Tag Archives: pandemic

Arts organizations strive to stay alive amid COVID-19 pandemic

Image of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra performing individually but together via Zoom

During the turbulent 1960s, four churches founded The Ark to provide a safe place for young people who were striving to peacefully transform the world.

Ironically now, even as people of all ages demonstrate in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, the 55-year-old music venue in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is shuttered. Why? Because of COVID-19, a new and highly contagious virus that within weeks spread worldwide.

“We have always been a place where people could come together and be galvanized by music,” said Marianne James, executive director of the listening room for folk, roots and ethnic music. “It’s painful to not be able to do what we have always done, to not be able to do our part.”

White female, shoulder-length, wavy brown hair, frame-less eye glasses, white knit jacket over dark T-shirt standing with microphone in her right hand

Marianne James, executive director of The Ark

The Ark is one of thousands of arts and cultural institutions nationwide that COVID-19 shut down, costing thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in lost revenue and wages. Moreover, it prohibited more than 130 million Americans from attending the artistic and cultural activities they rely on for entertainment, education and comfort

At the same time, the pandemic is inspiring new creativity in the sector, keeping these organizations alive virtually and helping them preserve their missions.

“Arts and cultural institutions provide necessary social services beyond the joy and inspiration we all enjoy,” said Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The 114-year-old Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit represents 35,000 museums, zoos, science centers, arboretums, aquariums, archives, libraries and related organizations.

White female, shoulder-length blonde hair, dark dress and jacket, strand of pearls

Laura Lott, president and CEO of the American Alliance of Museums

“If there’s any sort of silver lining to this,” Lott said, “it might be the increased recognition of their roles as educational entities that serve kids’ needs outside the school building and school day.”

Costs of closing

“The arts, large and small, are part of our daily lives—from the book you’re reading and the music you’re listening to, to the design of cars and buildings,” said Victoria Hutter, assistant director of public relations for the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

Hutter said arts and cultural institutions in the United States contributed nearly $878 billion, or 4.5%, to the gross domestic product and employed more than 5 million salaried and wage workers, according to the latest figures.

But experts expect the pandemic to slash those figures by nearly $7 billion in 2020 and leave many organizations unable to ever reopen.

2020 COVID-19 Impact on Nonprofit Arts and Culture Sector Survey

    • 95% canceled events
    • 67% expect crisis to have a “severe” impact on their organization
    • 30% reduced their artistic workforce
    • 24% reduced staff
    • 40% are “likely” to reduce staff
    • 10% are “not confident” they will survive the pandemic

Source: Americans for the Arts

Bald, black male wearing white button-down dress shirt with dark pinstripes two-toned purple striped tie and black smock

Christian Greer,  president and CEO of the Michigan Science Center

About 45% of museum revenue comes from gate ticket sales and related services, such as gift shops and cafes. “Now, everyone is suffering,” Lott said. “Museums, collectively, are losing about $33 million a day and have been since March.”

The Michigan Science Center is feeling the pain. MiSci, located in Detroit’s cultural center downtown, had limited cash reserves and a little over $1 million in its endowment before the pandemic.

“It’s not even close to what we will need to finish out the year,” MiSci President and CEO Christian Greer said. “There was barely enough money to pay unemployment.”

Because of COVID-19 fears and school group cancelations, earned revenue stopped even before the nonprofit closed its doors to visitors. Accordingly, MiSci furloughed staff on March 27, just 14 days after shutting down.

Museums Help Drive the Economy

    • Museums support more than 726,000 U.S. jobs.
    • Museums contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy each year.
    • 76% of U.S. leisure travelers participate in cultural or heritage activities such as visiting museums.
    • Museums generate more than $12 billion in tax revenue, one-third of it going to state and local governments.
    • Each job created by the museum sector results in $16,495 in additional tax revenue.

Source: American Alliance of Museums


The Ark also has furloughed and reduced staff. Before the virus, about 70% of its revenue came from ticket sales and concessions and the balance from a membership program and individual, corporate and foundation donations.

“The goal is to try to stretch funds as far as we can and fundraise until we can not only reopen but also as we ramp back up beyond this unknown period of closure,” James said.

Virus-related concert cancellations are also troubling the $1.8 billion-a-year classical music industry, which generates about 35% of its revenue from ticket sales, said Jesse Rosen, president and CEO of the League of American Orchestras.

“Orchestras are the opposite of social distancing. We’re social intimacy, ” Rosen said. “We put numerous people in enclosed spaces.”

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra was close to eliminating its deficit before the pandemic, said President and CEO Gabriel van Aalst. But after canceling more than 40 concerts, the orchestra’s finances are “devastated,” he said.

NJSO leadership quickly renegotiated the musicians’ contract to stave off layoffs during cancelations. Still, van Aalst said, the musicians are still struggling.”It’s tough. The orchestra is not full-time,” he said, adding that the musicians often play with other orchestras, lecture at universities or work on Broadway for additional income. “While we have continued to pay musicians, many other industries haven’t. Broadway, for instance, is 100% reliant on ticketing income.”

Van Aalst also worries about declining donations, which typically comprise about 65% of orchestras’ budgets.

“How do you demonstrate impact to funders now?” he said. “How do you continue to do mission work so there’s a demonstrable outcome and people want to continue giving?”

Maintaining missions

Amid the financial devastation, Hutter said, the arts community has become especially creative about connecting with audiences and stakeholders and meeting their missions.

For instance, maintaining the NJSO’s mission meant going virtual with “Couch Concerts” and events such as its world premiere of Gratis Tibi to thank essential workers, van Aalst said.

Split screed display of white male standing playing violin and Asian male seated playing cello. Both in tuxedos.

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Assistant Concertmaster David Southorn (left) and NJSO cellist Philo Lee perform the first movement of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello from their respective homes. Photo courtesy NJSO

Similarly, the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta is offering virtual-learning puppet shows and has made its puppet-making instructions available online. And the Mark Morris Dance Group in New York developed new virtual content by instructing each dancer to perform a certain task and record it. Then the dance company knitted the tasks together to make one film it could share, Hutter said.

While digital-only programming isn’t ideal, it does allow organizations to attract new patrons.

The Ark is using Facebook to live-stream its Family Room Series, a curated program featuring familiar performers. Anywhere from 75 to 200 people watch live, while thousands view the recorded shows later.

“It’s important that we stay in front of people and let them know we’re here. That we could deliver our mission in a virtual community setting has been a real discovery,” James said. “There’s a different kind of live community that comes together virtually. People post comments and talk to each other during the show, allowing us to fulfill our mission on multiple levels.”

Sustaining programs, supporting artists through partnerships

The Michigan Science Center may not currently be accepting visitors, but the need for science, technology, engineering and math programs doesn’t stop.

“This is not the time to stop funding, supporting and preparing our future scientists,” Greer said. “We count on a lot of organizations, like the Ford Fund, to keep us alive. It’s important that people of all ages, backgrounds, colors and creeds have access to STEM.

“If we don’t get kids active in STEM at early ages, they will miss out on the opportunity to be a part of this economy.”

With support from the Ford Fund, the Science Center launched a weekly distance-learning program called ECHO Live, accessible through Facebook and YouTube. Since the shutdown, ECHO Live educators have presented more than 50 shows, which include online science demonstrations and experiments they do with young people participating from home.

The remote-learning laptops and tablets that the Detroit Public Schools Community District has been distributing to students include links to ECHO Live. The first program attracted 500 people from around the state, Greer said, and now thousands from all over the country participate.

The Ford Fund and Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford are also matching $500,000 in donations to organizations fighting COVID-19 and some arts organizations struggling because of the pandemic.

Reopening with safety in mind

While each state is in a different phase of reopening, individual arts and cultural organizations are weighing what timing and safety protocols would work best for each of them.

Reopening is a big source of anxiety, said Lott of the museum alliance. Fall exhibit schedules are still uncertain, as some museums were just opening exhibits when they had to close. On top of that, she said, art museums in particular must consider how curators would travel, how to lend and retrieve art and whether they need to close some spaces to manage social distancing.

Individual wearing head-to-toe protective white suit with gloves and booties and backpack, holding a spray nozzle while walking through the museum.

Sanitizing procedures at the Michigan Science Center, which reopened July 10. Photo courtesy Michigan Science Center

To help, the AAM is providing members procedures that include Centers for Disease Control guidelines and staff training—particularly given the politicization of mask wearing.

For performance-driven organizations like The Ark and New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, reopening comes down to seating economics.

Following CDC guidelines of six feet of space between each person means The Ark could only accommodate 40 people in its 400-seat venue. The NJSO, for its part, performs at six venues, some of which have upward of 3,000 seats. Social distancing would mean filling only 10% of the halls, for about 300 people.

Both The Ark’s James and NJSO’s van Aalst question the efficacy of reopening under those guidelines.

“The business model of that makes it difficult for The Ark to reopen,” James said. The nonprofit is reviewing options, such as allowing a limited number of patrons in the building and live-streaming the concerts for those who want to buy tickets and view the show online.

However, reopening may not happen this year, James said, because The Ark is part of Michigan’s last phase of reopening. “And that could be when there’s a cure or a vaccine,” she said.

The NJSO’s van Aalst isn’t sure the orchestra will return to the stage this year or even next winter.

“Because of the work we’re doing, our audiences skew older,” he said. “So, they are in the high-risk categories. Until there’s wide availability of a vaccine, people may not feel comfortable coming into the halls.”

Reopening considerations also include how to line people up outside, how to avoid clusters during intermissions and after performances, and how to keep staff and musicians safe.

“The science isn’t clear,” said Rosen of the League of American Orchestras. “We get contradictory signals from different agencies, which can be kind of daunting.”

When the NJSO does reopen, it might begin with fewer musicians on stage. “The Houston Symphony is partnering with Rice [University] on a study about COVID and musical instruments—like wind instruments, which produce more droplets,” van Aalst said. “We need to know the results. We don’t want to put our musicians at risk.”

The Michigan Science Center, which offers high-touch experiences, is working to go beyond CDC guidelines to ensure exhibits are safe. MiSci hired NSF International, an Ann Arbor-based sanitation company, with support from Midtown Detroit Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to enhancing the region that includes Detroit’s cultural center.

Before COVID, Midtown Detroit was working with the Detroit Institute of Arts, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit Historical Museum, Scarab Club and others on ways to make the community more collaborative.

“It’s interesting that something like COVID comes along and tests those relationships,” said Annemarie Borucki, director of arts and culture for Midtown Detroit. “Once COVID came, we knew we needed to become even tighter.”

After MiSci introduced Midtown Detroit to NSF, the group created a reopening program and toolkit for cultural center institutions.

“It’s a monumental task; it’s expensive, and there are different levels of complexity,” Borucki said. “At the same time, you’re losing revenue like crazy by not being open.”

This story was originally published by the Ford Motor Company Fund.

Pandemic requires colleges and universities to develop a new education norm

Daimeon Stevenson, Jr., an electromechanical maintenance technician student at Gateway Technical College

Ready or not

Derrick McCants doesn’t see the wisdom of reopening classrooms this fall. The 21-year-old has been paying close attention to news related to COVID-19 coming from the media and his school but isn’t convinced that resuming in-person classes so soon is best.

Derrick McCants  headshot, African American male youth, short hair wearing orange hoodie

Derrick McCants Junior at Florida State University, Tallahassee

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable being around mass quantities of people,” said McCants, a junior at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “I just don’t believe we have this pandemic figured out.”

McCants, who is working toward a degree in athletic training, takes social distancing seriously and has been limiting himself to interactions with people who also “do the right things.” Having to be around those who don’t could be a recipe for disaster, he said, especially since students come from so many regions within and outside the United States.

“Some people might not have been social distancing, and it’s tough to get people to wear masks,” McCants said. “We would need to decrease class size. Maybe put two empty seats between people in the class environment.”

These are just the sorts of issues that administrators at many of the 5,300 post-secondary schools in the United States are trying to puzzle out for staff, faculty and their more than 14 million students, with guidance from their states and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, the coronavirus is significantly hampering college and university finances, resulting in planned layoffs and budget cuts at many schools.

Preparing to pivot

In a recent survey of 262 colleges and universities, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) found that nearly 60 percent are considering or have decided to remain completely online this fall.

The California State University system intends to continue with online-only courses for most of its 23 campuses, affecting half a million students. Two other institutions in the state—the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA—may have students returning to some of their 10 campuses.

Michael Wright headshot, white adult, receding hairline, gray at temples of brown hair, wearing dark jacket, blue shirt and tie with Wayne State lapel pin

Michael Wright, vice president of communications and chief of staff, Wayne State University


“The restart is far more complex than the shutdown because there are so many different scenarios,” said Michael Wright, vice president of communications and chief of staff at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. WSU is trying to plan for a variety of unknowns, Wright said, including having far fewer students returning in the fall or more students than expected showing up.

“We know people will be uncomfortable even if the governor says it’s OK to open, and we’ve heard from students who want to get back in the classroom,” Wright said.

Either way, he said, WSU will be back in business come September. “We’re Wayne State Warriors, and we hope to get back on campus.”

Albeit with caution. The school doesn’t want students or faculty to be in lecture halls with large numbers of people, Wright said. “So, we suspect we’ll phase in the return with online and classroom instruction within social distancing guidelines,” he said.

Two white females wearing face masks and latex gloves flank cart filled with books

Wayne State University School of Social Work student Colleen Elsbernd (left) and Joanne Sobeck, School of Social Work Associate Dean for Research, donate disinfected books to the Detroit Medical Center as a “rolling library” for COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of Wayne State University

During a recent Zoom luncheon, WSU President Roy Wilson told students and alumni the school created a restart committee with nine subcommittees that are examining housing, dining services, testing recommendations and more. The university will be designating space in residence halls for students needing quarantine.

Understanding the importance of the college experience, Wayne State’s plans to welcome incoming freshmen include virtual small groups that allow students to connect before school reopens.

“We are going to be guided by what’s safe,” Wilson said. “I want to be sure I can look any parent in the eye and say, ‘Your child will be safe.'”

The school is prepared to pivot back to online or remote-only courses should another wave of coronavirus cases arise, Wright said.

The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, also plans to bring back students. Its fall semester, however, is scheduled to start in early August, two weeks before the semester typically begins. The semester also will end earlier, in case a second surge of coronavirus cases occurs in the late fall, as health officials predict.

Like Wayne State, Notre Dame will alter its plans and go online-only if necessary.

The University of Pittsburgh thinks online classes are the likeliest scenario for its 34,000 students, at least until a coronavirus vaccine becomes likely. Still, the university is looking at other options.

Thankfully for Gateway Technical College in Racine, Wisconsin, about 30 percent of its programs already had an online component. Gateway primarily provides occupational, skills-based programs that emphasize hands-on learning through labs—such as nursing, automotive, aviation, welding, manufacturing and information technology.

When the pandemic hit, the school and its nearly 23,000 students went completely virtual, with online lectures and other virtual components.

White, blonde female stirs blue liquid in labratory

Civil engineering student Elizabeth conducts a fresh water lab experiment at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, prior to the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Gateway Technical College

Bryan Albrecht headshot

Bryan Albrecht President, Gateway Technical College

“We always taught aviation courses through flight simulators,” said Gateway President Bryan Albrecht. The school, he noted, already offered virtual welding, law enforcement and health care simulations, among others.

Still, the communication skills gained through in-person learning are critical. “For example, law enforcement professionals need to have communication skills and be able to read body language,” Albrecht said. “Nursing is the same.

“You can do a lot with simulation, but nothing is better than the feel of holding someone’s hand.”

For summer and fall semesters, Gateway Technical faculty are developing a hybrid program that allows classes to stay online as much as possible. There will be two engineering programs, Albrecht said, one completely online and another with a face-to-face component.

Overall, the college plans to decrease the number of students in a lab to 10 from 17. In addition, Gateway is adjusting class schedules so fewer students overall will be on campus at any given time.

Leaders at the University of Kentucky recently asked the public to comment on its reopening plans. Administrators, who are considering requiring face masks in cafeterias and classrooms, say they would shorten the semester if it has a “normal” restart. The university also would adhere to social distancing in classrooms and encourage outdoor classes.

Another plan would involve starting in-person classes a few weeks later and lengthening class times. A hybrid plan would include starting with online classes and transitioning into in-person classes.

Donald Tuski headshot

Donald Tuski President, College for Creative Studies

Then, of course, there’s an online-only plan.

Previously, online learning was a challenge at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies because art students were used to working in studios. However, Tuski said, they’ve adapted and become even more creative about how to present their work.

For instance, students tasked with developing clay models to help brand the new Ford Mustang learned to develop videos and animation instead.

“For an art design student, the quality of their portfolio is the most important thing,” Tuski said. “Since they missed out, we’re allowing some students—even graduating seniors—to come back in the last two weeks of July and part of August to use the studios.”

For Fall, CCS plans to start in-person classes and studio courses on Aug. 31—with appropriate social distancing. On-campus instruction would end on Nov. 25. After Thanksgiving break, students would continue with remote-only learning until the end of the fall term.

“We’ve really tried to figure out what students need to be successful,” Tuski said.

(The Chronicle of Higher Education is compiling a searchable list of college plans.)

Seven male and female students working on clay models with instructor advising

Design students developing clay models at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, before the pandemic pushed learning online. Photo courtesy of College for Creative Studies

The budget toll

As of this writing, more than 40 million people in the U.S. had filed for unemployment benefits; overall spending continued to fall; and property tax payments, in some states, have been deferred. All of which means impending cuts to state and federal budgets, a drop in donations and decreased enrollment in colleges and universities. Moreover, analysts expect declines in state support as schools look to weather the COVID-19 storm.

In Detroit, CCS provided prorated housing and dining refunds and refunded winter semester resource and graduation fees when the pandemic shut its classrooms. This summer, CCS plans to offer free housing for students living beyond a 50-mile radius as well as workshops.

However, such support—paired with supplying students with the technology they need to learn remotely while enrollment numbers and endowment donations drop—takes its toll.

Among the colleges and universities surveyed, the AACRAO found that fall enrollment for continuing students dropped 44% and fall residence hall renewals fell 32%. Now, colleges and universities, like companies across the country, are announcing layoffs, furloughs and other budget cuts.

CCS announced it would lay off 25 staff members. In Ohio, Bowling Green State University, which is projecting a $29 million budget deficit this year, announced it would lay off 102 members of its staff and 17 faculty members. Ohio University is eliminating 140 unionized positions, terminating 53 faculty jobs and laying off 94 administrators.

While Albrecht and Gateway Technical College appreciate the federal funds received as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, he said school administrators are monitoring Gateway’s current and possible future financial situation.

“We are seeing a current dip in enrollment,” Albrecht said. “Families are uncertain. Their jobs are in jeopardy, and there’s this awkwardness from the state of the pandemic.”

Despite the possible cuts, Albrecht said, Gateway’s role as an occupational-skills educator gives it an advantage. The high rate of unemployment means people will seek employable skills.

“High unemployment means high enrollment. We serve those most in need,” Albrecht said. And because Gateway trains those considered essential workers, the school also is essential.

“It’s a whole supply chain system,” Albrecht said. “If any part breaks down, it affects the next generation of workers.”

The lengthy list of universities suffering from the financial consequences of COVID-19 also includes well-endowed universities. The University of Michigan projects a loss of $400 million to $1 billion this year, and Johns Hopkins University reports that 1,200 employees have been unable to work because of stay-at-home orders.

Harvard University is also taking blows.

“Although we entered this crisis in a position of relative financial strength, our resources are already stretched,” Harvard President Larry Bacow, Provost Alan Garber and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp wrote in a recent letter. “If we are to preserve our core mission of teaching and scholarship, we face difficult, even painful, decisions in the days ahead. “We must look for more cost-efficient ways to deliver our essential services.

Dean for Research, donate books that were collected and disinfected to the Detroit Medical Center as a “rolling library” for COVID-19 patients.

“Because of the recent declines in the markets, the endowment, while still large, is not as large as it was previously. As it shrinks, it has less capacity to support our existing operations, especially as other shortfalls in revenue sources loom.”

The ending of the announcement thanks the Harvard community for its flexibility—something many academic leaders and students agree is a necessity.

While McCants doesn’t feel comfortable returning to the classroom at Florida State, he said he will adapt and do what he must to graduate.

“I would probably do online classes in the fall, just as they have us doing now,” he said. “But if some of my classes, like labs, require me to go in, I’ll go. I just hope they have fewer people.”

(This story was originally published by the Ford Motor Company Fund.)