What’s Been Learned So Far About Offering Virtual Theatre

American Theatre released results of a survey about virtual theatre offerings during Covid this week. Respondents represent 64 organizations from 25 states.

As you might already imagine, the bad news is that virtual programming was not financially viable for nearly all organizations.

Many experienced a promising initial swell of audience interest in the early months of 2020, but also a disappointing and steady subsequent decline in interest over the past year or so. Companies that sold tickets at pre-pandemic prices almost uniformly experienced a significant dip both in number of tickets sold and box-office revenue compared to the outcomes of similar in-person plays produced during previous seasons; some companies experienced only moderate drops, while for others, the change was drastic.

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Theatres that conducted their own surveys to gauge audience feedback on virtual offerings found that while the quality of the work was typically quite appreciated, audiences consistently expressed a strong preference for live, in-person theatre and saw the virtual version as a better-than-nothing alternative to no theatre at all.

Some theatres found their production costs were less than live performances, mostly due to having smaller casts, production and support crews. Others found it was actually more expensive to create virtual content.

There were some upsides reported, including expanded and increased access:

Many noted that virtual offerings served as an important way to engage their core audience base and maintain donor interest during a time when this would not be possible without the internet, producing ripple effects that cannot always easily be quantified: Most theatre companies reported increased donor support in the early months of the pandemic, and it’s possible though hard to measure whether a sustained virtual presence may have bolstered donor interest. Other companies who may not have seen an overall increase in ticket sales nonetheless reported a promising increase in viewership from younger virtual audiences.

…more than a third of respondents praised virtual theatre for increasing accessibility for those not able to attend in person, whether due to disability, health issues, transportation barriers, or living in rural areas far from the nearest theatre company. As Liz Lisle (she/her), managing director of Shotgun Players in San Francisco, put it, “For us, it is not an economic question—it is an accessibility and engagement question.” Measuring by revenue is “the wrong frame. Virtual theatre brings greater engagement.”

There is a great deal more detailed observation discussed in the article that can offer insight to organizations of multiple disciplines. One thing that seemed to be clear to most respondents is that providing virtual content isn’t simply a matter of putting cameras and sound equipment near a performance executed in a generally conventional way. The quality often compares unfavorably with professional video & film production.

Many respondents seemed to feel the best course was to provide content which supplemented or complemented a live performance. The value added element seemed more suited to achieving goals and fulfilling expectations.

Though that approach leaves people who have difficultly accessing physical spaces without the option of experience the full production. There is certainly an opportunity for those with the resources and expertise to meet an unmet need of providing virtual performances to this segment of the population nationally and perhaps internationally. I wouldn’t be surprised if people are already pursuing further experimentation with the virtual theatre form.

The American Theatre piece bears the title “The Jury Is In on Virtual Theatre,” but I think it is a little too early in the process of exploring virtual theatre offerings to make that claim.

Looking To Public Art To Revitalize Cities Post-Covid

Somewhat in line with my post yesterday about the growing number of basic guarantee income programs for artists, Artsjournal.com had an interview with the mayor of Toronto, John Tory, about the beginning of a 10 year initiative to create public art. The program had been delayed by the start of Covid and the mayor says that has created an even greater need for public works of art.

This is true for a couple of reasons: first, I think the sense of joy — the look and feel of the city being enlivened by artistic creations of all kinds — became even more important after a desolate period when you’d walk around downtown and it was bleak, I mean it was a wasteland. The second reason, which was valid before but now became 100 times more valid, was that it also allows some of our artists to tell their stories. And beyond the benefits to us of having those stories told and those works displayed, this program will retain the services of 1,500 artists over the course of this year. That’s not unimportant in the context of a group that has been very hard hit. I’m not minimizing the problems other people have had, but artists had a terrible time. Now there’s a need to bring the city back to life and there’s nothing like the arts and culture to do that.

I was interested to see the interviewer, Jonathan Dekel, follow up by asking the mayor how this vision of supporting artists and their importance to the city reconciles with the concerns about gentrification displacing the artists. The mayor made mention of some measures like tax relief for music venues and affordable housing arrangements which recognize that artists’ income is not regular from month to month.

Guaranteed Income For Artists Spreading

Nod to Laura Zabel who tweeted a story about the guaranteed basic income for artists pilot program being started in Ireland.  The plan is to provide €325/week to 2000 artists. This is actually more, both in terms of monthly income and number of artists included, than any similar program I have seen piloted in the US. The program will be run across three years which is also longer than any other program I have come across as well.

Minister for the Arts Catherine Martin indicated selection for participation would be random rather than competitive. It sounds like the intent is to make sure those in different sectors and career stages are represented since the article mentions “Likely “streams” will include professional artists, emerging/developing artists and creative arts workers.”

The ministry is quoted as saying there won’t be a means test for who will be able to participate in the program.

The National Campaign for the Arts which had lobbied for the pilot was quoted as saying they were:

“happy with the proposed payment of €325 per week, once it is not means tested and other benefits including disability payments are not diminished, and that there is a clear process for selection…”

In writing about other guaranteed basic income programs previously, it hadn’t occurred to me that participating in the program might end up disadvantaging people from receiving other types of aid due to income restrictions. That is something to be considered when designing programs like this –either to disburse an amount that will offset people’s losses or ensure that the amount people are receiving doesn’t adversely impact their ability to receive other aid.

How Arts Orgs Used Relief Funding Is Beginning To Be Examined

A couple weeks ago Hyperallergic had an article that was a critical of museums who had received Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds meant to keep people employed, but instead ended up laying off large numbers of people. They particularly noted that the Museum of Science Boston initially didn’t qualify for the program due to employing more than 500 people, but were later able to apply for funding after laying off more than 300 people.  The article also suggested that while some institutions needed the money to survive, some of those at the top ended up in almost better financial shape.

It found that out of $1.6 billion given to about 7,500 cultural institutions that qualified for PPP loans, nearly half of the money ($771 million) went to just 228 recipients. These same 288 institutions collectively laid off more than 14,400 employees, or at least 28% of their workforce.

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However, AFSCME’s report found that not all museums faired that poorly during the pandemic. In fact, an analysis of 69 cultural institutions with available financial data revealed that 67% of them ended fiscal year (FY) 2020 with operating surpluses.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA), which received $3.3 million in PPP loans, laid off 97 workers during the pandemic despite ending FY 2020 with a $2.3 million surplus. Nearby, the Natural History Museums of Los Angeles County ended FY 2020 with a $23.9 million operating surplus after receiving a $4.8 million PPP loan. And yet, it furloughed its 127 part-time employees from March 2020 until the end of December 2020.

Not to excuse the act of laying off people after accepting money to keep staff employed, the fact that institutions ended fiscal year 2020 with a surplus may not be indicate they profited off of layoffs. Many non-profits have a July 1 -June 30 fiscal year so if the organization was doing well from July 1, 2019 through March 2020 when the pandemic started, losses of the three months from March-June 2020 may not have moved them into a deficit. The PPP program started in April 2020 with a deadline of June 30, 2020 so organizations may not have received the funds until their 2021 fiscal year.

It has been generally acknowledged that a lot of those who applied for the PPP program didn’t have the severe financial need the program was intended to serve. Determining whether museums used funds meant to stave off layoffs to achieve better financial footing should be examined, but it isn’t clear from the information provided here. The full report can be downloaded on the AFSCME website. I haven’t downloaded the report at this time because the registration form indicates they and others may use the information to solicit and lobby me.

It will be interesting to see if a similar examination is conducted of performing arts venues which largely fall under the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (SVOG) program, something most museums were not eligible due to the fixed seating requirement for that program.  From what I have seen, the administration of that program is still plagued with errors which they are trying to resolve for adversely effected venues, but that raises concerns that there was opportunity for inappropriately granting funds as well.

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