Restart the Arts

Guidelines for Safe Reopening Benefit All of Us

California state map with color-coded covid risk tier assignments for each county. Data as of December 1.
With a vaccine estimated to be fully distributed in Q3 or Q4 of 2021, the arts are only halfway or less through the pandemic crisis without restart guidelines allowing for safe operations sooner.

This post is in partnership with Californians for the Arts, the Association of California Symphony Orchestras, California Presenters, and the California Association of Museums.

With California facing a second stay-at-home order, I am writing to implore state policymakers to work with arts organizations on a restart plan. This request may sound counterintuitive given that we are confronting the largest surge of virus infections to date, but this is not a plea to irresponsibly open indoor venues before it’s safe to do so; rather, it’s an appeal to prevent permanent damage to our arts ecosystem and simultaneously jumpstart our state’s economy by offering reopening guidelines.

Pre-pandemic, the arts and culture sector contributed $230.3 billion to California’s economy, representing 8.2% of the state’s GDP. Read that again. That’s a larger share of the state’s economy than construction ($102 billion), transportation ($72 billion), and agriculture ($39 billion) — combined (Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis).

Now at the time of this writing, the majority of California’s arts and cultural organizations have been closed for nine months, and many are facing existential threats. Waiting until a vaccine is widely available — estimated for Q3 or Q4 of 2021 (McKinsey) which is at minimum another nine months from now — is not an option for most arts organizations who are running the leanest operations in their history with the majority of income generating activities completely halted. In the state Blueprint for a Safer Economy, clear industry guidance has been made for other important B2C businesses, including restaurants, professional sports, retail, fitness centers, and movie theaters. Performance venues and producing arts organizations are not even listed as a category. The arts and cultural industry is asking for parity with other sectors — most of which contribute a smaller share to the state’s GDP — so we too can prepare to restart, even if only outdoors like other businesses for the near future.

California’s arts and cultural industry employed 764,100 workers before the pandemic who earned wages and benefits totaling $95.9 billion annually (Source: National Endowment for the Arts with the Bureau of Economic Analysis). Now, the CA Dept of Labor reports that from March to August, the sector has seen the largest percentage of job loss in the state at 40.3% — well beyond even the second largest sector’s percentage of job loss, which is Leisure & Hospitality at 27%.

Creative Economy interactive map with state profiles. Created by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and the National Endowment for the Arts with data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

This is not an issue affecting only Northern California or Southern California or the Central Valley. Arts and cultural organizations serve almost every county in the state. California is home to nearly 2,000 nonprofit orchestras, ensembles, bands, choral groups, operas, music festivals, and concert series (Source: Guidestar), all of which cancelled all live in-person programming for the second half of their 2019/20 seasons (March-Aug 2020) and most of which have cancelled the majority or the entirety of their 2020/21 seasons (Sept 2020-Aug 2021). Additionally, more than 1200 museums in rural, urban, and suburban areas have shut down (California Association of Museums). In sum, those closures total 18 months of unemployed artists, stagehands, artisans, managers, and more — a devastating loss to our great state’s economy as well as to the artists and organizations who employ them.

The vast majority of these arts and cultural organizations rely on performance and performance-related activities for earned income (i.e. ticket sales), which comprises 40–50% of total income on average (the remaining income is generally comprised of another 40–50% from donations, which are also down, and for the luckiest organizations who have an endowment, only 2–8% of total income is generated). The Association of California Symphony Orchestras reports that member ensembles are projecting at least a 50% drop in total revenue for this fiscal year due to concert and program cancellations. The American Alliance of Museums reports that one-third of museums may close forever according to results from a survey conducted in July. And in a recent survey by the National Independent Venue Association, 90% of independent venues reported that they may shutter before the end of the calendar year barring a congressional relief package. That time is upon us now.

Left without substantial cash reserves and without guidelines to reopen before a vaccine is fully distributed, hundreds if not thousands of arts organizations will likely not weather this unrelenting storm. Said differently, without governmental action, these organizations will not recover, resulting in long-lasting destruction to the cultural fabric of our state.

Virtual programming is not a tenable solution. It’s not even a stop gap. Online performances are simply not monetizable at the rates needed to replace live ticket prices and sustain organizations. Our entertainment colleagues at Netflix, Apple, Amazon, HBO, and Disney have rightfully set streaming rate expectations for consumers (high quality digital content at low prices), and arts organizations serving a fraction of subscribers cannot scale users and revenue in the same way. This combined with the high costs of producing virtual content (recording, editing, licensing rights, artist fees, production personnel) without an attached significant revenue stream makes the online-only model not viable. While the pandemic has accelerated nonprofit arts organizations’ ability to produce quality digital content, this is a customer engagement strategy and not a business model.

Where arts and cultural organizations excel, however, is in bringing people together for a live experience in a controlled environment. We can do this safely and in partnership with our elected officials and policymakers. Please work with us on a restart plan to issue state guidelines for gathering and performing so we can get back to work and contribute to our state recovery sooner.

In absence of a cohesive national coordinated effort, state guidelines for the tier-based risk levels have worked for California residents to understand our own county’s virus positivity rate within the context of statewide data. Although a different national approach is sure to come on January 20, the Biden transition team has articulated their priorities are vaccine distribution and to “provide clear, consistent, evidence-based guidance for how communities should navigate the pandemic,” not to issue industry-specific rules.

Conversely, leaving these decisions and plans to the county level is not the best course of action either. Many county public health officials are looking to the state for guidance as they do not have the capacity to create their own county guidelines for the arts. Even within my own county of San Francisco, I’ve seen inconsistent and even conflicting advice and communications to the organizations with which I’ve worked. As further evidenced by inconsistent museum reopenings this summer — some counties permitted running at 25% capacity while others never permitted any attendance despite being in the same risk tier — with coherent state guidelines, all counties will operate from the same playbook. This is a more equitable practice and safer for everyone as statewide guidance reduces travel from county to county or city to city where guidelines differ.

Lastly, other states look to California, our nation’s most populous state, for leadership they can emulate and adapt to their region as needed. Of the 50 states, California will be hit hardest in terms of absolute losses for creative industries and occupations, followed by New York and Texas (Brookings Institution).

The incredible breadth of the arts and cultural sector means this is an industry, like restaurants and retail, whose economic and civic impact drives every community. Rural counties with performing arts organizations have three times more population growth, attract more workers and jobs, and provide higher incomes (Rural Establishment Innovation Survey, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Economic Research Service). In urban centers, as the Bay Area makes headlines nationwide for its fleeing residents, bringing the arts back safely will help reduce the exodus due to the return of quality of life. Alternatively, without the arts, the flight will continue because the astronomical numbers of unemployed, to which the arts are contributing, cannot afford to stay here.

If we get our artists and artisans back to work, these wage earners as well as the indirect and induced workers will return to paying nearly $13.0 billion each year in property taxes, personal income taxes, and sales taxes into the state general fund and to local governments (Otis Statewide Creative Economy Report). If we get our audiences back, another $102.5 billion will hit the state coffers from additional patron spending on parking, dinner, post-show cocktails, and even overnight lodging (Americans for the Arts). All of these ancillary businesses have been safely operating in accordance with their own respective state-issued guidelines.

No business that has been forced to close to the public for nine months with another 9–12 more months on the horizon can be expected to survive without relief of some kind. It’s equally mind blowing and gut wrenching to think the arts are only halfway or less through this crisis without restart guidelines that would allow otherwise — especially as there is now research to help, including aerosol studies by Rice University and the Vienna Philharmonic, as well as studies on the effects of well-ventilated halls for sports and cultural events as reported by the New York Times. This petition isn’t about an ask for increased funding; this is to respectfully request the bare minimum to be able to generate income, reemploy workers, serve constituents, and contribute billions to the world’s fifth largest economy.

Producing statewide guidelines for live arts events to happen outdoors and, depending on the county risk tier as the infection rate subsides, indoors with limited audiences is a critical and urgent need for California. This sector is too important to the vitality of our nation’s most populous state. Offering guidelines for safe reopening benefits all of us.

Credited by Southwest Magazine with “redefining the classical concert experience as we know it,” Aubrey Bergauer defies trends and then makes her own. Her focus on not just engaging — but retaining — new audiences grew Seattle Opera’s BRAVO! Club to the largest group for young patrons in the nation, led the Bumbershoot Festival to achieve an unprecedented 43% increase in revenue, and propelled the California Symphony to nearly double the size of its audience and quadruple its donor base.

Praised by Wall Street Journal for leadership which “points the way to a new style of audience outreach,” Bergauer’s ability to strategically and holistically advance every facet of an organization, instilling and achieving common goals and vision across typically siloed marketing, development, and artistic departments, is creating a transformational change in the audience, in the office, on the stage, and in the community. A graduate of Rice University with degrees in Music Performance and Business, Bergauer shares these ideas through her consulting work and in speaking engagements across North America, including conferences for Adobe’s Magento, TEDx, Blackbaud, Capacity Interactive, Opera America, Orchestras Canada, and the League of American Orchestras. aubreybergauer.com

“The Steve Jobs of classical music.” (Observer) Working to change the narrative for this business.

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