“This was foreseeable as something that was highly likely,” says Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the American Alliance of Museum’s Center for the Future of Museums, a D.C. think tank that studies trends and challenges likely to affect the museum world. Merritt, who participated in the Superstruct game, says one scenario involved the government mandating that public gatherings be limited to 10 people or fewer. That led museum leaders involved in the online game to consider offering smaller tours, and online access.
Now the future has arrived, in the form of covid-19, and the reality is in some ways worse than the 2008 simulation. Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums, estimated on Tuesday that 60 to 80 percent of American museums had already closed entirely to the public, a number that could quickly rise to 100 percent as more states and municipalities grapple with the necessity of social distancing. When museums close to the public, they don’t even have the option of small, 10-person tours. And the closures sweeping across the field are for an unknown period, with unknown but likely devastating financial impacts both on their budgets and the more than 725,000 people they employ across the country.
As the extent and impact of the coronavirus situation have become ever more clear this week, arts and cultural leaders are dealing with myriad unknowns particular to their fields and specialties. Zoos and natural history museums have living collections that require constant care, no matter what is happening in the outside world. Art museums borrow and loan art. Should they find staff to return borrowed works that are now shuttered inside mostly empty buildings?
“It isn’t just turn off lights, close the doors, and go home,” Lott says.
Performing arts groups are not only cut off from an essential source of revenue — the “earned income” of ticket sales — but also from possible future revenue. The virus outbreak happened during the season in which many performing groups are asking their patrons to buy annual subscriptions, an essential source of steady funding through the year that may now dry up. And individual performers find themselves facing different daily challenges, but all with the same dire consequences. Jazz musicians, for example, often rely on the European circuit of summer festivals for a substantial portion of their annual income. Will any of that happen?
Chris Denby, chief executive of the Advisory Board for the Arts, a consultancy and research group, says he worries in particular about small and midsize summer festivals across the country.
“I would venture a guess that 30 to 50 percent of the festivals out there would have significant difficulties surviving during a period in which they would have to eliminate an entire season,” he said.
And for performers, it isn’t just about income. The work of musicians, dancers and actors and actresses is grounded in making physical and emotional connections to other people with their bodies. Singers and people who play wind and brass instrument use their lungs to make that connection, and the new virus attacks the lungs.
“When you are talking about diseases that affect the lungs, you think of wind and brass players,” says Margaret M. Lioi, chief executive of Chamber Music America, a service organization for chamber musicians, who are largely self-employed, without paid sick leave or family leave. “It is a serious illness. Nobody knows.”
Lessons from the past
“Nobody knows” is the most common phrase throughout the arts world today. But to make sense of things and to get some grip on the rising panic, arts leaders are looking for lessons and a sense of perspective from previous big shocks to the economy — the Great Recession of 2008 and the economic damage and cultural anxieties after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“Prior to the virus being detected, there was no signal in the financial stream that anything would happen,” says Sunil Iyengar, director of the Office of Research & Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. Although philanthropic donations to the arts have decreased in recent years and the arts never regained the full employment they enjoyed before the 2001 recession, they were generally healthy before the coronavirus. “Overall it has been a really active sector,” Iyengar says.
And that bodes well for things bouncing back once the public is allowed to return. But the particular way this crisis has hit — striking all kinds of groups, of all sizes, across the country and the world, and paralyzing almost all their income streams simultaneously — is creating the most troubling unknowns. One of the things that makes arts organizations resilient — the complexity of their income sources — is no longer a source of strength, at least in the near term.
Consider all the ways arts and cultural groups earn money: from ticket sales and admission fees; participation in educational programs; renting spaces for galas and gatherings; investments and endowments; and the largesse of public and private giving. Every one of those streams is now potentially shut off.
Multiple income sources also gave performers and individual artists some measure of flexibility to adapt to new situations.
“I think the impact of the Great Recession was fairly immediate,” says Lioi, of Chamber Music America. The difference, she says, “is that there was no restriction on gatherings and concerts. People could still do things like in-school performances.” Some of her members started giving house concerts, a trend toward more intimate, domestic music making that has flourished until now. Others could teach, even if many parents were initially nervous about the cost of music lessons.
John Banther, a professional tuba player born in 1986, remembers the shock of the 9/11 attacks. As a freelancer, he plays with a brass quintet and with symphony orchestras, and gives preconcert talks for the National Symphony Orchestra, all of which he anticipates not happening in the near future.
“I’m a millennial,” he wrote in an email, noting that many of his friends are burdened with student debt and struggle to find work. “Now in our third decade we have this pandemic, which we will get through, but it will surely be a very different world on the other side.”
Among the trends being most closely monitored is the move to online engagement, streaming performances and online museum tours. This isn’t, yet, a significant source of revenue for many institutions. Most artists and arts groups are turning to online connections simply to keep doing what they do, offering things of value to the public.
“Our field generally serves first and thinks about the financials afterward,” says Lott, of the American Association of Museums. So with field trips mostly canceled for the rest of the year and many Americans working from home with a house full of children, museums are working to provide educational materials online. Performing artists are giving concerts online, too, from cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach on Twitter to the Metropolitan Opera streaming archived performances free.
But can this become a significant source of revenue? Doug Noonan, a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, is monitoring such things as social networking and fundraising platforms to see whether that happens. He says that large organizations with deep archives are the best situated to develop new income but that other organizations will probably flood in.
“I think there will be a couple of waves,” he says. “Organizations that could have been doing it will see now it is a priority, and others will realize we need to get in this game or we vanish for six months.”
What will the audience look like?
The bigger question, however, is how online engagement will change the audience. Attendance at live events has been falling for years. Will the coronavirus-inspired surge of online engagement further depress attendance after the virus threat abates? Will new habits supplant old ones? Or will “absence make the heart grow fonder,” as one arts leader wonders?
“It is a question, after a period like this, when people are sequestered in their homes,” says Zannie Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University. “Will there be an outpouring of desire to get together as a community?” Voss has studied the long-term impacts of the 2008 recession on the theater sector, and she sees some room for optimism.
“The last experience taught us that although there were some areas of operations and finances that were permanently scarred . . . for the most part there was recovery,” she says.
Arts lovers looking for some signs of encouragement in the bleak state of affairs can also take solace from this: So far, audiences are indicating that they want to get back to the cultural events they are now unable to attend.
One of the blogs frequently cited by arts leaders thinking about the future of their industry is Colleen Dilenschneider’s “Know Your Bone,” which includes a statistic she calls “Intent to Visit,” a measurement of future interest in participating in a cultural activity, over a period of one week to two years. After news of the coronavirus spread, the intent-to-visit numbers dropped markedly over one week to one month. But over the one-year to two-year time frame, they rebound, to almost exactly where they were a year earlier.
Her blog, however, urges caution about statistics at the moment. After all, this is a virus with its own agenda, that has remade almost every sector of American life in less than a week.