As the pandemic took hold in March 2020, Opera Philadelphia shut off its stage lights and locked its doors and was forced to transform itself from a tradition-bound classical arts organization into an internet film producer.
With what President David B. Devan recalls as a combination of inspiration and desperation, the opera company commissioned four young, emerging composers to make short operas for its new digital channel. The instructions were open-ended. “We just gave them money, time, and cameras,” Devan says, “and they got to do what they wanted.”
The result was a critical success, generating sorely needed revenue while also helping break down barriers to opera production for women, minorities, and others—a goal that became paramount to the company amid the racial-injustice awakening and political upheaval that accompanied the pandemic.
Those were changes for the good that Opera Philadelphia might have been slower to adopt in normal times, Devan says. And although the company is not giving up on the standard opera repertoire anytime soon—it will stage a 90-minute concert version of Puccini’s beloved “Tosca” outdoors in May at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts—the new digital channel meant “we were able to give an opportunity to composers who hadn’t had the opportunity to be heard before in any substantial way,” Devan says. “They happened to be a lot of artists of color, as well as queer artists and women. There was this crazy, fantastic, creative alchemy happening.”
Those types of transformations that allow arts organizations to strengthen their roots and traditions while finding new ways to reach and grow audiences have always been a challenge, but the disruption from the pandemic put that struggle into new—and heightened—focus. In Philadelphia, The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage is determined to assist in this process. Along with the William Penn Foundation and other arts funders in the city and region, the Center commissioned a joint study on how to help organizations survive—and even thrive—in this time of crisis. Out of that study came a decision to restructure Pew’s arts grant-making strategy for 2021.
It will be essential: When museums and performing arts groups ceased operations, long-established sources of revenue—admission fees and ticket sales, museum-store receipts, food service, and special-event rentals—evaporated. Although loyal donors stepped up contributions, it wasn’t enough.
A report by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, released one year into the pandemic in March 2021, found that the arts and cultural community in the Philadelphia region had lost $371.7 million in total revenue. In a survey, 41% of responding organizations said they might not survive beyond fall 2021 unless their resources rebounded.
“I’m not confident that anytime soon we’re going to return to what we thought was normal,” says Maori Karmael Holmes, founder and CEO of BlackStar Projects, whose activities include the BlackStar Film Festival, an international showcase of films by artists of color. “I think it’s premature for anyone to make predictions about what happens to arts and culture when we just don’t know what is going to happen in our daily lives.”
Last May, in the early days of the pandemic, the Pew Center provided additional funding to its current grantees and Pew arts fellows to help them defray lost income, and in October it provided new grants to 29 projects, most of which included specific adaptations because of COVID-19 restrictions.
But the Center also quickly realized that a new approach was needed and turned to the new grant-making approach for 2021. It is suspending funding for programming and inviting 51 organizations that have received past Center project funding to apply for more broadly based grants to aid in recovery and sustainability while continuing its annual selection of 12 individual artists for unrestricted Pew fellowships in the arts. The decision on which organizations receive grant funding will be made this summer.
Paula Marincola, the Center’s executive director, and Frazierita Klasen, the senior vice president overseeing Pew’s work in Philadelphia, said in a joint statement in January that the best path forward appears to be for organizations to take a whole new look at almost everything they do.
This includes reimagining their business models, revising or updating their programming, rethinking their strategy for audience engagement, making sure their physical facilities are accessible, and upgrading their health and safety measures.
Organizations that do survive the pandemic might find themselves better prepared for a rapidly changing cultural environment. Many will emerge—indeed, are emerging now—as more flexible and inventive, more accessible to audiences, with both in-person and online programming of high quality.
Marincola says the arts “were already being challenged” before the pandemic. Performing arts companies and museums that counted on patrons to buy yearly memberships or season subscriptions were seeing some audience resistance to long-established revenue models.
At the same time, a generational clock is ticking: The segment of the population that is most interested in the classical arts—the symphony, the opera, the ballet—is growing ever older. Younger audiences accustomed to online music playlists and video-on-demand may be less willing to sit still in a performance hall for five acts of Shakespeare or four hours of Wagner. There may be good ways to attract younger audiences, but fresh thinking is required, arts leaders say.
“A museum director said last summer that the cultural community went to sleep on a Friday in the 20th century and woke up on a Monday in the 21st century,” Marincola says. “The pandemic made certain questions more urgent. Who is our audience? How do we leverage the way technology has changed how people consume culture? How do we respond to these challenges, rather than just go back to the old ways?
“There is the cliche that every dark cloud has a silver lining,” Marincola says, “and I think that when the pandemic is over it will be shown to have had some beneficial effects. But it’s been difficult, very difficult.”
Ivan Henderson, vice president of programming at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, describes the pandemic’s impact in Newtonian terms. It smashed the inertia of the museum world.
“Before the pandemic, we had never broadcast events, hosted virtual programs, or done much in the digital realm,” Henderson says. Now the African American Museum is rapidly working to connect with a public that expects to be able to view content online.
Adapting to change isn’t always easy, Henderson says. For its Juneteenth celebration in 2020, commemorating the end of American slavery, the museum joined with other Philadelphia groups in a day-long series of online events. The quality was good, he says, but the duration was overload.
“What we learned,” he says, “is that you don’t do a four- or five-hour programming marathon. Virtual audiences need opportunities to drop in and out, and to choose which parts of the day they want to experience.”
Christina Vassallo, executive director of the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Center City, says the appeal of digital programming has proved a revelation to arts leaders.
The museum, which is dedicated to the creation and presentation of contemporary art, was closed for 175 consecutive days starting in March 2020. Doors reopened in September, then closed again in November for 44 days. Amid this period, however, the online audience for the museum’s educational programs and exhibitions grew to include participants from coast to coast, many of whom might never get a chance to visit Philadelphia.
“If you do an event over Zoom, anybody in the whole world can attend it, and we don’t want to lose that when the pandemic is over,” Vassallo says. “The trick will be finding out how to make sure the experience is equally gratifying to people watching from their kitchen or living room and to people who are in our physical space.”
The Barnes Foundation, one of the world’s greatest art collections with works by Renoir, Matisse, and other revered artists, already had an international audience. But going virtual during the pandemic has had immense impact on its art education programs for adults and school-age children, says Thom Collins, the foundation’s executive director and president.
“The statistics are really impressive,” Collins says. “We have offered 46 new courses, and we have enrolled something close to 3,000 students. ... We have been able to take advantage of some positive upshots from all of this.”
Collins says that what most impresses him is the high level of commitment that Barnes donors have shown to the institution. Other leaders of arts and cultural organizations say their experience has been much the same.
“We have loyal donors at the Barnes, but this has been a whole new level,” Collins says. “People have gone above and beyond what they have done in the past. It is a real testament to the Philadelphia philanthropic community.”
The Barnes was actually able to end the year with a small budget surplus, Collins says, adding: “My guess is that institutions of every size and every kind that went into this pandemic relatively healthy will emerge from it relatively healthy. ... And then there will be institutions that are forced to merge, or rethink their service, or disappear. I wish it were not true, but how could it not be true? This has been devastating for so many institutions.”
Institutional leaders report that although the audience may be on the sofa at home, rather than on red velvet chairs in an auditorium, it is more diverse in all sorts of ways and from a wider area.
“We have discovered that our digital work has broken down barriers that people felt in coming to us, whether these were physical barriers or geographic barriers or economic barriers,” says Zak Berkman, producing director of People’s Light, a regional theater in Malvern, Pennsylvania, 24 miles west of Philadelphia.
Berkman foresees a continuing need for social distancing once the worst of the pandemic is over. “Even after vaccinations,” he says, “we anticipate that people will have some trepidation about being in one room with 200 or 300 people.”
He hopes that longtime patrons who in the past expected the same seat for each play or stage show will agree with the theater’s decision to go with open seating in the future—the better to regulate how many people can sit in each row or section.
The company has upgraded its heating and air-conditioning system. Making spaces safer and more accessible to a diverse array of people, including those with disabilities, has become a major post-pandemic goal at People’s Light, Berkman says.
Other events of 2020, including racial injustice protests and increased activism in the transgender community, also highlighted the need for change, he says. People’s Light hopes to reconfigure its backstage area and will eliminate dressing rooms marked for either men or women.
“The American theater needed a pause to reflect on what we have done well and what we have not done well,” Berkman says. “We need to look at who we have harmed and who we can invite to be part of our work.”
Even for organizations that have made a commitment to change, the process isn’t always smooth. Doing any kind of programming amid the pandemic’s requirements for social distancing has proved a challenge.
Composer and pianist Courtney Bryan has faced this directly in recent months.
She was one of the four artists selected to do digital-only productions for Opera Philadelphia. Once she settled down after the initial excitement, she says, she began to contemplate the logistical difficulty of collaborating with her filmmaker, Pew arts fellow Tiona Nekkia McClodden; sound designer, Rob Kaplowitz; and two singers, Janinah Burnett and Damian Norfleet.
“The fact that none of us could be in the same room at the same time affected how I wrote the music,”
Bryan says. “I did not want to write music that had to have two people singing together. Both of the vocalists live in New York. Tiona lives in Philadelphia, and I live
in New Orleans.”
The filmmaker shot the singers outdoors, standing silent and alone—one in a New York City park and the other at a lakeside. Their voices were recorded and overlaid in a studio. It gave the finished work an air of loneliness and isolation, which Bryan says she was shooting for.
The 22-minute opera is called “Blessed.” It was hailed by David Patrick Stearns, the classical music critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, as a “distinguished” work with “a gorgeous Puccinian climax.”
“Blessed” takes its theme from the Beatitudes in the Gospel of Matthew, which includes the verses “Blessed are the poor in spirit. ... Blessed are those who mourn. ... Blessed are the meek.”
Bryan says she was thinking about the pandemic when she wrote the opera—the loneliness of dying with no friends or family in the hospital, the isolation of staying at home for days, weeks, and months. Bryan says she is not sure what the post-pandemic future holds for society as a whole or for the arts in particular.
“My imagination is that things will never be like they were,” she says.
At the Pew Center, Marincola agrees that the return to “normal” could take a long time and that there may be a new “normal.” No matter what, she is hopeful.
“I don’t think we are going to flip a switch and everything will be the same,” she says. “But the arts are resilient, and I admire the way artists and the arts community have refused to give up or give in.”
Tom Infield is a longtime Philadelphia journalist. He last wrote for Trust about Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy initiative.