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Poetry, painting, sculpture and song are emerging from one of the darkest periods in modern U.S. history.

Bucks County Courier Times

Virtual programming isn’t a Band-Aid for arts organizations anymore. It’s become a lifeline for many groups in New Jersey while theaters, museums, studios and more remain shut down due to coronavirus.

And it’s become a key component of their futures, even when it’s safe for the curtains to go up and the doors to re-open.

The good news is that virtual programming has been somewhat of a silver lining, allowing organizations to stretch their innovation, keep some employees on the payroll, continue connecting with audiences, expand their reach beyond their local communities, and, in some cases, even raise funds.

But despite the bright points, there’s no way to sugarcoat the situation as a whole. The shutdown forced by the pandemic, which began in mid-March, has decimated the arts industry in the state and around the country.

The stars will be out in Newark this fall and winter at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. (Photo: Courtesy of NJPAC)

New Jersey’s nonprofit arts institutions lost $30 million in revenue as of July, a number that has only continued to grow, according to the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

More: NJ theaters, museums have lost $30M so far due to COVID. Here’s how you can help.

New Jersey’s nonprofit arts sector is made up of more than 500 theaters, museums, galleries, performing arts centers, dance companies, symphonies and other cultural groups across the state. 

It’s not just the organizations themselves that are suffering. The ripple effect the industry has on its communities is far-reaching.

In fiscal year 2019, it pumped more than $662 million into New Jersey’s economy, including $29 million to local governments and $38 million directly to the state, supported nearly 22,000 jobs and helped educate more than 1 million children.

“We look at our cities and we look at our main streets in New Jersey right now and they’re frankly more empty than usual,” said Adam Perle, president and CEO of ArtPride, the state’s largest arts service and advocacy organization.

Adam Perle, president and CEO of ArtPride New Jersey (from left); Lauren Craig, director of marketing and artistic initiatives of Newark Arts; and Allison Tratner, executive director of the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, at this year’s People’s Choice Awards ceremony, presented by ArtPride and New Jersey State Council on the Arts. (Photo: COURTESY OF LAURIE BECK PATERSON/ARTPRIDE)

“The arts organizations are part of that equation — the jobs that we’re supporting. Yes, inside the art spaces with administration, box offices, stage crews, artists, teaching artists, that kind of thing. But they are around the town as well, with restaurants, printers, graphic designers, hotels, retail shops. It’s all part of that same ecosystem that makes that local economy work.”

The outlook doesn’t look to be getting much rosier any time soon. As New Jersey cautiously lifts some restrictions, arts leaders in the state expect the sector to get the green light to reopen late in the game.

More: New fund throws lifeline to NJ’s theaters, museums, cultural institutions

“As one watches what’s happening in sports and restaurants and gyms, as someone who works in the performing arts, many don’t realize that we will be the last to reopen,” said David Rodriguez, executive vice president and executive producer at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

Even that late comeback relies not only on the ability to reopen safely for patrons and performers — which arts leaders uniformly point to as their top goal — but on the outcome of other industries and the compliance of the general public.

A portrait of Paul Robeson, the activist by Esteban Del Valle, part of the Paul Robeson Legacy Project. (Photo: Chris Pedota, NorthJersey.com-USA Today Network)

“If people are not cautious, if people do not take the proper precautions, if people don’t listen to the CDC, the arts and the economic impact that’s gained through the arts will be lost because the longer we lose, the more likely — particularly some of the smaller communities with community based-arts organizations — won’t be able to reopen,” Rodriguez said. 

And as times go by, the losses, both financial and cultural, continue to mount. 

In just a small sampling of the staggering impact, NJPAC has canceled or rescheduled over 250 ticketed performances and over 100 free community events since the shutdown began. The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra laid off roughly one-third of its staff last month. 

“Unfortunately, the NJSO has had to make the heartbreaking decision to significantly reduce its workforce due to a $3.4 million loss of revenue associated with COVID-19 concert cancellations, and additional ongoing revenue uncertainty,” said NJSO President and CEO Gabriel van Aalst.  

The New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. (Photo: COURTESY OF NEW JERSEY SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA)

And on a simple level, the communal experience of the arts remains elusive, and that’s a loss.

“On an emotional level, by its nature, a symphony is people coming together,” van Aalst said, something that is still an impossibility. 

Across the nation

The economics of the shutdown, when viewed on a national scale, are staggering. Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations lost approximately $13.1 billion by mid-September, according to Americans for the Arts. With 96% of organizations canceling events, that meant a loss of 355 million admissions and counting, and $11.2 billion in lost audience spending at local businesses.

More: Frozen’s Robert Creighton has eyes – and feet – on Broadway’s future

Virtually no stages, regardless of size or prestige, are immune to this crisis; even the Metropolitan Opera in New York City made waves with its September announcement canceling its 2020 to 2021 season.

This image provided by the Metropolitan Opera shows a scene from Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” The Metropolitan Opera will skip an entire season for the first time in its nearly 140-year history due to the novel coronavirus and intends to start the 2021-22 season with Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” in the first work of a Black composer presented by the company. (Eric Woolsey/Opera Theatre of St. Louis via AP) (Photo: Eric Woolsey, Opera Theatre of St. Louis)

The lack of organizational and audience spending also has caused $4.2 billion in lost government revenue, and the loss of support for 725,000 jobs, according to the Americans for Arts report.

“Yes, people love music,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications director for the National Independent Venue Association. “They love comedy, and it’s what people do in their leisure time. But these are small mom and pop businesses that have contributed so much to their communities, not just by being an arts magnet but by being the trigger for economic activity for all the businesses around them.”

Trade publication Pollstar estimated in April that the live entertainment industry would lose up to $8.9 billion if venues remain closed for the rest of the year, something it descried as “a worst-case scenario” in the early days of the pandemic.

More: Broadway suspends performances through 2020 amid coronavirus, extends ticket refunds to 2021

NIVA, a national coalition of more than 2,800 independent venues and promoters, reported in late August that 90% of venues were “a few months” away from shuttering permanently without federal funding. NIVA is supporting legislative efforts including the Save Our Stages Act, which would establish a $10 billion grand program for venue operators, promoters and talent representatives.

Staying alive in NJ

While arts organizations plan for the future, the fact remains that many remain in a fight for their survival, and the need for federal assistance, donors and more is crucial, leaders say.

The support of patrons has been a welcome surprise to many groups, and arts leaders say continuing to support individual theaters, museums and other groups is important.

ArtPride has its laser focus on finding support for it organizations.

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“A lot of what we’re focusing on right now is making sure that arts organizations across the state of New Jersey have the opportunity to survive, to live through the time period of recovery and come out on the other end because they are so important to local economies, jobs, education and the quality of life in New Jersey,” Perle said.

“So we’ve been really focused on making sure that the organizations have all the resources they need, whether that comes from the state budget, from federal funding, from pandemic relief funding, as well as any kind of professional development programs and services that we can support.”

For New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s “Sci-Fi Spectacular,” guest maestro Bob Bernhardt will conduct with a lightsaber. (Photo: ~Courtesy of NJSO)

New Jersey ArtPride and participating organizations from around the state have formed Keep Jersey Arts Alive, a campaign that highlights the importance of the arts in all aspects, with ways to get involved and help, including lobbying for relief funds, a toolkit of resources and much more.

One bright spot has been the recent launch of the New Jersey Arts and Culture Recovery Fund, which as of August had raised more than $1.6 million, including a lead matching gift of $1 million from the New Jersey Pandemic Relief Fund.

But more is needed.

“It’s worth noting that when we asked the question, even just a couple months ago, 53% of arts organizations said that they did not expect to survive the pandemic without significant additional funds and those significant additional funds have not shown up yet,” Perle said.

“So I I think it’s really important for New Jerseyans to stay focused on this. I believe we will come out the other side of this. I believe New Jersey is absolutely strong enough to do this. But we need the residents in New Jersey to realize how important the arts are, to bring it back to the forefront of their mind.”

To learn more or donate to the state Arts and Culture Recovery Fund, visit njprf.org.

Innovation and reach

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and New Jersey’s arts organizations have risen to the challenge presented to them in the face of the coronavirus shutdown.

“The arts world continues to be devastated by the pandemic and by the necessary shutdown in most cases of organizations and facilities. And it’s a difficult, difficult time and it’s going to continue to be a difficult time for the entire sector,” Perle said. “But you know, this sector is innovative and creative by nature, of course, and so we’re continuing to see organizations adapt and be flexible and change, whether that means virtual offerings or at this point some safe social distance live art.” 

“You’re seeing performance dance groups focus on their arts education and convert their studio spaces to TV studio spaces so they can teach dance online,” Perle continued. “You’re seeing choreographers change the way that they’re dancing. You’re seeing entire actors groups sequester themselves for months on end so that they can perform.”

And arts leaders say that patrons are responding to the virtual programming, with many audience members adapting and adopting the technology to take part.

NJSO’s van Aalst said that the organization has created seven product lines during the shutdown, including couch concerts, full digital performances, lessons for medical workers and first responders, youth orchestra programs and more.

More: Count Basie Center unveils The Vogel performance space in Red Bank

While it is easy to get caught up in the massive losses, he says, taking a step back to look at all that has been accomplished in the past six months is awe-inspiring.

In some cases, the pause has allowed groups to focus on projects that were sitting on the back burner.

“We’ve had to learn a lot about digital content delivery. Those were always things that I was very interested in doing, but the reality of people in the museum first kind of meant we never had the time to do that,” said Amanda Potter, curator of education and interpretation at Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University.

Residents with an adventurous spirit have been cordially invited to partake in the Middlesex County Quest, which runs through Sept. 15. Participants are asked to create teams of up to five friends and/or family to complete a photo scavenger hunt and uncover Middlesex County to find things such as the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Brunswick. (Photo: ~Courtesy of Rachel Pillow)

With the museum’s galleries shut down, staff have had time to create videos and online exhibitions and step up its social media game to ensure that students have access to the museum’s materials.

“We’ve prioritized a few different initiatives,” Potter said. “We were able to launch our first online collection database called eMuseum, and so now faculty and students, anyone, can browse our collection by artist name or nationality or the medium they’re using — all kinds of different ways to look at the collection. It’s still a work in progress. Faculty can use that and Incorporate our collections into their teaching. And our curators and our education staff have also been joining Zoom classes and talking about works that are relevant to the course.” 

Rodriguez said that programs including the introduction of new music, Wellness Wednesdays, the American Songbook Series and virtual arts education classes are only part of what NJPAC has been able to organize.

Virtual is here to stay

While organizations turned to virtual programming out of necessity, many say that it was a change that needed to happen, and ultimately will elevate the offerings provided by groups.

Plus, people just like it.

“My feeling is when the world gets back to whatever the new normal is, a lot of people are going to look toward programming that merges live events with virtual,” said Rodriguez of NJPAC.  

More: Tony Awards 2020: Ceremony to go digital, here’s what we know

In addition to increasing reach beyond an organization’s backyard — Rodriguez said one virtual dance party can reach upward of 40,000 people a night, while van Aalst said that the NJSO’s many virtual offerings have increased its reach tenfold — most of the virtual offerings provide much-needed modernization. 

A look inside Newark’s New Jersey Performing Arts Center. (Photo: Courtesy of New Jersey Performing Arts Center)

 “I do think those things will continue and that we’ll be able to use some of those resources to reach audiences far beyond New Jersey, which is really exciting. Our collection of Soviet and Russian art has a big international audience, and this is a way that we can be more visible to them,” said the Zimmerli’s Potter. 

“As an arts visitor and consumer myself, I’ve loved to be able to go to talks that are ‘quote unquote’ in Chicago or even New York City that in all likelihood on a weeknight I wouldn’t be able to get to normally,” Potter continued. “So there’s this kind of freedom of access that has been truly exciting, and for me one of the big silver linings of this situation.” 

Van Aalst agreed.

“I can’t see a lot of these programs going anywhere,” he said. “They absolutely should continue going forward. I want to make sure that these new audiences continue to be served.”

As arts organizations regroup and plan for the future, newly prioritizing their digital offerings is top of mind.

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“We’re wrestling with what it means as this goes on and looking at what makes sense to continue doing or trying to find a virtual form for and what we want to do different,” Potter said of the Zimmerli.  “And truthfully, maybe better, to use our resources in a different way that has more impact than what we were doing before.” 

When will arts return?

While no one knows when the arts will fully return, one thing is clear — it’s not going to be like turning on a spigot. Capacity is likely to trickle up, and there will be some lag time involved for most. 

For one thing, capacity has to reach a point where it makes fiscal sense to mount productions.

“The simple mathematics for performing arts space is much like a restaurant that only has indoor space,” said Perle of ArtPride. You know based off of the limited capacity that these facilities have, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to make it work financially. And in addition there is also certainly the sentiment of the patron and whether or not they’re fully ready to come back to embrace the indoor experience.” 

Rodriguez agreed, adding that he believes it will take three months for productions to begin at NJPAC once the state gives the green light.

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“We’re waiting to see what the possibilities will be with social distance programming,” he said.

“Should New Jersey’s numbers continue to improve, we hope that the numbers allowed in the theater socially distanced with masks will allow us to do social distance programs beginning in January. But we feel confident that those programs, when scheduled, will probably need at least two months to market them. 

“And chances are people will wait a good month to see the effect of the opening of theaters before many constituencies will buy tickets — so there will be about a three-month lag between when the capacity numbers increase and our ability to effectively create safe social distancing programs. Because from NJPAC’s perspective, we would rather be later opening than risk the health of anyone involved or attending our events.” 

Van Aalst said symphony may be one of the last artforms to come back, and he believes the lead time will be “huge.” In addition to the nature of playing instruments, he points out the the NJSO does not have one home, but plays many venues as a touring orchestra, and will have to ensure that each meets its safety requirements.

NJSO is working on safety protocols, he said, while Perle said that ArtPride is working with the state Council on the Arts, private funders and other organizations on collecting and evaluating best practices. The state’s 30-plus Equity theaters, most members of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance, are working with their union on its own set of necessities, Perle added.

More: Andrew Lloyd Webber gets experimental COVID-19 vaccine: ‘I’ll do anything’ for theater

As the weather turns chillier, groups that have found success with outdoor performance may find themselves heading back to the drawing board, while others may start dipping their toes into socially distanced indoor offerings, Perle said.

Despite the challenges, arts leaders are eager — and a bit on edge — to reach the state’s “new normal.”

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“We certainly feel better times are coming and we want to really rely on best practices because any trip along the way will extend the period of closure,” Rodriguez said.

Alex Biese contributed to this story. 

Ilana Keller is an award-winning journalist and lifelong New Jersey resident who loves Broadway and really bad puns. She highlights arts advocacy and education, theater fundraisers and more through her column, “Sightlines.” Reach out on Twitter: @ilanakeller; [email protected]

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