The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Arts groups have never been very flush with cash. Now, they’re facing an even bigger battle for survival.

The National Gallery of Art is closed indefinitely. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

Entire orchestras have been laid off, museums are calculating the losses in millions, and whether you’re David Crosby or a backstage tech, the moment has become a battle for survival. This is the new arts world, where live streams and inspirational singalongs go viral but don’t pay the rent. Where those charged with balancing the budget are filled with dread.

The numbers don’t lie: 431 canceled performances, 725 people laid off, 150 musicians in limbo. And that’s just at the Kennedy Center, where administrators late last week calculated the crushing equation of even a best-case scenario.

“We have to figure out how to make it to May 10, and if we have to [close] longer than May 10 what does that mean?” says Deborah F. Rutter, the Kennedy Center’s president. “We have to be responsible, make sure everybody is healthy. But there’s been nothing like this. How long will it last? How long will it last?”

At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, officials are planning for a $100 million shortfall if they remain shuttered into July, a time frame looking realistic with each new government update. The Metropolitan Opera canceled its season and told its orchestra, chorus and staff that their paychecks would stop after this month.

Same story, different shuttered box office across the country, as arts institutions are cutting staff and programs to mitigate financial losses that will stretch long into the future.

Museums nationwide are losing $33 million a day, according to a letter to Congress from leaders of the American Alliance of Museums and its partner umbrella organizations seeking $4 billion in federal aid. Americans for the Arts, a national advocacy group, issued a survey to cultural nonprofit groups, and in less than a week, several thousand responded with real losses topping $5 billion. A quarter said they had already cut staff.

The Oregon Symphony has laid off the entire orchestra and half of its administrative staff. The San Francisco Ballet has canceled more than half of its season. The Houston Grand Opera has pulled the plug on its spring season, which could lead to losses nearing $2 million.

Some companies, including the Houston opera, have promised to pay half the amount of their canceled contracts, while others, such as the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which shut down the Humana Festival of New American Plays, says it will pay staff for the first month of a shutdown.

Even in that best-case scenario — say, a May return — it may take years to return to the vibrant, cultural universe that defines our country.

“In the past, most disasters have had a component of a time frame,” says Kate D. Levin, who oversees the Bloomberg Philanthropies Arts program. “Hurricane Sandy. The damage was understood. The question was how to get past it. Similarly, with 9/11. This is a very different kind of circumstance.”

“If it’s six weeks, most will survive. A lot of people will suffer, there will be a lot of pain, but we’ll get the sector back,” says Michael Kaiser, the former head of the Kennedy Center and now chairman of the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the University of Maryland. “But if it goes on for six months, we are in for a very radical reduction.”

As stimulus packages and bailouts are discussed, lawmakers have been referencing covid-19’s crushing impact on airlines, restaurants and the cruise industry. But the cultural community, never flush with cash even in the best of times, has also been devastated.

“It’s not just a show that got canceled. People’s lives got canceled,” says Benjamin Burdick, the producing artistic director of Boise Contemporary Theater, which had to cancel its latest production.

There are efforts underway to help. In New York last week, a group of foundations announced a $75 million fund to help social service and arts and cultural organizations struggling to survive the slew of demands and cancellations brought on by the coronavirus outbreak.

The organizers hope that the NYC Covid-19 Response and Impact Fund — meant to provide assistance to groups with budgets of $20 million or less — will serve as a model for similar efforts outside New York.

“Just as inequality is playing out in our society, it’s playing out in the arts,” says Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, one of the fund’s contributors. “When you get to the medium and smaller arts organizations that don’t have endowments, that don’t have rich boards, that don’t have huge amounts of operating cash flow . . . those organizations are panicked.”

During the crisis, Ford and other funders have become flexible with the nonprofit groups they support. They’re discussing ways to shift money for now-canceled projects to whatever is needed to keep groups afloat.

The Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Mass., has had to cancel appearances by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the Beach Boys and a screening of “This Is Spinal Tap” with director Rob Reiner. The Boston-based Barr Foundation had awarded the theater a two-year $750,000 grant that included support for an outdoor stage. With $250,000 remaining in the grant, the theater received permission to shift the money to general operating support. Troy Siebels, the Hanover’s president and chief executive, says that will enable him to keep from laying off staff until mid-May.

“It’s important because we know this will end at some point and we need to be there when it does,” he says.

While larger institutions do generally operate with a great cushion, even the biggest are scrambling.

Metropolitan Museum president and chief executive Daniel Weiss estimates the cost of the anticipated 3½ -month shutdown at $100 million.

Weiss outlined the Met’s three-step approach, which includes redirecting spending from programs and exhibitions to salaries and basic needs; reducing costs, including laying off employees; and fundraising. The museum has 2,200 employees and is committed to paying them until April 4, he says.

Can the Met extend that to the length of the shutdown? “It’s hard to imagine how any organization can do that,” Weiss says.

At the Kennedy Center, Rutter hasn’t had time to calculate the cost of an eight-week shutdown, but it could top $20 million and more if this summer’s 14-week run of “Hamilton” is affected. The arts center depends on its box office, which accounts for more than half of its $279 million annual budget.

Rutter said she has taken a 50 percent pay cut (she earned $1.2 million in 2018, according to tax filings), and her senior-team salaries have been cut, too.

Robert Lynch, president and chief executive of Americans for the Arts, is hopeful that Congress, which has been supportive of the arts in the Trump era, will include the arts groups in a federal bailout. His organization is collecting data to show the need.

“The arts economy has always been rough, with slim margins between income and expenses,” Lynch says, adding that about one-third of nonprofit arts corporations are in a break-even or deficit position every year. “When you have something that shuts down all income, it makes for a tougher situation,” he says. “In terms of survival, it’s worse than ever.”

The federally supported National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian Institution — both closed indefinitely — are suffering as much as their nonprofit colleagues. With its 19 museums shuttered at the start of its busy spring season, the Smithsonian will lose several million dollars in earned income from its shops, restaurants and Imax theaters, and other events. But staff layoffs are unlikely, at least in the short term, according to Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and National Gallery of Art Director Kaywin Feldman.

Scott Showalter, president and chief executive of the Oregon Symphony, laid off the entire orchestra and half the administrative staff earlier this week to manage an estimated $5 million shortfall, about one-quarter of his annual budget. The Houston Grand Opera has canceled 11 performances over three productions, but it has vowed to pay the hundreds of artists and staff hired for the productions 50 percent of their contracts.

“There’s never been a chance that we would not have paid our artists,” says Perryn Leech, the opera’s managing director. “If we have a financial problem that we deal with in the future, then that’s a financial problem that the whole organization will have to deal with.”

At the San Francisco Ballet, the staff and 78 dancers are being paid despite the loss of 60 percent of the season and the shuttering of its renowned dance school, said its executive director, Kelly Tweeddale, who estimated current losses at about $9.5 million.

“We are going through scenario planning. What does this look like in three months, six months, nine months. We are trying to wrap our brains around how might we come out on the other side.”

A big concern is the federal approach to stimulus and relief efforts, which Tweeddale says may not address their specific needs. “How do you make sure someone doesn’t lose their visa if they can’t work? Will hourly people be taken care of? Many artists work multiple jobs and the safety net of unemployment may not work for them,” she said. “We’re all guessing. It’s the guessing that’s hard.”

The open-ended nature of the crisis means museum directors can’t predict whether exhibitions will have to be canceled or postponed. Bunch is considering three scenarios, the first that sees the pandemic end by summer. The second involves a second wave of the virus in the fall and with it the possibility of a second closing. The final scenario — that social distancing lasts for 18 months to two years — prompts decisions about keeping staff for the stores and restaurants, he said.

Bunch is also focused on online content for housebound students and families, and thinking creatively about the virtual Smithsonian.

But, he admitted, “it’s a little frightening.”

“There’s nothing that excites me more than walking through a museum and seeing crowds engaging with the artifacts. I’m lonely for the crowds.”

Michael Andor Brodeur contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

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