Chicago’s theater community reacts to cultural arts ‘crisis’ report


A devastating report last week on the crisis facing Chicago’s cultural arts community came as little surprise to people who work in the field and already have been dealing with the new reality for the past three years.

“People are just not doing what they used to when it comes to the arts, and this study proved it’s true,” said Margaret McCloskey, executive director of Remy Bumppo Theatre Company.

The report by Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) detailed the aftereffects of the pandemic. Dwindling audiences and subscriptions, increased operating costs coupled with shrinking budgets, declines in private funding and sponsorships, and the end of government funding, as well as inflation, all factored in to the data’s findings.

Steppenwolf Theater executive director Brooke Flanagan said the report, while jarring, was also a catalyst for turning the tide.

“It captures a moment in time from where we’re starting from,” Flanagan said, “building collective efforts to stabilize the field. We can measure how strategies are working moving forward. … And as it reported, neighborhood BIPOC-led and BIPOC-focused organizations have actually seen increases in staff, funding and audience engagement. So there is an opportunity to … make sure we have the ecosystem to keep those organizations moving in a positive direction.”

There is hope, Flanagan stressed.

“There are a couple of things that are in the works now. One is the theater season [marketing campaign] that Choose Chicago is doing to call people back to go out again, to choose live theater over Netflix,” Flanagan said. “We can all commit to [attending] one live production a week, whether it’s your neighborhood theater you’ve never been to, or returning to one you’ve patronized many times.”

The state of cultural arts in Chicago is not lost on Mayor Johnson, she said, who met with nearly 20 theater producers from large and small-size organizations, both historically white and BIPOC-led and -focused, in August to get a briefing on the state of theater.

“We met with the League Chicago Theaters (an alliance that promotes and advocates for Chicago’s theater industry), the head of World Business Chicago (the city’s public‑private economic development agency), Choose Chicago and DCASE to set up a working group that will meet over the course of final quarter of 2023 and come out in the first quarter of 2024 with very specific recommendations on what individuals, corporations, foundations and the city can do to support the comeback to [the] theater sector,” Flanagan said.

Ellen Placey Wadey, who oversees funding for small arts organizations for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, said she’s hesitant to use the word “crisis” in connection with the local, post-pandemic theater scene.

“It feels like we’re marking the end of a really tough period. I’m not sure I would say we are into the recovery period. It feels like it’s just starting this year,” Wadey said.

Big theaters, she said, have had it tougher than their smaller, more “nimble” counterparts.

“I’m really looking at this fall as kind of what’s going to set the rhythm for the next few years,” Wadey said.

Theaters and other cultural attractions in the city rely on three major sources of cash flow: ticket sales, donors and government funding (mostly through grants). The latter source has either ended or been severely curtailed, audience attendance numbers have still not recovered from pandemic shutdowns as economic factors continue to weigh heavily on discretionary spending, and donor funding has in some instances ceased or decreased.

The Donnelley Foundation provides about $1.7 million annually to some 175 small arts organizations in the Chicago area. The vast majority haven’t shut down permanently, Wadey said; for those that closed, it hasn’t always been about economic issues. For some, the pandemic simply offered a chance for, say, an artistic director to move in a different direction — or perhaps a lease ended and the theater company is still looking for a new home, she said.

“It can’t be underestimated that when you are shutting down a whole sector, that it’s not just going to pop open again. It has to build back up,” Wadey said.

At Black Ensemble Theater on the city’s North Side, founder and executive director/CEO Jackie Taylor said she, in fact, added two positions to her company in the wake of the pandemic.

“We’ve had to exist in a very disadvantaged society in terms of funding, in terms of marketing and exposure,” Taylor said. “So when you have to survive like that, it makes you more capable when you’re faced with challenges [and] traumas because you’ve worked in that environment.”

Jackie Taylor is the playwright-founder and executive director of Black Ensemble Theater. 

Founder and executive director Jackie Taylor poses for a portrait in her office at the Black Ensemble Theater.

Anthony Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Taylor said the theater has learned how to manage on a “shoestring” budget. It also benefited greatly from a $5 million grant in 2021 from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott.

“We used it to pay off our debts, to continue [supporting] our staff and to ensure we could operate without any earned income coming in for 2 1/2 years,” Taylor said. The annual budget for 2023 is $3.9 million, compared with about $2.2 million annually during the pandemic, Taylor said.

When the theater reopened during the pandemic, it did so “very slowly, with shorter runs and smaller casts” and only 100 of the theater’s 300 seats filled, Taylor said.

“Now we are operating full steam ahead with our usual 12 to 15 cast members on stage and our big musical production,” Taylor said.

Kokandy Productions executive director Scott Kokandy said funding during the pandemic, such as the Shuttered Venue Operators grants, were a lifeline for his Chicago storefront company, which has seen increased success that many similar-sized theaters have not. The company’s recent production of “Sweeney Todd” was its most successful in the non-profit’s 12-year history and will help carry it over into a next season.

“We’ve always operated with 100 seats,” Kokandy said. “We do longer show runs especially because we are non-Equity and can do that. And we’ve increased our previews to nine shows and priced those tickets lower so that word-of-mouth and Facebook and Instagram ads get people to come to the shows. … [How many people] come to see one show determines whether we move forward to the next. … The report clearly shows that season by season you have to be nimble [as a company] and adjust.”

Remy Bumppo’s McCloskey said the report affirmed much of what theater and other arts organizations have known for years: peoples’ habits changed over the course of the pandemic.

Mark Ulrich and Eliza Stoughton in “Howards End” at Remy Bumppo Theater Company in 2019.

Mark Ulrich and Eliza Stoughton in “Howards End” at Remy Bumppo Theater Company in 2019.

“An average audience-goer saw 40 or 50 shows or other cultural arts experiences over the course of a year, prior to 2020,” McCloskey said, “going weekly to a play or museum or dance production each week. We sensed that change fundamentally. …

“People are making strategic decisions due to this crazy inflation about what they’re doing with their leisure time. The cost of going out has increased. Then there’s the drive time just getting into the city, parking, gas, going out to dinner. Restaurants are suffering big time post-pandemic. Salaries have not gone up. … In 2022 it cost us the same to produce two shows that it cost to product three in 2019. So for 2023, [our operating budget] is about the same as in 2019, but we’re doing one less show.”

In a statement to the Sun-Times, Hyde Park Arts Center co-directors Aaron Rodgers and Jen Tremblay Chambers said the report was “disheartening” but also a positive call to action for the entire cultural arts community.

“As we all know, the arts are a cornerstone of any thriving community, and so the findings reported in the DCASE report are certainly disheartening. … Luckily, the arts sector is necessarily creative and resilient, and the arts community in Chicago in particular is historically collaborative and resourceful. I think we’ll see organizations approaching their work differently, and finding new ways to invite everyone into the fold. It’s a time for us all to rally around our creative makers — advocate with our elected officials, see a show, visit a gallery, donate our time and money — to ensure the current and future vitality of our arts and our city.”


Source link