‘Soul-crushing’: Ohio’s performing arts regroup after COVID-19 losses

By: - August 31, 2020 1:00 am

Members of the ProMusica Chamber Orchestra give a virtual performance as the conclusion to their 2019-2020 season. Screenshot from ProMusica.

Opera Columbus was ready for its annual gala, the biggest fundraiser of the year for the performing arts company. The food was ordered and the venue was set for the March event.

The next day, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine announced the effective closure of the state, as the spread of COVID-19 began locally.

“It was financially jolting, as you can imagine,” Peggy Kriha Dye, general director and CEO of Opera Columbus, told the Capital Journal.

The food was donated to charity, the decorations were taken down. Next came the reevaluation of opera in the city.

“We ended up cancelling about 100 contracts,” Dye said. “We cancelled our fall season immediately.”

Performing arts in the state are struggling just like employees and participants in every other business in the state. Orchestras, operas and theaters, however, have had to wait longer than almost everyone to be green-lighted for reopen. That wait has had a significant impact on their ability to return, Ohio arts directors say.

Industry declines

A 2018 report by advocacy group Ohio Citizens for the Arts (OCA) showed creative industries in the state accounting for more than $41 billion in economic activity, representing nearly 290,000 jobs per year, and $4.5 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue annually.

This year, the Brookings Institution estimated a loss of 2.3 million jobs nationally and $74 billion in average monthly earnings for “creative occupations” due to the COVID-19 crisis. Those losses represent 30% of all creative occupations, and 15% of total average monthly wages, according to the institution’s report.

“Again, creative occupations in the fine and performing arts — which include the visual arts, music, theater and dance — will be disproportionately affected, representing roughly a third of wage employment losses,” the report stated.

For ProMusica Chamber Orchestra violinist Eric Kline, watching his colleagues struggle has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic.

“I don’t know how they’re doing it, because basically a lot of people who are performing in an orchestral setting, that’s most of their income,” Kline said.

ProMusica postponed its summer music series, which typically draws in 5,000 people over three nights, and are left wondering about their February fundraising event, which represents 14% of their operating budget, according to CEO Janet Chen.

“For musicians, every day of their life, they are working toward a performance, or a goal,” Chen said. “To have that all halt and kind of completely gone for six months of their lives and not really knowing when things will pick up, it’s soul-crushing for a musician.”

Kline is fortunate to have a spouse with a second income, but he knows musicians around the state that are getting creative with their time, including teaching music in online settings, or even non-music lessons.

“I have two friends who are teaching English as a second language,” Kline said.

Having played the violin since he was three and working as a member of various orchestras since he graduated, Kline knows the commitment made when deciding to make music a career. Jobs are not easy to come by in an ideal year, because chairs in an orchestra are already limited.

“You know that as a musician you are taking a personal sacrifice, and knowing if you want to have a family and buy a house, it’s going to come with challenges,” Kline said. “But something like this, it’s not just artists and musicians. A lot of people are losing their jobs, and there’s no end in sight.”

Unique reopening limitations

The performing arts industry in the state has been lying in wait as the state navigated the pandemic, and the reopening of businesses and schools. It wasn’t until last week that the DeWine announced a light at the end of the tunnel for musicians and artists.

In a health order signed by Ohio Department of Health interim director Lance Himes, entertainment venues could open, with significant limitations.

Outdoor entertainment venues are only allowed to have a maximum of 1,500 audience members, or 15% of the seated capacity, whichever is less. Indoor facilities, like the Southern Theater where Opera Columbus sometimes performs and the venue ProMusica calls home, are allowed the lesser of 300 patrons or 15% of their capacity.

The order came with mixed feelings from the performing arts community. While performing arts officials appreciate finally receiving acknowledgement of their struggle, the limitations bring another set of problems to which groups will have to adapt.

“No business can be expected to survive after being closed for six months, and then work on such a limited capacity,” said Angela Meleca, executive director for Ohio Citizens for the Arts.

The closures have not only affected their own venues, but the work the orchestras and opera do with schools, to educate students and provide free content to those that can’t afford to see a show. With lack of access to the schools and funding uncertain, those resources could be lost to children who need them.

“We deal with critical thinking, we deal with humanizing issues every day,” Dye said. “Kids that have these gifts and these abilities are only exposed to that through the arts.”

New seasons

While the years of planning to bring shows back to the state begins, organizations have spent the months since the closure announcement “proactively waiting,” as ProMusica’s Chen put it. 

“Musicians and artists are creative people, we are proactive problem solvers,” Chen said.

The chamber orchestra has moved their summer series to a seven-performance series in locations across Columbus. While the health order restrictions have caused them to rework the series in significant ways, Chen said the group would rather reach as many people as possible however they can. The public, it seems, agrees, since Chen said tickets for the shows are already 50% sold.

“I think people in this community are hungry, they’re wanting to bring back that joy in their lives that is music, and that’s really important for us to remember,” Chen said.

When Opera Columbus cancelled their season, they gave ticketholders the option to hold the money in their account for future seasons, donate the money to the company, or get a full refund. Dye said 60% of the money was donated back to them.

The opera just announced their next season, to open in January, complete with a show in a warehouse in Franklinton that will also benefit other local artists.

Instead of a gala, Opera Columbus plans to hold multiple smaller parties throughout the year, something Dye said allows them to be more inclusive than the singular gala, a small piece of silver lining to the months of struggle.

“When you’re forced to reevaluate everything, things you would hope to change now can be changed,” Dye said.

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Susan Tebben
Susan Tebben

Susan Tebben is an award-winning journalist with a decade of experience covering Ohio news, including courts and crime, Appalachian social issues, government, education, diversity and culture. She has worked for The Newark Advocate, The Glasgow (KY) Daily Times, The Athens Messenger, and WOUB Public Media. She has also had work featured on National Public Radio.