one had a manual on how to handle a pandemic, and we all did the best we could in these circumstances to keep the health and safety of our staff, artists, students and patrons (a) top priority.” Those changes have become permanent at the Segerstrom Center and other arts organizations, creating new expenses and responsibilities.
Fundraising has become even more important during this period of recovery and high inflation. In the worst years of the pandemic, community support was crucial to survival in many cases, and it remains so.
“Like so many others, we’re wrestling with challenges of doing more with less when everything costs more,” said Oanh Nguyen, artistic director of Chance Theater.
“Both smaller and large contributors have stepped up to help us bridge this period with our steep losses of revenue due to canceled performances,” said Forsyte, who noted that the total number of donors increased during the pandemic years. “This was deeply moving to all of us working at the Symphony.”
“Raising money to support the arts has become harder each year, especially in places where past funding is now being moved to human services — homelessness and hunger for instance — all very important causes,” Phillips said.
Other developments over the last couple of years have brought sweeping changes as well: social movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, the increased pace of global warming, the shifting fortunes of the economy, the growing popularity of streaming. Local arts groups are trying valiantly to absorb them.
“We have invested heavily in new programs to celebrate cultural heritage like Nowruz, Lantern Festival and Lunar New Year,” Forsyte said. “These projects have been performed by members of the orchestra in partnership with … organizations like the Irvine Chinese School and Farhang Foundation.”
“BLM and the #MeToo movement have made us aware of the need to intentionally diversify our programming and our team,” Bodie noted. “It has inspired us to push ourselves even further. Streaming has introduced a whole new avenue of outreach. We were able to extend our programming to include educational and informative opportunities with our ‘Expanding Horizons’ streaming series.”
Brown said the Pacific Chorale now shares many more of its performances online. “If we can’t always bring audiences into the concert hall, then let’s make sure we are catching them on their screens and playlists to increase our exposure and connection and develop relationships with a broader audience. For some, viewing our work online may be the only way they ever see or hear a Pacific Chorale performance.”
Embracing diversity, equity and inclusion has become an integral element of hiring, promoting, programming and other considerations for arts groups over the last couple of years. Meeting those criteria is a work in progress, arts leaders agreed.
“(We have) worked for several years with an outside consultant on DEI,” Forsyte said. “We are providing ongoing workshops and trainings and working on a strategic plan. We are evaluating our practices in every corner of the organization, from partners with which we work in our education and community engagement department, to marketing materials, HR and recruitment practices, and programming choices.”
“We’ve always been a diverse staff, board and greater team,” Phillips said of the OC Philharmonic. “We too are focused on … this important movement and are doubling down on our already inclusive environment. This follows through to all aspects of our organization, including programming and what we present on stage.”
Reitz said his institution decided to make systemic changes to address the issues.
“We realized there was a need and special focus for this work. We created a task force to help with these efforts, creating an EDI leadership council, EDI board committee and EDI working group.” A new leadership position was created: senior director of community and culture. “We have a long way to go, but we are taking the first steps to create a more welcoming organization,” Reitz said.
Bodie said her group has signed a pledge created by the Association of Performing Art Presenters to ensure racial equity, diversity and inclusion in the performing arts. “We have been actively implementing a 10-year commitment to empower, represent and engage our organization and the work of our artists who embody a range of identities. We commit to fulfilling this through at least 20% of our artist roster and 30% of our programming budget.”
Ivers said South Coast Repertory has been working with Revolve Consulting as it evaluates how to weave the philosophy of diversity, equity and inclusion into everything the company does.
“Of course it’s about the artists we hire, the stories that we tell. We’re also looking at (how things work) at the executive level and throughout the company as we seek to embed all of those practices and learnings into the DNA … of the organization. We are increasing our efforts to look at how to diversify our staff, how to continue to broaden the artist base.”
Ivers acknowledged the process of changing at a fundamental level will take time. “We’re a predominantly white institution that’s been around for over 50 years. That comes with its own set of circumstances, So (change) is really exhilarating and edifying and at times hard and nerve-racking and painful. I have days where I’m very deeply insecure about it and knocked off my feet. And then I have days where I feel like, wow, that this change is incredibly powerful.”
“Representation matters,” Brown said. “Pacific Chorale, like most classical music groups, has more work to do in this area. That begins on the stage with the music we program. Artistic Director Robert Istad has made a very conscious commitment to ensure that during our season we present music created by a range of artists, many from traditionally underrepresented voices. You will see that in the upcoming season and reinforced in future seasons to come.”
Pacific Chorale’s roster of 120 singers closely reflects the cultural and geographical diversity of Orange County compared to other areas within the organization, Brown said. “Our board adopted a new recruiting framework in 2021 with a commitment to broaden our … leadership to better reflect the cultural diversity of our community.”
The last two years have brought changes in the demographics and preferences of audiences — sudden shifts in established patterns that arts groups are addressing in many ways.
“Our most loyal audiences came back, but some of the more casual attenders are slower to return and will need time to build back their commitments,” Forsyte said. “Audiences are purchasing closer to each performance, presumably as they evaluate their many entertainment options coming out of the pandemic. We are also seeing more multi-generational family attendance, and diversity in our classical concerts in particular.”
Forsyte dispelled the cliche of classical music audiences as gray-haired empty nesters. “Our audience is not ‘old.’ We have older people, certainly, but we also have many students and even kids attending classical performances. I think that as people build their families, it is hard to maintain a commitment to evening performances, and this is something we will be looking to address.”
Others have seen encouraging growth. “Many of our committed audience members have returned, subscription renewals are on track, and we have even seen a modest uptick of new subscribers,” Brown said. “It’s not a secret that familiar programming sells more tickets than new, or unfamiliar programming.” Conductor Robert Istad often pairs something new with a choral classic, Brown pointed out.
The threat of COVID is still keeping some people away from public spaces, but that reluctance is slowly fading, arts leaders agreed. Whether a significant number will stay away permanently is anyone’s guess.
“There does seem to still be a rather small number of people who are remaining extremely cautious,” Forsyte said.
“Buying habits have increasingly become later and later and more focused on single tickets,” Phillips said. “The concern regarding COVID is still quite present and in addition to attendance attrition, it has forced some to reevaluate their passions, how they spend their time, their needs for culture, and, of course, their spending habits. This coming season will be our litmus test (to see) who is finally returning and attending. Ask me this question again at the end of this season. It’s something we’re actively tracking.”
Bodie said Soka’s audience demographic changed dramatically last season. “We saw a younger crowd, probably due to the greater reticence in older populations to be in crowds. That reticence to go out is fading slower than we thought it would. We still experienced lower than average ticket sales last year. Across the board when I talk to colleagues, venues are showing about a 30% drop in subscriptions and ticket sales.” Bodie doesn’t think the falloff is permanent. “It will rise, albeit slowly over time as audiences gain confidence in gathering safely.”
Bodie mentioned another challenging consequence brought about by two years of cocooning: competition from the small screen. “For a while, I think venues competed with the increased Netflix/Hulu/HBO subscriptions and the home entertainment setups that people became used to.” The result, she thinks, is increased selectivity. “People are tending to buy those shows they don’t want to miss – the ‘bigger’ tried and true shows — and seem to be passing on taking a chance on new acts.”
Nguyen thinks the mask mandate had a lot to do with decreased attendance at his theater.
“Our sense is that many of our patrons have been waiting to return without masks. It’ll be interesting to see how many return to the Chance for our next shows when neither masks or proof of vaccinations will be required for the first time since 2020, though both will remain strongly recommended.”
Brown noticed a big change in ticket-buying habits over the last year.
“Historically, we used to see most single ticket purchases occurring about two to three weeks out from a performance. This past season, that window shrunk incredibly, with most people buying within the last three or four days of the concert. This makes it more challenging to evaluate how your marketing is tracking, and doesn’t allow enough time to react if we need to change messaging or employ pricing or discount strategies.”
Concerning the public’s overall concern for safety, Brown summarized the post-pandemic conundrum in a nutshell.
“A decreasing minority of patrons have shared they still don’t feel safe sitting in a concert hall with most of the audience being unmasked, and I completely empathize with those concerns. However, I know that we would very likely lose a significant group of patrons if we were to reinstate a mask requirement for the audience.”
Most arts leaders said freshly minted changes need to transform from responses to shifting conditions into permanent philosophies that govern all aspects of their organizations. But traditions still matter.
Forsyte listed the new normal for Pacific Symphony:
“Diversifying repertoire, offering thematic concerts, and engaging more underrepresented artists to perform on our stages. Creating human resource practices, training and resources to help our internal culture be more welcoming. Recruiting diverse talent to join the symphony board, staff and orchestra. Expanding our partnerships to an extensive network of organizations which engage communities of color and other underserved populations.”
“Through many of these social movements, we’ve adopted a more holistic approach to music education and community engagement,” Phillips said. “We’re focused not just on our interactions with students and the community, but how we approach them based on where they are now — musically, demographically, socio-economically, where/how they identify, geographically. We’re focused on the long-term journey and impact of music in our community.”
Some realized that it’s nevertheless crucial to hang onto certain traditions right now. Ivers decided to continue SCR’s longstanding “Christmas Carol” show rather than wait for the new version that’s being planned.
“We had announced that (a new version of ‘A Christmas Carol’) was in development and then the world turned upside down. I realized during COVID (that) it would be irresponsible of me to pull one of the most familiar things about SCR out of the community at a time when we all … needed to wrap our arms around that which is familiar and gives us a sense of normalcy. So I decided, ‘Now is not the time to do this.’”
It’s safe to say that these kinds of decisions — and the need to balance change with cherished traditions, new audiences with returning patrons, practices of the past with recommendations for the future — will occupy arts leaders and their boards as they navigate a perilous path forward.
O.C. Arts Leaders Choose Some Highlights of Their Season
Tommy Phillips, Philharmonic Society of Orange County
Nov. 3: Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Music Director Lahav Shani. “By far one of the best orchestras in the world. We’ve been awaiting their return to Southern California for some time.”
Jan. 24: Chicago Symphony Orchestra with Ricardo Muti: “One of the FOMO events of our season – perhaps the best orchestra in the country and one of the top 5 in the world with the most revered maestro of our time.”
April 4: Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott in recital. “This will serve as our Spring Gala where we will honor the legacy and kick off the Centennial celebration of Henry Segerstrom (this is the eve of what would have been his 100th birthday).”
Andrew Brown, Pacific Chorale
Oct. 15: “Our season opener features Jocelyn Hagen’s The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci. Her visceral score is set to an original film inspired by the drawings of DaVinci.”
March 4: “We are joined by San Diego Bach Collegium for Pacific Chorale’s first full performance of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610.”
May 20: “We will present Florence Price’s ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ paired with Haydn’s ‘Nelson’ Mass on our closing program. The former, from one of our country’s leading African American women composers, was only rediscovered in 2009 in Price’s abandoned former home in rural Illinois.”
John Forsyte, Pacific Symphony
Sept. 22-24: Opening Night – Beethoven & Boléro. “Ravel’s celebrated ‘Boléro’ and Beethoven’s beloved Triple Concerto. We’re also introducing our new artist-in-residence, Viet Cuong.”
April 20, 22, 25: Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” “We are entering our second decade of presenting opera. Pacific Symphony’s semi-staged performances with the orchestra as an important part of the staging is really a new approach to the art form.”
May 11-13: “Unusual survey of jazz age music in the ‘20s on both sides of the Atlantic. There are three aspects to our Roaring ‘20s theme: first a brief program in the concert hall, followed by audience participation outside on the plaza dancing to the big band music of John Tu and Friends. The evening concludes with a classic 1927 silent film with Clara Bow, accompanied on the organ by Dennis James.”
Oanh Nguyen, Chance Theater
Sept. 23-Oct. 23: “After shutting down after a few weeks of rehearsal due to the pandemic in 2020, we’re so excited to finally share the Orange County premiere of ‘The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity,’ a dramatic comedy by Kristoffer Diaz that was one of the final nominees for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and snagged numerous ‘Best Play’ Awards.”
Renee Bodie, Soka University
Sept. 25: “Our season opener with Ozomatli celebrating Mexican Independence — a band whose commitment to social justice is well known.”
Throughout the season: “Our Great Pianists Series always brings some of the best pianists in the world. This year we have Seong-Jin Cho, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Steven Kovacevich, Vadym Kholodenko and Joyce Yang.”
David Ivers, South Coast Repertory
Nov. 4-20: “I’m thrilled that we’re able to offer ‘Snow White’ in an adaptation by Greg Banks, which embraces that story with a fresh perspective.”
April 23-May 14: “Coleman 72” by Charlie Oh. (Synopsis: In the summer of 1972, a Korean American family piled into their Buick for an All-American road trip — spontaneously orchestrated by their father.) “This play has been part of a development process for the Pacific Playwrights Festival since the beginning of my tenure, and I’m very excited it’s going to have a full world premiere production.”
Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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