Contributed photo by Christian Stewart / Seats at the Tivoli Theatre autitorium sit empty, as they have since the venue shut down this spring.

The coronavirus pandemic is putting serious financial strain on local arts organizations, with losses in Hamilton County already amounting to more than $3 million as of mid-July, according to an Americans for the Arts survey of 66 organizations in the county. The median loss for each of those organizations was $18,000.

Some organizations have been affected more than others, with those with fee-for-service models — such as performing arts organizations and those that offer group classes — hit hardest, says James McKissic, president of ArtsBuild, an organization that funds and promotes the arts and cultural programming in the Chattanooga area.

Almost all local organizations have had to cancel events. In March, the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera canceled the last six shows of the 2019-20 season. Patrons could either donate the cost to CSO, trade in their tickets for a future show, credit their subscription for the coming season or get a refund. The organization paid out around $60,000 in refunds, "which was a little rough," Executive Director Samantha Teter says. Though most of those refunds were for the Disney in Concert show, which attracts a different audience than the symphony's typical patrons, she notes.

The Tivoli Theatre Foundation, which promotes shows at the Tivoli Theatre, Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Auditorium and the Walker Theatre, has also taken a big hit due to the pandemic.

"As you might imagine, it's had a very serious impact on our finances, and I am convinced we need to have a national conversation about leadership on making sure arts organizations survive throughout this period," says Executive Director Nick Wilkinson. "Also, we rely heavily on donations, and while we've experienced great support from our loyal patrons and Friends of the Tivoli [membership support group], now more than ever we need support from the community in the form of charitable contributions."


Shifting programs

McKissic says he's been impressed by the resilience of local arts organizations. Most are increasing their online presence, such as holding virtual performances and online classes.

The Tivoli Foundation is hosting a virtual screening room on its website for showings of movies in the Bobby Stone Film Series. Chattanooga Boys Choir Executive Director Dawn Oakes recently launched the Arts Forward Chattanooga Academy, for which a large number of organizations came together to provide educational content on a single digital platform. And ArtsBuild partnered with The Enterprise Center for Tech Goes Home for the Arts, a program designed to teach artists of all disciplines and leaders of arts organizations digital skills such as how to move their programs online and monetize their products online.

The organizations regularly come together for Zoom meetings to discuss broader topics such as racial equity issues in the arts and how to apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans, McKissic says.

Venues are also coming up with creative ways to continue to offer programming. Barking Legs is hosting drive-in dances, in which dancers perform for audience members who remain in their cars and tune in to the music on local radio station WUTC-FM 88.1.

Organizations that work with children, such as Art 120 and Scenic City Clay Arts, are putting together art kits to be delivered to children along with meals.


Looking forward

Only 62% of Hamilton County's arts organizations are confident that they will survive the pandemic, as most have limited savings and cash reserves and are seeing a reduction in philanthropic giving, according to the Americans for the Arts survey.

Though ArtsBuild is not in danger of shutting down, McKissic says the amount raised through the nonprofit's annual campaign is far short of where it would typically be this time of year, with about half of its annual fund goal raised.

"We've seen some donors who are unable to give this year, but we're seeing lots of new donors," he says.

With funding from the Benwood Foundation, ArtsBuild established its Artist Emergency Fund in March to help artists of all disciplines recover from financial losses due to canceled gigs and other income-producing opportunities such as commissions and contracts. The fund has awarded grants of up to $500 to 109 artists so far, and funding from the Footprint Foundation has further extended the life of the fund, McKissic says, adding that ArtsBuild plans to keep the program open indefinitely.

"I encourage people to remember what a huge impact the arts have on the local economy," says McKissic, who suggests people support arts organizations in this time of need by purchasing artwork online or season tickets for performing arts organizations.

Those interested in tickets for the Chattanooga Theatre Centre are in for a disappointment, however, because the CTC made the decision in mid-July to move its entire 2020-21 season, which was set to begin this September, to the same time next year.

"There's a delicate balance in creating a season, and we didn't want to cherry-pick shows and upset that balance," says Julie Van Valkenberg, marketing director for CTC. "Plus, the season was selected before the crisis hit, and the majority of the shows could not be staged with the necessary safety precautions we need for our actors onstage."

The Theatre Centre is instead looking at opportunities to produce nonmusical plays with smaller casts to allow for social distancing, and is also considering hosting community arts performances on the property's riverfront lawn space.

Van Valkenberg says the CTC is confident it can provide a safe experience for its performers and audiences by taking measures such as reducing audiences by 30%, doing temperature checks, using contactless ticketing and redirecting foot traffic, as well as by installing touchless faucets in its restrooms and rehabbing its HVAC system. "But just because we can doesn't mean we should," she says. "We'll enact those protocols when the time is right, when it's safe and ethical to open our doors again."

The CSO's 2020-21 season is canceled also, but the organization is planning to continue operating on half of its typical budget by doing live, in-person, small ensemble concerts with no more than 20 musicians, says Teter. That will allow the organization to keep all of its 50 contract musicians on the payroll, albeit at a reduced capacity. The administrative and artistic staff also received pay cuts, and the chorus director and accompanist were furloughed.

The CSO typically holds concerts at the Tivoli, which had no timeframe for reopening as of press time.

"We are surviving and look forward to reopening when it's safe and healthy," Wilkinson says. "As far as upcoming shows, we will only do them if the city of Chattanooga and the board of the Tivoli Foundation believe it's safe and healthy to do so."

In the interim, the CSO is considering outdoor venues such as First Horizon Pavilion for concerts in September and October, and churches and other indoor venues will host concerts in the colder months.

"It's actually getting us out into the community more in areas we don't typically perform in, so I'm really excited about that," says Teter.

A look at Hamilton County

The following comes local responses to the Americans for the Arts survey.

Financial impact to date: -$3,129,700

On a scale of 1-5, with 5 being the worst, how severe do you expect the overall financial impact of the coronavirus to be on your organization?

2 — 12%

3 — 31%

4 — 35%

5 — 23%

Percent of organizations that have canceled events: 98%

Total number of lost attendance: 291,282

Total number of people laid off: 77

Total furloughed: 45

Which of the following are currently major financial concerns for your organization?

Reduced philanthropic giving: 56%

Limited savings and/or cash reserves: 83%

Canceled contracts: 22%

Inability to make payroll: 33%

Inability to pay bills: 6%

Business closure: 22%

Late payments or collection losses from customers/clients: 11%