Covid Era Virtual Programming Continues To Be Successful For Some Arts Orgs

Amid all the stories of arts organizations closing and scaling back, I saw a piece about a dance company in Dallas that has seen their situation improve with virtual and live programming during and after the worst of the Covid shutdowns. Public radio station KERA posted a story about the steps Dallas Black Dance Theatre took that increased their exposure and reach.

While many arts organizations – particularly those that serve communities of color – shut down or lost revenue during the pandemic, Dallas Black Dance Theatre Executive Director Zenetta Drew said the organization made $100,000 in net ticket sales in 2020 from online programming.


Drew said the theatre’s programming has continued to net six figures each year and has also brought in new audiences from across the world. Since 2020, DBDT has reached 38 states and 35 countries outside the U.S. with paid virtual content.


While virtual and in-person arts programming have been viewed as alternatives, Drew said it doesn’t have to be either-or. Instead, she said virtual programming “gives you a chance to really whet the appetite of folks to want to have that in-person experience.”

The proof? Demand for the company’s touring engagements has quadrupled since 2019. Drew said the increased exposure to art markets across the country led to paid gigs in spaces they’d never been before, such as Yale University and Seattle.

I heard that many performing arts companies scaled back on virtual offerings once live performances were permitted again. Perhaps the dance company’s approach of using virtual and live to complement each other and the framework of their content has been beneficial to them. They may have also hit a sweet spot with audiences who wanted/were interested in seeing people like themselves in performance.

You Can’t Measure The Value Of Arts In Dollars, But Not Having It Will Cost You

A couple weeks ago in The Globe & Mail, Max Wyman wrote an opinion piece declaring the value of art and culture in Canada shouldn’t just be measured by economic standards. Long time readers know this argument is a particular interest of mine.

Wyman writes:

Typically, if you can’t value the outcome in dollars, it doesn’t count. And it’s hard to show the value of art and culture on a cost-benefit graph. Even when they do come up with more cash, it’s usually for economic reasons. Just recently, for instance, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new investment of £50-billion ($84-billion) to “grow the creative industries,” in the name of adding a million extra jobs in the country’s cultural sector by 2030.

He goes on to note that arts and cultural organizations are becoming more adept at discussing related benefits such as making communities desirable places to live and contributing to physical and mental health and well-being.

He goes on to cite a study that asked nearly 2000 visitors to 11 U.S. museums to place a value on the contribution to their well-being the museum visit had made. While they got an interesting result, it is somewhat unfortunately couched in economic terms.

…to assess the way their museum experiences improved their well-being in four categories – personal, intellectual, social and physical – and to put a price on those benefits on a sliding scale from US$0 to US$1,000. They came up with an average cash value, per individual visit, of US$905. When the study’s authors extrapolated this information on a national scale, they calculated an annual economic value of US$52-billion in public well-being for museum visitors.

I know, I know: small sample, based on entirely personal valuations. But in an interview with The Art Newspaper, Will Cary, the chief operating officer of the Barnes Foundation (which took part in the study), said the research gives funders and policy makers “a compelling, quantitative argument that thriving, well-supported cultural institutions are not ‘nice-to-haves,’ they are ‘need-to-haves’ and that the return on their investment is significant and multifaceted.”

As something of a supplement to this article, I was listening to a Wisconsin Public Radio story, (probably saw it on where a caller (~11:45) said a company was visiting their village to determine whether they would site their company there or in NC. The caller, who said he served on the village council, said the company rep said his wife was into arts and the community and she will never live here. The caller said they basically lost a company that was going to employ 250 because they lacked an arts and culture infrastructure.

You Wanna Be Where Everybody Know Your Name

I am not sure when Culturebot fell off my daily reading list, but the last time I referenced a post was 2014. Thankfully linked to a piece by Andy Horowitz this week so the blog is back on my radar.  Andy wrote a relatively long piece about the need to focus on audience need and experience. While he has a TL;DNR summary at the beginning, the really good stuff is buried in the expanded version.

The broad strokes won’t be new to long time readers. Horowitz notes that despite the wake up call of Covid and all the money funders have provided for engagement and innovation, a lot of theaters are still focusing on legacy audiences and providing the same type of audience experiences as they had in the past.

He says arts and culture organizations need to be creating a sense of belonging and connection for new audiences. He uses a couple of personal examples. In the first, he talks about arriving in NYC and wanting to be a part of what was happening at P.S. 122, (now known as Performance Space New York), because so much great work was happening. But he couldn’t figure out a way in. Everybody already seemed to know everyone else. He started getting involved with other organizations and projects until he eventually cultivated the right relationships and started working at P.S. 122.

In another part of his piece, he raises a similar example of his 4.5 year old son changing pre-schools mid-year:

 It was a bumpy transition since at midyear all the other kids knew each other; some had started “going to school” together during the pandemic. …His teachers said he might not feel comfortable onstage and might prefer to sit with us; he came home from school telling us how he wasn’t able to learn the songs or the choreography because the other kids already knew it, things like that. As the day approached, we were filled with trepidation and uncertainty. But lo and behold, when graduation day came, our little guy sat with his class, walked onstage with his class, sang the songs, did the choreography, and behaved perfectly the whole time!! I have never been more invested in a performance in my life.

He talks about how brave people need to be to take chances in so many respects, including learning new things and trying to integrate into social settings in which we don’t feel we belong.  Horowitz reiterates what I have written before about creating an environment in which people can see themselves and their stories depicted and spend time with family and friends. Something I have overlooked is working to provide the sense you are among friends even if you didn’t know anyone when you arrived. (his emphasis)

I think that this is what every audience everywhere wants when they come to the theater. We want to feel like we are meeting up with friends. We want to see people we know in the lobby, we want to see people we know onstage, we want to know the person that works in the box office and the ushers, we want to know the people seated next to us and across the room in another section so we can wave to them and meet them at intermission for a drink. There is nothing worse than feeling like a stranger milling around with other strangers awkwardly avoiding eye contact, worrying about if you belong. If you run a theater and you aren’t trying to create that sense of welcome, belonging and inclusion with your audience, then you are failing them, it doesn’t matter what you put onstage.

As someone whose name is on an alcohol license, I am a little wary about encouraging people to literally replicate this exact scenario, but one experience Horowitz touts as bringing people together was a scheme in which an event made ordering a single beer as expensive as ordering a beer for 10 people. The result was that strangers organized themselves into groups to get the cheapest possible drinks they could:

I don’t remember the exact amount but a single beer was, I think, $10 and 10 beers was maybe $1? Like that. So as soon as someone got to the front of the line they immediately started talking to the people around them to get enough drink orders together to get the cheaper drinks. Never have I ever seen a group of strangers connecting and laughing and cooperating so quickly and joyfully as I did that night. I’m pretty sure that the bar was itself an art project.

Perhaps it was a lesson the TV show Cheers was teaching us back in the 80s and we just weren’t paying close enough attention.

Interesting History of Drag In Twin Cities

As Pride Month comes to an end, I wanted to call attention to an interesting piece that appeared earlier this month about the history of drag performances in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area during the late 19th to early 20th century.

Despite laws prohibiting crossdressing, its use in theatrical performance was considered appropriate at the highest strata of society.

Minneapolis maintained a city ordinance against cross-dressing between 1877 and the mid-1900s, and St. Paul didn’t repeal its 1891 ordinance prohibiting people from wearing “clothes not belonging to their sex” in public until 2003. Theater allowed drag performers to evade these legalities in ways that individuals “cross-dressing” in daily life could not. Mainstream society allowed and accepted drag so long as performers were explicitly donning a costume, maintaining a “fourth wall” between themselves and the audience. It did not make these allowances for individuals not attired in gender conforming clothing outside of explicit performance, who were far more subject to policing….

…Popular “female impersonators” like Julian Eltinge, Karyl Norman and Paul Vernon performed in venues like the Grand Opera House in St. Paul and the Metropolitan Theater and the Orpheum in Minneapolis. The elitism of the venues reflected the “fashionable society” that attended. But even during this early period of drag, performers were not exclusively men; women performed and received similar acclaim as “male impersonators.” “High-class vaudeville” artists like Mary Marble and Margaret Grayce toured nationally, stopping to perform in Minnesota in 1897 and 1908, respectively.

According to the article, there was some uncomfortable intersections with blackface performance during this time. There is an implication that some of the drag depictions might have feed into similarly offensive stereotypes regarding gender.

It wasn’t until drag started to move to nightclubs and the illusion of the fourth wall was increasingly dissolved that the practice of crossdressing began to raise alarms socially.

By the 1930s, drag was written up in newspapers more as the cause of police raids than as a performance notice. Police interfered not so much due to the content, but rather because of the interaction between performers and audiences. Police told Variety that acts contained “nothing obscene or immoral in show … but (we’d) like it stopped anyhow.”

Despite police raids and attempts to close down established and widely popular shows, drag performances continued and became more diverse.

As the 1940s progressed, drag was not exclusive to white performers. Minneapolis’s Clef Club catered to Black patrons and featured Black performers, such as the singer Alma Smith and drag artist Carroll Lee, and the 1950s and 60s brought acclaim to Black drag artists like Stormé DeLarverie, Dodie Daniels and Don Marshall, featured in the Jewel Box Revue.