One chorus called off a third of their concerts. An arts group postponed the fundraiser on which their budget depends. A nonprofit pushed back the film festival they’d been planning for more than a year.
Small theaters and choirs, art galleries and dance troupes are wiping weeks of performances and events from their calendars, bracing for coronavirus’ impact on their bottom lines.
“It’s going to be devastating,” said Sheila Smith, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. “The economic damage is immediate, and it’s going to build quickly. ... I think there’s a lot of things that aren’t going to survive it.
“Arts and culture organizations are on the edge, already — especially the smaller ones.”
The cascade of closings is hitting artists hard, including independent artists, accustomed to living on the financial edge. “So much of the arts economy is a gig economy,” as Smith put it. And within a day or two, weeks of gigs disappeared. No merch tables to man. No painting workshops to teach.
“When that work is cut, there’s no protection or safety net. The money just disappears,” said Laura Zabel, executive director of Springboard for the Arts, a St. Paul nonprofit. “For artists it was just so fast and so immediate and so all-encompassing.
“People are worried about how they’re going to pay rent in April, which is two weeks away.”
Springboard for the Arts has long offered an emergency relief fund for artists rocked by a natural disaster or a health care crisis. They opened it up last week to Minnesota artists who have lost income due to coronavirus cancelations, up to $500 a person. The nonprofit put $10,000 into the fund and has asked for donations, raising more than $28,000.
Typically, the nonprofit gets one or two requests for relief a week. In the past week, it’s received more than 350.
“In the short term $500 makes a big difference to make rent or buy groceries,” Zabel said. “We also know that’s not the long-term solution to this.
“A week in, I can tell the impact of this is going to be a lot longer and a lot bigger than this fund can cover.”
In the midst of crisis, arts groups big and small keep reaching out to audiences.
The Minnesota Orchestra dressed in concert black to play Friday night to an empty hall, so that people could listen via live broadcast. The Minneapolis Institute of Art is posting Mia From Home, taking requests for photos of favorite pieces in its permanent collection. St. Paul rapper Nur-D (Matt Allen) streamed four “Quarantine World Tour” gigs online this week to raise money via Venmo for himself and other performers.
“We can have fun,” he said, “but these are pretty serious times for many of us.”
Calling off the weekly open mic was tough. Postponing a fundraiser at the Walker Art Center was hard. But canceling the youth poetry slam semifinals?
“That one was pretty heartbreaking for me,” said Tish Jones, founder of TruArtSpeaks, the nonprofit behind the Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series. “These poets have worked the entire season, since before January, creating their work.”
Poet and performer Jones has no doubt that coronavirus will greatly impact artists and arts organizations. “The number of calls I’ve been fielding, they grow on a daily basis.” But she’s thinking about audiences, too. The weekly open mic night, held each Thursday for eight years, created space to make sense of current events — the shooting of Philando Castile, for one. She wishes they could gather now to talk about the outbreak and how it’s affecting them.
“We as a community are losing something by not having those convening spaces,” Jones said.
So TruArtSpeaks is convening online, hosting free workshops called “Building Resilience” via the Zoom app. On Monday afternoon, she DJ’ed hip-hop that speaks to this moment. “Keep Ya Head Up” by Tupac Shakur. On Wednesday, illustrator Myc Daz hosted a workshop on processing through visual art.
The events give young people a way to connect and artists a way to get paid, Jones said.
She encouraged fans, too, to “think about that one person you saw onstage,” she said, “who’s not connected to a large institution, who doesn’t have the 9 to 5 job, the pension, the 401(k). ... How do you support that person?”
While canceling shows at all five of its venues through the end of April, First Avenue made a renewed push for its decade-old grant program, the Twin Cities Community Trust, to benefit the “gig workforce,” which also includes freelance stage hands and bar staff.
“We’re staring at something never thought possible: months with no live music, no dance parties, no drinks at the bar, and no revenue,” said First Ave owner Dayna Frank, part of a coalition of 70 bar, restaurant and other business operators who wrote to Gov. Tim Walz and state legislators last week asking for relief on sales and property taxes in the coming months.
Minneapolis music vet Sean “Har Mar Superstar” Tillmann had to postpone a dozen upcoming West Coast dates and a big hometown gig April 2 at First Avenue last week with his new band, Heart Bones. They are turning to special online promotions of their new album, but in the digital-streaming era, musicians get most of their income off shows.
“We thrive in a live setting, so that’s our bread and butter,” said Tillmann, who “didn’t even want to try to quantify” how much money his band lost from canceled shows and investment in promotion.
“We’ll be OK, but it’s sad to watch it all slip away. I am not going to sit around and complain, though, because this is happening to everyone on every level.”
‘Up in the air’
For months, the Twin Cities Gay Men’s Chorus commissioned, rehearsed and promoted new music for its spring concerts. Last week, they called off those concerts.
“It’s devastating from an artistic standpoint,” said Kevin Stocks, executive director. The choir’s purpose is to build community through music, “so when we are not able to perform publicly and gather publicly, it hurts.”
Then there’s the financial standpoint. The chorus puts on three concerts a year. They make up about 30 percent of the organization’s operating revenue. So postponing this month’s shows without knowing whether they can be rescheduled leaves a big hole.
Small arts organizations that have a short season — or maybe a single event — that happens to fall during this time are particularly at risk, said Smith, of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. (Her organization, too, had to make its annual arts advocacy day set for Thursday at the State Capitol virtual.)
“Most of the expenses are front-loaded,” Smith said. “You have to spend all your money on the set, costumes, actors ahead of time. The ticket sales are what makes you whole.”
The MSP Film Society works all year to put on the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, a huge gathering of movies and moviemakers from around the world. This year’s fest was set for April 9-25. Last week, they postponed it.
“We’re all pretty dejected around here,” said executive director Susan Smoluchowski on the day they made the call. “But it’s just the right thing to do.”
Canceling the event would have meant lost ticket revenue of $400,000 to $500,000, she said. Not to mention the broader, cultural loss. “That was the least preferred of all the alternatives.” So instead, they’re postponing the festival, with its 250-plus films.
Curators and staffers are weighing what the weekslong event might look like in the summer.
“It’s very fluid and very much up in the air,” Smoluchowski said.
A gallery, online
Hair and Nails, a storefront gallery in south Minneapolis, is so small that for a while, its owners thought it could stay open.
“Through the weekend there was maybe a surge of visits,” said dancer/choreographer Kristin Van Loon, “because we were one of the few things still open.”
But by Sunday, they knew they had to shut down.
The gallery’s next show opening has been delayed. The dance performance they were set to stage in Brooklyn has been called off, said artist/musician Ryan Fontaine. Other income is in question, too: Van Loon is the artistic director of the Bryant-Lake Bowl, which has shut down. The gallery doesn’t make a lot of money from art sales, Fontaine said, “but we do make some.” So the stock market’s dive doesn’t bode well.
But the couple are lucky, they said. Their art space is part of their home. They recently won a Visual Arts Fund grant via Midway Contemporary Art.
“We’re also accustomed to living in high-risk,” Van Loon said. “We’re in that place that could be anxiety-producing for others. …
“We’re always on the edge of financial collapse,” Fontaine said.
For now, they’re open by appointment. On Wednesday, they’ll start a Vimeo channel titled Hair and Nails TV. There, they envision artist talks and dance performances, new works and experiments.
“As this goes on, I think people are really going to be looking for something to look at, to think about, to do together,” Fontaine said. “Even though it’s distanced … we can help people feel like they’re still congregating.”
Staff writer Chris Riemenschneider contributed to this report.