Arts leaders in Seattle had two main reactions to Gov. Jay Inslee’s Wednesday-morning proclamation banning gatherings of more than 250 people through the end of the month.
First: They accept the seriousness and high-stakes nature of this public-health crisis.
Second: They expect the 250-person ban to be a severe — and, for some organizations, potentially bankrupting — blow to the cultural health of the city.
Even before the ban, effective in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, concern and fear about the novel coronavirus led to a quick series of hits. Dizzyingly steep drops in ticket sales, fundraising galas on ice, hastily canceled school performances and corporate gigs — all were taking a major bite out of arts nonprofits.
Now arts organizations are trying to assess the potential damage of the new social-distancing mandates. Along with the governor’s 250-person order, King County announced new rules for gatherings of fewer than 250 people, which would require, among other directives, making sure hand-washing supplies are readily available and allowing enough space for all attendants to stay about six feet away from each other.
“This is historic, and we have to keep in mind that a lot of people have died,” said Josh LaBelle, executive director of Seattle Theatre Group (STG), whose three major venues (the Paramount, the Moore, and the Neptune) have seating capacities between 1,000 and 2,807.
“But I hope in due time our government leaders will apply the same diligence and care for our arts and culture sector as they do for the health of our society in general,” he said. “A lot of our artists and arts workers are at risk, and there’s not a huge safety net. If they’re unemployed for any period of time, that could add to the health issue — and that’s not what we want to see.”
“This is a crisis”
Before Inslee’s announcement, box-office receipts for upcoming shows had already been dire at the larger and mid-sized organizations. “Babette’s Feast” at Taproot Theatre: 80% lower than the norm. “Sweat” at ACT Theatre: projected to sell $1,460 per day during early March, down to $242.75 per day since March 1. “Sister Act” at the 5th Avenue Theatre: daily sales down 50 to 75%.
“That’s a million dollars,” said Bernadine “Bernie” Griffin, managing director at the 5th Ave. “‘Sister Act’ was on track to be one of our biggest shows. This is such a fragile ecosystem, and $1 million down becomes a ‘how do we make payroll?’ question.”
In the meantime, arts organizations and arts-advocacy groups like ArtsFund are urging people with tickets to consider them a donation to the organization and not ask for refunds. LaBelle says STG is already seeing that level of generosity among patrons: “If I was to look at the last seven days of sales and mirror that against the amount of refunds, I’d say it was less than 10% refunds.”
“Our message is loud and clear,” said Griffin. “We need you now like we’ve never needed you before. This is a crisis.”
Hundreds of jobs
“It’s been a really stressful couple of weeks,” said Charly McCreary, co-founder and managing director of aerial-dance company The Cabiri.
Founded in 1999, the company depends on performances, rentals of its Ballard facility, and dance and trapeze classes for income. Even though the venue is too small to be hit by the 250-gathering ban, its revenue streams have already been drying up.
“Our landlords are not going to tell us we don’t have to pay rent because of coronavirus,” McCreary said. “We only have three or four months of resources to keep us open in an emergency — if this drags on much beyond that, I don’t know what we’ll do. This could be the hardest thing we’ve ever had to make our way through. I’ve had a hard time sleeping.”
Josef Krebs, co-owner of arts and culture consulting firm Scandiuzzi Krebs, estimates aggregate ticket-sales losses in Seattle could be over $3 million a week. “And we’re talking about hundreds of jobs here,” he said. “Hundreds. These are perishable goods. And folks that are going to get hurt the most during this time are small groups or independent artists who rely on ticket sales as their sole or primary source of revenue.”
Fundraising galas have also been indefinitely postponed, including the Seattle Girls Choir annual auction, as well as ArtsFund’s 50th anniversary luncheon, which 800 people had registered to attend. Book-It Repertory Theatre’s gala had been scheduled for March 21 and Taproot’s for mid-April.
LaBelle, at STG, said he was confident civic leaders will provide the necessary life support to the arts sector when the time comes.
But David Armstrong, longtime artistic director of the 5th, who stepped down after 18 years in 2017, is more pessimistic. “I trust the math and science behind these decisions,” he said. “What I don’t trust is that they have a plan for how to protect, or are even thinking about how to protect, the arts organizations in our region, which are always discounted. There is going to be thinking about what we need to do to sustain the economy during this crisis. We have to make sure the arts is included in this line of thinking.”
Armstrong pointed to economic-impact studies from ArtsFund which, in 2019, reported higher attendance at arts events across King County (over 3,891,900 people) than home-game attendance for the Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders combined (3,188,103).
A 2014 ArtsFund study also found that cultural organizations in King, Pierce, Kitsap and Snohomish counties had a combined attendance of 13.4 million people and generated $2.4 billion in the state economy, creating 35,375 jobs, $996 million in labor income and $105 million in taxes.
“You can say that over and over, but it never computes because people don’t think being in the arts is a real job, so it’s not a real economy,” Armstrong said. “That’s what terrifies me. What we do in the arts is so hard because it’s a labor-dependent business. There’s no way to downsize ‘West Side Story.’ Organizations will start cutting costs because they won’t have income and that will fall on the backs of the workers.”
A variety of hits
Museums, including Seattle Art Museum and Frye Art Museum, have remained open but canceled their public programming, including lectures and events for younger and older patrons.
Museums tend to rely more heavily on donations than entry fees to cover their budgets, but they’re also feeling the pinch. Pacific Science Center has taken a variety of hits since March 1 (50% dip in attendance, 75% of private events canceled, 36% fewer field trips than expected) and is currently calculating a half-million-dollar shortfall for the month.
Taproot Theatre has been around since 1976, and founding artistic director Scott Nolte puts coronavirus up there with 9/11 and a catastrophic arson, which nearly destroyed the Greenwood theater, in the fall of 2009.
“But even after the season, the touring company was able to continue serving the schools and we found another venue for our Christmas show,” he said. “There’s nothing in my memory that said: ‘Hey general public, don’t leave home!’
Taproot seats just under 250 people, but the theater was hitting trouble even before Inslee’s proclamation. “The schools are canceling all outside assemblies and school activities (which cuts the touring company’s work) and ticket sales have virtually ground to a halt.”
But some theater audiences, especially those at itinerant fringe companies, aren’t holing up — yet. David Gassner, director of “1984” by Radial Theater Project at 18th and Union, said the house has been 80% full or fuller over the past week, with only a handful of cancellations. “UGLY (Black Queer Zoo),” now running at Washington Ensemble Theatre (WET), reports meeting 60% of its sales goals thus far.
Both of those theaters are small enough to avoid the 250-person order. WET said it would continue running “UGLY,” selling fewer tickets to comply with the new rules. The final performances of “1984” have been postponed, dates to be determined.
At this point, arts groups are emphasizing the uncertainty of the situation — and the public-safety rationale for all the chaos.
“We’re going to need people’s patience over the next month,” LaBelle, of STG, said. “Bottom line: Humans are good people and they’re trying to take care of each other.”