The on-screen boxes multiply and suddenly, there are dozens of directors of Minnesota arts organizations in a single Zoom room.
It’s an unlikely group. Museum and theater executives and presidents. Leaders of the Walker Art Center, the Minnesota Orchestra, the Children’s Theatre Company.
They’ve gathered, as they do each week, to reckon with a pandemic that’s closed their doors and rocked their bottom lines, threatening like no crisis before it nonprofit institutions at the heart of Minnesota’s vibrant, prized arts and cultural community.
Much of the conversation centers on a tricky question: When and how should museums and cultural centers reopen? Part strategy, part therapy, the sessions dig into the latest research and best practices, with an occasional appearance from a health expert.
The state’s recent, restricted go-ahead is just one factor they’re weighing.
“It’s been huge to have this group to talk to,” said Walker director Mary Ceruti. “We are all facing decisions and sorting through how to do something that none of us have ever done, none of us have been trained to do.”
The stakes are high, both for workers and visitors’ safety and the broader economy. The state’s cultural industry attracts not only visitors but also residents who want to build lives here, said Steve Grove, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. “They’re not just nice to have; they’re critical economic drivers.”
These arts leaders have plenty of Zoom meetings on their calendars. (“My retinas are fried,” one noted.) There are national associations, arts advocacy groups. But “there’s nothing quite like this,” said Jon Limbacher, president of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. “I believe in all of this — in this terrible, challenging sad time — that out of it there’s going to be lemonade out of the lemons.
“I think what’s happening with this group will be some of the lemonade.”
The SPCO, like other arts nonprofits, is facing a big financial hit and an uncertain reopening. With concerts scotched, ticket sales have fallen to zero, for now, and Limbacher expects revenue to be down 30% in the coming fiscal year, which starts this summer. When the chamber orchestra does perform again, during a slimmed-down season scheduled to begin Sept. 11, it could be to half-empty halls.
“There’s the emotional toll of not being able to fulfill our mission, which is disheartening,” Limbacher said. “There’s also on top of that the very real financial threat.”
Yet each time this group meets, “I’ve come away feeling bolstered.”
Prepping signs and Plexiglas
Ceruti leads the calls, which started as an informal check-in between a few fellow directors. Two months in, there are work groups, agenda items and a shared drive.
As they weigh reopening, museums are considering different safety measures than theaters, which are considering different factors than orchestras. Theaters, which gather people shoulder-to-shoulder in enclosed spaces, have canceled months of shows. Museums, used to directing traffic and restricting touch, will likely go first.
The Walker contains all the complexities in a single art center. It is a museum, a cinema, a theater. A gift shop and a restaurant, too. It’s planning a phased reopening, starting with its galleries, in mid-July.
“I have to say it’s different for galleries,” Ceruti said. “People welcome aloneness in a gallery space. For a theater, part of the experience is energy ... between the audience and the performers and among the audience. If you start spreading people out and having a theater at 30 percent capacity, what does that feel like?”
With the help of this group, the Walker is studying national guidelines, including those from the American Alliance of Museums, and state rules. It’s surveying members, asking what they expect in terms of masks, hand sanitizer, capacity. It’s prepping signs and Plexiglas.
The group has been working with Gov. Tim Walz’s office on timing and protocols. His latest order, issued June 5, allowed museums, theaters, cinemas and concert halls to reopen last Wednesday under certain conditions, including limiting occupancy to 25% capacity and enforcing 6-foot distances.
“These conversations weren’t just checking in — they were actually informing the guidance that was then released,” said commissioner Grove. Those talks convinced his office to move up the reopening of indoor entertainment venues. “I think they’ve shown some innovative ideas and thinking in terms of getting this right.”
Limiting capacity to 25 percent “is better than zero but it’s certainly not perfect,” he acknowledged. His office will be asking: “Is this worth it? Is this a revenue positive activity for you or not?”
So far, among the Twin Cities’ biggest arts institutions, museums are setting reopening dates, readying touchless doors and ticketless entry.
“We’re really having to look from top to bottom at our entire operations,” said Minneapolis Institute of Art president Katie Luber, who just started in January.
The massive encyclopedic museum, which aims to reopen July 16, is working with a team at Carlson School of Management to break down its more than 137,000 square feet of gallery space, analyzing its occupancy per square foot.
It has shared that spreadsheet with others in the group, so they might do their own analyses.
“The strength of the group is the diversity of the points of view,” Luber said. “The willingness for collaboration. The understanding that we are such a stronger group of voices when we’re working together.”
Budget numbers are bleak
Since they shuttered in mid-March, theaters, museums and other arts nonprofits have sustained deep financial blows — from lost ticket revenue to nixed fundraisers — and in some cases, made dramatic layoffs.
Many operate in the best of times on thin margins, relying heavily on ticket sales. More than two-thirds of Minnesota’s arts organization will be in crisis within six months, a Minnesota Council of Nonprofits survey last month showed.
The Minnesota Orchestra, the Walker, Mia and others have applied for and received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, they said, easing the need for layoffs. But the numbers are bleak.
Mia, for example, is anticipating a $1 million deficit in the current fiscal year, Luber said, its first deficit in at least three decades. It's forecasting a $4 million drop in revenue next year.
The Walker anticipates it will lose will lose $2.5 million, or 12% of its revenue during the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. Next year, Ceruti said, “a 20 percent revenue drop is quite likely.”
The directors’ weekly calls have focused on reopening safely. But they’ve also touched on fundraising strategies and furloughs.
“We’ve talked about the impact of all this,” said Bruce Karstadt, president of the American Swedish Institute. The institutions are so dissimilar that strategies will differ. “It’s just more therapy to talk about it with one another and to know we’re not alone in this boat.”
The group is collectively grieving, too, its inability to serve its communities “in the way we do best, by gathering people,” he said. The Swedish Institute works in its south Minneapolis neighborhood with writing projects, Head Start programs and intercultural, intergenerational conversations. Those are needed more than ever, Karstadt said, with the community reeling from the pandemic and the death of George Floyd at the hands of police. “We’re sort of hamstrung. ... That’s bothering us considerably.”
Two weeks ago, amid calls for justice and reform, the leaders used their call to talk through how Minneapolis arts institutions might take action. Several subsequently pledged to stop contracting with the Minneapolis Police Department.
The group has grown in recent weeks, as arts directors from Grand Rapids, Brainerd and other cities across Minnesota joined. Karstadt has been struck by the way larger institutions have been willing to share what they know with midsize and smaller nonprofits.
“We all sit at that table on equal standing,” he said. “It’s been quite heartening. ... That’s a mark of the real sense of cohesiveness that may be forming among our institutions that I hope endures beyond this crisis.”