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Not long after statewide lockdown orders came down as the coronavirus pandemic hit Maine in March, Lauren Wayne, general manager of the 1,870-seat State Theatre in Portland, formed a loose alliance with other venue operators across the state to share strategies and advocate for their businesses.
They run venues big and small, for-profit and nonprofit. Some own their spaces, and some rent. They present everything from hip hop and modern dance to classical music and plays.
And yet, despite their differences, they share one big problem: the mass gatherings on which they depend simply aren’t happening this year.
“If you’re in the business of mass gatherings, you’re in trouble,” Wayne said.
Economic hardship from the pandemic is hardly limited to performance venues. But while most sectors of the economy at this point have been allowed to at least partially reopen, venues are almost all still closed, faced with the fact that there’s no end in sight to the statewide ban on gatherings of more than 50 people, and that no COVID-19 vaccine is close to being ready for the general population.
When your entire business model is based on gatherings of many times more than 50 people, doing business is all but impossible during a pandemic.
“We keep telling people, we were the first to close, and we’ll be the last to fully reopen,” said Josh Gass of Launchpad, the arts nonprofit that with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra operates the Bangor Arts Exchange in downtown Bangor. “We are inordinately affected by the pandemic.”
Venues don’t just host performances. They employ people. They operate as community hubs and are integral to their communities’ cultural fabric. And they bring people into downtown areas, who spend money at other businesses. The arts advocacy group Americans For The Arts estimated that the average person in Maine in 2016 spent $66 each time they attended an arts event, not including ticket prices.
Nevertheless, economic help — in whatever form it takes — is hard to come by, with the arts and culture sector having been largely excluded from federal relief efforts.
“We have our eyes on the first quarter of 2021 for things to start again,” Wayne said. “But that’s a moving target. It could be June 2021. It could even be later than that. It’s just a huge unknown. Without some sort of real help, it starts to get really tenuous.”
Crunching the numbers
As soon as the closures happened, the Maine Arts Commission sprang into action, distributing information about Paycheck Protection Program loans for organizations and unemployment benefits for individual artists. The commission has held webinars offering financial planning resources for arts and culture professionals, and has fast-tracked grants, including more than one hundred $500 grants to individual artists.
Eight Maine arts organizations received $50,000 coronavirus aid grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. They included five performing arts groups: the Penobscot Theatre Company, Portland Stage, the L.A. Public Theatre, the Portland Symphony Orchestra and Portland Ovations. The Maine Arts Commission also received $426,800 from the federal CARES Act to distribute to arts organizations.
But after the commission finished surveying arts organizations in June, it became clear that the immediate need in order to stave off widespread closures was closer to $9.5 million, said Julie Richard, the arts commission’s director.
“The initial $426,000 was nice, but it did not go very far,” Richard said. “When you think about the full economic impact of the arts and culture sector, it’s kind of a drop in the bucket.”
The state’s Economic Recovery Committee earlier this month recommended that Maine provide an additional $1.1 billion in aid to help the economy, though arts and culture as a part of Maine’s economy were not mentioned in the report.
In 2017, the arts and culture sector contributed $1.6 billion to Maine’s economy and employed nearly 17,000 people, or about 2.6 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. Those people collected nearly $846 million in income.
“Sometimes the narrative around art is that it’s cute. It’s extra. It’s fun. It’s a hobby,” said Shoni Currier, executive director of the Bates Dance Festival in Lewiston. “It is far more than that. It makes a huge social and economic impact. We bring money to communities. We provide jobs for so many people. And some of that is about to crumble.”
Additionally, the Maine Arts Commission does not offer grants to for-profit businesses, meaning the State Theatre, Port City Music Hall, the Portland House of Music and other venues aren’t eligible. As a result, they must rely on the sources of relief that any business might receive despite the fact that they, essentially, cannot reopen like others can.
“For-profit venues don’t differ greatly from non-profits, except that they aren’t eligible for grants,” Richard said. “They operate the same way. They follow the same guidelines. They use the same staff. When artists book a performance, they don’t ask whether a venue is nonprofit.”
There are a few municipal sources of funding. Josh Gass of Launchpad helped to lead the charge to convince the Bangor City Council to approve an additional $15,000 in emergency funds for cultural organizations in Bangor, to be distributed by the city’s Commission for Cultural Development.
And there are also some potential new federal funding opportunities. On Wednesday, Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, and John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced the “Save Our Stages” bill, designed to provide six months of financial support for independent venues nationwide, regardless of their for- or nonprofit standing.
Everyone’s a little bit different
Every venue’s business model is different, meaning each encounters unique challenges as they try to survive the pandemic.
The Bates Dance Festival, an annual program of Bates College, has its own programmatic budget, in addition to support from the college. Each summer, the festival brings in renowned dance artists from all over the world, to lead workshops and perform for three weeks. For venues and presenters associated with schools, they have the added problem of fighting for resources as administrators may be faced with having to make cuts amid declining revenue from tuition.
“We’re all fighting for these little pots of money,” Currier said. “And donors are being very cautious, because they might want to hang onto their personal wealth, given all the economic uncertainty. It is really, really hard.”
On Maine’s midcoast, the Camden Opera House is municipally owned, which provides the 485-seat theater a bit of a buffer from the economic realities of the shutdown. But that doesn’t mean the effects of its shutdown aren’t felt in other ways.
“We partner with so many local presenters, whether it’s theater, dance, music, and bigger organizations like the Camden International Film Festival and the Camden Conference,” venue manager Dave Morrison said. “Not only is that a major source of revenue for us, but for a lot of them the shows they do here are their big money makers for the year. They are all gone this year. That’s a huge blow to them. And that’s how we get people through the doors.”
While the specifics on the revenue side of the ledger differ, venues’ financial problems end up being similar.
“There are some that are perfectly financially healthy in normal times,” said Richard, of the Maine Arts Commission. “But their business model just doesn’t work for a global pandemic. They don’t have a year-and-a-half worth of capital reserves.”
That’s the situation in which One Longfellow Square in Portland, a 175-seat nonprofit venue on Congress Street, found itself during the pandemic. Though manager Jeff Beam said the venue had recently come off its most successful fall and winter season in years, those gains were quickly erased when the closures happened.
After One Longfellow’s PPP loan and remaining capital were exhausted, the organization was faced with the fact that it still had $7,000 in monthly rent and utility payments. Given their small size, grants that are available to some organizations were not available to them. The board made the decision to launch a GoFundMe campaign, which Beam said was a last act of desperation. If it wasn’t successful, they would have had to close down permanently after Labor Day.
The campaign, however, hit its $100,000 goal within nine days. The venue reached a second goal of $175,000 not long after, with an average donation of $108. With that support, Beam said, the organization will be able to remain solvent though mid-summer 2021, and will have a small amount of money with which to reopen next year.
“The fact that in the midst of all this struggle, people were willing to support us is, I think, an unbelievable testament to how much people value the arts,” Beam said. “We’re truly humbled and incredibly grateful.”
Pleading their cases
Since the Bates Dance Festival was canceled, Currier has been advocating for Maine’s cultural sector, as part of an ad-hoc group formed by the Maine Office of Tourism.
“We are an essential part of Maine’s economy, year-round,” Currier said. “There has been a lot of very valuable dialogue about the plight of our hospitality and tourism industry, and our fishing industry. We need to have that same conversation about arts and culture.”
People who are advocating for the industry have to do some education on how it works, including the fact that most venues can’t just open their doors once they get the OK to fully reopen.
“Organizations like the Collins Center for the Arts and the Ogunquit Playhouse, these are organizations that do major productions, with lots of crew members and actors from out of state. They start planning these things years in advance,” Richard said. “If we get the OK to fully reopen on June 1, let’s say, there’s no way you’ll have a production ready to go on June 2.”
The touring live music industry in particular is a complex world that most people, fans or not, don’t fully understand. Maine as a destination for touring artists is almost entirely dependent upon what happens in cities like Boston or New York, as many artists will route their tours through Maine depending on when they can play nearby larger cities.
“If New York and Boston aren’t open, then it’s hard for us to open. Artists that are coming to play in Maine are going there first, or heading there after,” Wayne said. “Our entire business model is based on a network that crosses state lines.”
Wayne has further concerns about a whole host of other issues, such as what sort of insurance venues will need to reopen, what sort of infrastructure venues will have to put in place to keep lines for bathrooms and concessions safe, and other general questions about safety without sacrificing the live performance experience.
“Our fans put a lot of trust in us to not only give them the quality of production they want to see, but also to know that they are going into a safe, comfortable environment,” Wayne said. “We can’t open until all of those questions are answered. And I think there will be a lot of people that just won’t want to come back until there’s a vaccine.”
What does the future look like?
Brain Hinrichs, executive director of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra, said the downtown Bangor Arts Exchange that the orchestra operates with Launchpad had seen remarkable growth over the past year — until it all came to a screeching halt in March. Now he’s worried about whether that growth will continue when shows come back.
“What does it mean to be silent for too long? We are still building this place. BAE is our investment in Bangor, and I don’t want to see it go backwards,” Hinrichs said. “I’m really concerned about keeping that momentum going.”
Nevertheless, Hinrichs said he was pleased to see partners and patrons step up to support the venue in recent months, be they longtime donors or an 18-year-old who had attended BAE’s metal shows and donated $10.
“I think people really value local arts,” he said. “They want to hear music from local musicians. That has become even more clear during all of this. They want to have that local touch.”
Wayne said she has learned just how interconnected so many parts of Maine’s economy truly are — from fishermen and farmers, to retail and restaurants.
“Lobster prices are down, and that’s because people aren’t here to buy it,” Wayne said. “Those people would be coming to our shows. It touches every single aspect of our world.”
Some venues have still been trying to offer programming. The Bates Dance Festival has offered online dance workshops. The Bangor Symphony Orchestra’s BSO Plays On series has been a hit on YouTube and the State Theatre’s Conclave video series features popular local bands performing in the empty venue. The Penobscot Theatre Company has featured story hours for kids, and drag queen interviews with theater artists on its social media platforms.
Starting Aug. 8, the Bangor Arts Exchange will host a series of 50-person shows featuring “pod” seating, in which the patron buys a “pod” for one to four people, with table service.
“We’re just going to try out these smaller shows, and see how they go and if they are viable, and if people are comfortable with it,” Gass said. “If not, then it’s back to the drawing board.”
The Camden Opera House also has a series of 50-person shows planned, which will also be live-streamed. Morrison, the manager, said he doesn’t expect to make much money off those shows, but he does hope to keep his facility and local arts and music in the public eye.
Not knowing what the future holds is a scary position to be in. But most venue operators agree that the thing that keeps them going amid the uncertainty is the fact that someday — hopefully next year — audiences will be able to return to the venues they love, with the people they love, to experience the live performances that they love.
“I think places like OLS and other venues become a kind of sacred space for people. It’s like a secular church. You come for a shared experience. You see people you know. You experience music, or a play, or whatever it is, together,” said Beam. “It’s going to be a very triumphant moment, that first show when we can have a full audience. I think people will come to cherish these things in a way they never had before.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the funding sources for federally funded grants to Maine arts organizations.