Sarasota area arts organizations survive a year of pandemic
Jobs were lost and programs cut, but federal and local aid, private donations and community support have kept Sarasota area arts groups going.
In the year since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the arts scene, Sarasota area cultural organizations have lost millions in potential ticket revenues, furloughed dozens of full and part-time employees and put hundreds of onstage and backstage seasonal artists out of work.
While many arts leaders thought the pandemic might last only a few weeks, they ended up canceling hundreds of performances and delaying art exhibitions that were difficult to arrange because of international travel restrictions.
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Unlike those in other parts of the country, none of the Sarasota area’s arts organizations has had to permanently shut its doors. But some leaders, joyous over the surging number of people being vaccinated, warn that another full season without ticket buyers could alter the local arts landscape.
A Herald-Tribune survey of 20 area nonprofit arts groups reveals that the hardest-hit workers were those contracted artists hired to perform in, direct or design shows and the backstage personnel that keep local and touring national productions running. The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall might hire as many as 250 people for some of the touring musicals and concert performances it presents.
The Ringling furloughed more than 30 employees, while other organizations reduced staff pay to maintain operations.
The survival of these arts organizations is key to the local economy. Arts and culture organizations are considered among the top five employers in Sarasota County and help to distinguish the region from many of the dozens of other beachfront communities in Florida. Arts leaders say they are already on the road back to “normal” and expect to come back stronger once full operations can resume.
They expect a pent-up demand for live performances and the sense of community their shows provide, will eventually bring people back to theaters, but not right away.
Many organizations reported they survived or were able to limit layoffs thanks to the federal Payroll Protection Program, donations from local foundations and individual donors, as well as $4.2 million in CARES Act funding authorized by Sarasota County.
“It’s been a hard year and hopefully we’re coming to the end of it with people being vaccinated,” said Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of Florida Studio Theatre.
The organizations that responded to the Herald-Tribune’s questions reported receiving more than $5.2 million in PPP funds, which were designed to maintain staff positions for eight weeks.
Asolo Repertory Theatre had costume shop staff making masks for health care and other essential workers in the early days of the pandemic. FST commissioned a group of playwrights to create new plays and cabaret shows.
March 13: The day
the arts shut down
By March 13, 2020, most performing arts organizations had shut down, just at the height of the winter tourist season when they are usually at their busiest because of the influx of visitors and seasonal residents.
Urbanite Theatre was able to present one performance of “The Feast.” The Sarasota Orchestra, which was in the midst of a season of guest conductors in its search for a new music director, got in one performance with Boston Pops Music Director Keith Lockhart before the music stopped.
In the months that followed, FST canceled 1547 performances on its five stages, while Asolo Rep canceled 109, including a world premiere musical that it was developing. The Van Wezel, owned by the city of Sarasota, canceled 100 performances of 61 different touring Broadway musicals and concert programs.
Not knowing how long they might be closed, artistic and executive directors developed numerous alternative schedules that were patched together, revised, abandoned and resurrected.
“Too many to count,” is how Artist Series Concerts of Sarasota described its constantly revised schedule.
They might have been able to attract audiences eager to get out of the house, but traveling artists couldn’t or wouldn’t travel and unions took months to establish safety protocols before they would approve member involvement.
Organizations built around artistry and ingenuity started experimenting with new ways to connect to its regular attendees and participants in their education programs. These efforts provided new opportunities for performers and artists to be creative and work, while offering distractions to those stuck at home. Some organizations said these fledgling video ventures, like home streaming of performances, may continue after venues fully reopen.
Artists were able to collaborate from different cities via Zoom, saving time and money on projects that usually required people to be in the same room. “Zoom has really changed how we work or how we can work,” said Celine Rosenthal, associate artistic director of Asolo Rep.
The theater presented excerpts from new musicals in development through its Ground Floor Series. FST Improv found laughs online, while Sarasota Orchestra musicians pieced together part of a Beethoven symphony while playing individual parts at their own homes. In June, the Circus Arts Conservatory brought together a variety of circus artists from around the world for a virtual production.
Venice Symphony and La Musica were among those organizations creating videos that introduced their musicians to the public.
Arts groups put safety first
By fall, live performances in front of limited audiences resumed in fits and starts as leaders of nine arts organizations met regularly to discuss safety protocols and other issues, creating the #SafeArtsSarasota initiative. Asolo Rep, FST, Circus Arts Conservatory, Hermitage Artist Retreat, Sarasota Orchestra, The Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe have links to their detailed safety guidelines available at SarasotaArts.org/SafeArts.
Such guidelines, which have been revised as new information became available, made it possible for Sarasota Contemporary Dance to stage its first two programs of the season in the Historic Asolo Theater at The Ringling with live audiences and home streaming options. Attendance was limited as it was for all performance venues, usually at no more than 25-30 percent of capacity. The Sarasota Ballet opted for a pre-recorded digital season before two outdoor performances were added to the schedule.
When restaurants were allowed to fully reopen in the fall, FST resumed operations in its Green Room Cafe with many outdoor tables and offered live musical entertainment to go with it. Venice Theatre presented a few shows with small casts and limited audiences inside its main Jervey Theatre, but the shows ended as the rate of COVID cases began to rise again. (They resume later this month).
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe staged an outdoor soul music concert in October, but an outbreak of COVID that began with backstage personnel forced the run to end early. The theater also canceled a fundraiser at Selby Gardens. (Outdoor performances resumed in the theater’s parking lot in February.)
Without performances to stage, the Players Centre said goodbye to its longtime home in September after emotional farewell tours for many who performed there. It found an outdoor home at the Bazaar on Apricot and Lime. Asolo Rep built the outdoor Terrace Stage on the front steps of he FSU Center for the Performing Arts for five shows that began with a holiday concert.
“We have been looking at every possible way of presenting work,” said Rick Kerby, producing artistic director of the Manatee Performing Arts Center, which experimented with in-person productions, home streaming and drive-in movie theater options in its parking lot. At Van Wezel, a series of cabaret programs attracted some live audiences and it offered a series of virtual programs.
The Sarasota Opera canceled its fall production and replaced it with a concert program performed first in the Sarasota Opera House and then outdoors at Selby Gardens. By the winter, it was producing small-cast and intimate full productions on its stage.
Selby became a refuge for numerous organizations, including the Artist Series, Hermitage Artist Retreat, the Players Centre, Urbanite Theatre and others that presented plays, readings and concerts live in front of socially distanced audiences. Urbanite is now presenting an original immersive experience called “Safe House.”
The Sarasota Orchestra may have abandoned its traditional masterworks series, but it introduced audiences to the joys of chamber music with limited attendance in person and home streaming of a video capture. It also set a schedule of outdoor concerts by wind and brass ensembles.
The Circus Arts Conservatory canceled its Circus Sarasota, but offered a live and streaming option for “Prevail,” featuring Cirque du Soleil performers donating their talents.
Theaters invested in expensive video equipment – which they will find a way to use in future productions – but few if any of these productions made money or even covered costs. Leaders said it was more important spiritually, creatively and emotionally to keep their names before the public and provide artists with some work.
Dealing with money and emotions
Even as they struggled with expected money issues, Rebecca Hopkins of FST said it quickly became clear what kind of emotional toll the pandemic was having on her staff, colleagues and audiences.
“You can wrap your head logically around the money problem and how to work your way through that,” she said. “But dealing with human beings is a far more straining and concerning problem.”
As in the rest of the world, employees at many arts groups took on extra work when positions were eliminated or hours reduced.
Mary Bensel, executive director of Van Wezel, which was not eligible for federal support, describes the year as “a real rollercoaster ride. Every day it was like, ‘What’s next?’ Some days I’m so amped up and ready to forge ahead and some days it’s the depths of despair and I wonder will it ever get better.”
Bensel said the hall was on track for a $2 million surplus last year, and ended up with about $513,000. “Even in a COVID year, it was still positive and that helps. That’s how strong we were going and why it hurt so much to be shut down for a year.”
Julie Leach, executive director of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, said all the safety questions created new challenges each time her company tried to find a way to get back to the stage, working to overcome logistical obstacles that would develop. “We just kept trying to move forward,” she said.
What to expect in the months ahead
Gov. Ron DeSantis gave theaters permission to reopen months ago, but most arts leaders knew their patrons wouldn’t rush back and that unions were being cautious before agreeing on safety protocols to allow members to return to work.
“Audiences must be comfortable and feel safe attending live theater with fewer limitations,” an Asolo Rep spokesperson said. The theater also reports that the 2021-22 season will be one of recovery. “We hope to see a return to ‘normal’ in the 22-23 season.”
As vaccinations rise, there are signs of that new normal. FST is presenting two cabaret shows in its largest theaters this spring and planning a regular season of full productions for the summer. Other organizations say they expect to announce plans in the next few months for the season ahead.
Those seasons may sound familiar because many arts groups have simply postponed shows originally announced for 2020-21. The Venice Symphony moved its entire season. Asolo Rep hopes to stage at least some of the shows it planned to produce this year.
Arts leaders anticipate a population eager to return to performances and museums, but it will be a while before it feels the same.
There will still be nervousness, they say, about sitting so close inside a theater. That’s why it could take two years before “normal” returns. The Players Centre hopes to announce the location of a temporary indoor facility for small shows while it continues to raise money for its planned new theater complex in Lakewood Ranch. Even so, the theater said normal may not be until 2025 and it will be different.
“Virtual options are more prevalent now and have allowed organizations to learn a new skill that will eventually help those that lack access, the ability to enjoy more activities and art,” said Amanda Heisey, marketing director of the Players Centre for Performing Arts.
The Ringling doesn’t expect its normal to return until after 2023 “before visitors to the region start to reach pre-COVID levels. Hopefully we are too conservative,” museum director Steven High said.
But most arts leaders feel confident about surviving and adapting to whatever happens. That has been the history of the field for centuries.
In a virtual state of the theater program with his supporters earlier this month, FST Producing Artistic Director Richard Hopkins said the state of the theater has been good for 3,000 years.
Think about all this art form has been through in 3,000 years, all that pain and suffering of those 3,000 we’ve compressed into the last 12 months,” he said. “It’s the most challenging, most emotionally difficult period of my professional career. That said, it has also been one of the most uplifting periods. This community rallied behind us. We’re going to come out of this pandemic as strong or stronger than we’ve ever been.”
Jay Handelman, arts editor and theater critic, has been an editor and writer at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since 1984. Read more of his arts and entertainment stories. And please support local journalism by subscribing to the Herald-Tribune.