As the covid-19 disease has escalated, turning New York into a crisis epicenter, the resolve of a multibillion-dollar arts community has intensified to try to temper panic and pool advice. And what was once a routine monthly call among 34 arts and cultural organizations that receive significant money from the city has ballooned into a daily emergency call-in with as many as 170 anxious arts administrators and advocates.
It’s just one measure of the war-room response to the most serious threat to music, theater and art in New York since — well, no one seems to know what in history compares to this shutdown and its open-ended timeline. Barely three weeks into the closing of every major arts venue in this city of 8.6 million, not to mention across the nation and around the world, the arts world is looking at a likely months-long shutdown with no clear sense of when it will end.
“I spend my days basically on the phone and on my computer, having video conferences and talking to the board and keeping them informed and raising money and talking to artists,” says Peter Gelb, general manager of the now-shuttered Metropolitan Opera. “We’re dealing with the past, present and future all at once.”
One can almost feel the city reeling from the blow of great institutions gone dark. Home to storied names in every field — Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Radio City Music Hall, the Museum of Modern Art — as well as countless artists of every stripe, New York lives on, and for, the arts. Its citizens take a fierce — yes, even provincial pride — in its reputation as the cosmopolitan standard-bearer for culture. To have that endangered is to put a target on the very identity of the city itself. A city in which Broadway attendance surpasses all of its professional sports teams combined.
It’s impossible at this juncture to quantify the damage to an industry that generates tens of billions of dollars in revenue. The short- and medium-term prognosis for public gatherings — the veritable circulatory system of live performance — is so uncertain that arts organizations are scrambling to figure out what to salvage and what to abandon. They are compelled to game out multiple survival strategies that change with each update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New York state and city officials, scrambling for hospital beds and supplies, are only now beginning to consider the fate of the arts industry. So far there have been modest first attempts at a rescue: A group of private philanthropies, for instance, has collaborated on a $75 million Covid-19 Response and Impact Fund for New York arts groups.
No one is suggesting that the toll of the disease on the sick is not paramount, and many in the arts stress their grasp of the suffering of others. Indeed, art is often where the public turns for a psychic acknowledgment of pain.
“The grief on the national level hasn’t even started yet,” says Erik Jensen, who with his wife, Jessica Blank, created the documentary play “Coal Country,” about 29 workers killed in a 2010 West Virginia coal mine explosion; its Public Theater run was cut short by the outbreak. “What we experienced sharing those stories, and the fact that it matches up with the grief I see coming, breaks my heart.”
The play’s shutdown was in other ways a punch to the gut for Jensen, who lives in Brooklyn with Blank and their young daughter. “It caught me by surprise, my life changed,” he says. “I lost my job in 12 hours.”
The prospect of protracted physical distancing only deepens anxieties in the arts sector. In a widely shared hour-long video last week, for instance, David Price, a pulmonary specialist at Manhattan’s Weill Cornell Medical Center, posited that “social distancing will be for months to potentially a year” [emphasis added]. As Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art, put it in a statement: “You have to assume it will be a long time, years not months, before we return to levels of operation approximating where we were just a couple of weeks ago.”
Few cities in the world have as intense a concern as New York when admission revenue for cultural events drops to zero. Broadway, for example, is both a local and international draw for the city, as tourists flock to long-running hits such as “The Phantom of the Opera” and phenomena like “Hamilton.”
Now, Broadway’s 41 theaters are closed, their annual June awards ceremony, the Tonys, postponed indefinitely, and the satellite orbits of hundreds of off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway companies have stopped, too. Broadway sells $2 billion in tickets annually, and its total economic impact on the city is close to $14 billion a year, according to Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, a trade group for producers and theater owners. It accounts, too, for 87,000 jobs, the league says, and generates upward of $575 million in tax revenue.
That’s all in limbo now. In the vast nonprofit sector, too, devastation is everywhere. New York City Ballet, venerable keeper of the flame of George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, has canceled its spring season and spring gala, and projects an $8 million hit. Gelb estimates losses for the Met Opera at $60 million; New York Philharmonic’s president and chief executive, Deborah Borda, puts the acclaimed orchestra’s losses at $10 million.
“We’ve canceled the rest of our season; we’ve canceled our European tour; we’ve lost all the sponsorships that were associated with that,” Borda says. “Our 2021 season, which was selling like gangbusters, we were bringing in close to $1 million a week — that has basically frozen. Nothing is happening.”
Small and medium-size companies are gasping for breath as well. The Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group, with a $9 million budget, of which $7 million is payroll, has had to cancel performances and community classes.
“We have no income streams now,” says Executive Director Nancy Umanoff. “If this situation goes to the end of July, we’re looking at a $1.8 million hit to the organization.”
Like Umanoff, Jeremy Blocker, managing director of off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop, is trying to keep staff members paid: In recent days, the company that birthed “Rent” has received no-strings donations to help pay salaries.
Artists may be more mentally equipped for the rocky times than, say, the average office worker as employment in the arts is permanently temporary. But the self-isolating aspect of combating the virus carries special hardships for them as well. Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association, the union representing 51,000 performers and stage managers, says the confining of “driven, competitive, creative people” to their homes may be “even more difficult than for people who work more 9-to-5 jobs.”
Add to this the stress of projects cut down, suddenly, in their prime — from Broadway musicals to gallery exhibitions — and you sense an entire field being shaken to its core. “Most people will have a hiatus and know that they have a job to go back to,” Shindle says. “For folks who work in the theater, to say nothing of people who make their living in [special] event work, the light at the end of the tunnel is dimmer.”
In pursuits so accustomed to competing for eyes and dollars, one bright spot has been the circling of intellectual wagons in the interest of mutual support.
New York-based foundations and charities, including the Actors Fund, are building campaigns, and connection-forging entities such as the Cultural Institutions Group are rallying the sector with ideas and a collective sense of mission.
“It’s incredible to feel like you’re part of a community and to have that we’re-in-this-together spirit,” says Taryn Sacramone, executive director of the Queens Theatre and acting chairwoman of the Cultural Institutions Group.
The group has served as a lifeline to smaller institutions that are grappling not just with this crisis, but also with how to prepare for the day when covid-19 recedes and audiences can return with confidence to museums and theaters. Some vast organizations, such as the Met Opera, have in the interim furloughed their orchestras. But at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in the Corona neighborhood of Queens, with a comparatively small $1.7 million budget, acting director Jeff Rosenstock has only five full-time staffers, whom he says he can’t let go.
His visitor services manager, Adriana Filstrup, is the one who calls the plumber when there’s a leak. She trains volunteer tour guides and supervises two college students there on fellowships. To navigate the logistics of payroll for employees like Filstrup, amid the mind-boggling complexities of health coverage and stimulus packages, Rosenstock turns to the brain trust on those working conference calls.
“People are sharing their funding sources, opportunities, everything,” he says. “Nobody’s holding their cards.”
The cards don’t yet reveal when art will begin in earnest again. People like Stephen Burdman, artistic director of New York Classical Theatre, are still holding out hope for the summer, when his troupe is scheduled to bring a compact “King Lear” to five city parks and other outdoor spaces. It’s still on the calendar to tour the boroughs from June to August, but Burdman says he’s prepared to push the run back a bit. If . . .
If, if, if. Yet along with all the anxiety, you hear in New York artmakers’ voices a restatement of faith in eternal artistic values — of renewal and rebirth.
“The arts are such a human need,” says Henry Timms, president and chief executive of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. “They help us find ourselves, and they help us find other people.”
People like the ones Andrew Freiser, co-owner of a contemporary art gallery in Chelsea, is thinking of these days. “This is a time when, if you have signed on to supporting a career, if you have an interest in helping a young artist develop, this is a time to step up,” he says.
To ensure that New York stays New York — that Shakespeare’s plays can still take their bows in Central Park, jazz combos can improvise in Columbus Circle and modern dance companies can experiment in Brooklyn — the arts community has no other choice.
“To some people it’s unthinkable that it could fail,” says the Met’s Gelb. “I have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Michael Andor Brodeur, Sarah Kaufman, Philip Kennicott, Peggy McGlone, Sebastian Smee and Kelsey Ables contributed to this report.