Story by Cynthia Maduka, Communications Intern (Summer 2020)

As places slowly reopen after months of closure, entertainment and music venues struggle to do the same. While many small businesses across the nation have experienced deep financial losses due to the unforeseen consequences of the global pandemic, arts and cultural venues have been hit especially hard. Seats remain empty in theatres and orchestras across the country and the reality is that most will remain closed for many months to come, if they reopen at all. 

According to research done by the National Independent Venue Association, 90% of entertainment venues expect to close for good if financial assistance from the government is not received. Although the Small Business Administration has approved 4.7 million loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) since it began back in May, many small businesses and nonprofits have used up the loans and are forced to look elsewhere for help. The PPP loans were designed to alleviate some financial burdens placed on businesses amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic. However, they only provided a temporary solution where a long-term one is required. The current circumstances for nonprofits art venues, who make up a significant part of Argosy Foundation’s portfolio and are featured in this story, are even more complex as they’re faced with financial hardships while trying to fulfill their mission safely and sustainably. One example of a nonprofit organization working to navigate this new reality is Milwaukee Film, who oversee the Oriental Theatre and a number of popular programs and events. 

Milwaukee Film

Known as “Milwaukee’s movie palace” for its East Indian influenced architecture, the Oriental Theatre was one of the first art venues to close its doors back in March, prior to state mandated lockdowns, in an effort to protect employees and customers. Despite having to close their doors, Milwaukee Film has found virtual ways to keep the theater open and to still fulfill their mission of “entertaining, educating, and engaging our community through cinematic experiences”. 

Since in-person movie showings have not been possible since the pandemic started, Milwaukee Film launched Sofa Cinema, a virtual cinema which allows members to watch movies at home. This was done in partnership with independent film distributors. 

According to Sebastian Mei, Chief Marketing and Development Officer at Milwaukee Film, approximately fifty percent of Sofa Cinema ticket sales will go to Milwaukee Film and the other half to the distributor. This is the first time this new revenue sharing model is being used as a result of the pandemic. The quick response from the industry has allowed the organization to continue carrying out to its mission.

The 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival saw record breaking attendance as over 87,000 community members came together to experience the power of cinema. The 2020 Film Festival will look quite different.

“We’re planning on having both festivals be 100% virtual, but if conditions improve and the COVID-19 virus gets under control, or if there is a vaccine by then, we would happily engage in public activities and events,” said Mei. “Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.” 

“Technology has allowed Milwaukee Film to keep engaging in our mission. The virtual cinema is obviously not the same experience as being in the theatre, but it’s the best that we can do right now,” said Mei. 

Despite having the virtual platform to carry out their mission, Milwaukee Film is facing financial hardships which have led to pay cuts, reduction to part-time hours for some staff, and eight staff members being laid off. The loss in revenue from not having the theatre open is over $300,000 to date. With the help of their PPP loan, provided through the CARES ACT, they were able to keep paying all staff members through until June. With the recent expiration of the stimulus program, Milwaukee Film has been applying to different grants to stay afloat, and recently they’ve received a $50,000 emergency grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that has provided significant support. 

“For every business that requires people to enter their doors to make money, and that’s everything from bars to theatres to anything else you do for entertainment at night, until we can get people in safely, we are all going to be hurting."

“To get Milwaukee Film back to normal the virus either has to go away, or [we need to] find a treatment that minimizes the damage to people, but we also have to have people [be] comfortable enough to go back into public spaces again,” said Mei. He continued, “For every business that requires people to enter their doors to make money, and that’s everything from bars to theatres to anything else you do for entertainment at night, until we can get people in safely, we are all going to be hurting”. 

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

Another Argosy partner, and staple of Milwaukee’s cultural scene, has been attempting to leverage technology to deliver art to the community. For years the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has offered musically inclined high school students the chance to showcase their talents in front of a live audience, with their annual Stars of Tomorrow competition. In order to continue this tradition, the finals were conducted virtually, a first for the program.  

According to Rebecca Whitney, Director of Education at the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, after the stay at home orders were lifted, finalists were asked to submit a video performance, which was then virtually judged by the MSO judges. Recently a side-by-side video with members of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the young finalists, semi-finalists, and honorable mention students from the competition was released on their various social media platforms. 

Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's Arts In Community Education (ACE) program usually connects Wisconsin students, teachers, school communities, and professional artists through engaging, hands-on arts experiences and curriculum. This year, programming will be virtual.

In addition to finding a virtual solution to the competition, they came up with other alternatives to serve students and teachers during the transition to online education. As families are confined at home, and entertainment venues are closed, to make things more entertaining during these stressful times, MSO hosted a series of Facebook Live music lessons with the resident conductor. Recognizing that the transition to online schooling has not been easy for educators and families, they compiled online education resources that parents and teachers can use to make navigating through the process a little easier.

“Technology will continue to play a big role in how we virtually move forward with our programming,” said Whitney. “We’re still exploring all of the ways we can still provide impactful programing in a safe manner that can be accessed whether students are in the classrooms or in their homes.”   

 Flynn Center For Performing Arts

In addition to facing many of the same roadblocks as Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the Flynn Center for Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont has been able to transfer classes to online education. Along with artistic performances, the Flynn offers an array of educational programs for students and adults that allows them to engage and learn more about the performing arts. Before COVID-19 the Flynn’s seats were filled with attendees experiencing larger-than-life Broadway shows, Vermont Symphony Orchestra performances, and a variety of other live cultural events. As a result of the pandemic, with their performance venues also closed to the public, they are also leveraging technology as an alternative tool to continue providing the community with access to their programs. 

From dancing on the stage to dancing in their living rooms, participants in the Dance for Parkinson’s program can now engage in courses virtually. Dance for Parkinson’s offers a movement class to those suffering from the disease. Despite now being online, the classes have generated a lot of traffic and have reached full capacity. Along with the Parkinson’s program, the Flynn is offering a free virtual summer camp to students, where they can learn about the various forms of stage performance and musical theatre. 

“We have a lot of these classes that are being done virtually; we wish it could be done in person, but it’s nice to be able to provide them online at least and know that they’re appreciated because they have reached full capacity,” said Charlie Smith, Interim Executive Director at Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. 

The Flynn’s efforts to adapt to COVID-19 are not merely virtual: starting in mid-August, live symphonic music will reverberate through the bed of a flatbed truck as crowds gather, maintaining a safe distance with only their eyes showing, as the rest of their faces are covered with a mask. This is how the Flynn Center envisions the safe continuation of in person cultural events through their Hurly Burly Outdoor Concert series.

Although the Flynn's performing venues can not be safely opened to the public yet, that hasn't stopped them from finding news way to achieve their mission. For instance, their annual Burlington Discover Jazz Festival was transformed into an 11 day virtual event that featured performances streaming online, on Vermont Public Radio, and Vermont PBS.

According to Smith, the concept of performing in a truck would allow for the mobility to perform in a park or designated location that would have enough space for attendees to be safely socially distanced while enjoying the live performance. 

As a full reopening remains inconceivable for the time being, some art and cultural centers are using this time to make interior renovations. Through a substantial grant, the Flynn was able to renovate the air conditioning system in the building.

One of the biggest hurdles currently facing cultural venues is the lack of government funding. With events, activities, and performances canceled through the end of fall, the Flynn sustained significant financial loss as a result of ticket refunds. Like many other entertainment venues, the Flynn center received a PPP loan which helped support payroll for two months, but this has since expired. This led to a reduction in full time staff from 55 to 22, a 60% loss. For remaining employees, there has been a rollback of hours. 

“Even when things get back to normal and we decide to open, we would need at least four months of lead time to get everything ready to produce the stage show again,” noted Smith. 

It is evident that a long-term solution for arts institutions across the nation is necessary.