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The arts employ a vast ecosystem of people in our region — and they’re among the first to suffer financially in a crisis.
Theaters and concert venues have shut their doors and canceled seasons and performances for the foreseeable future. What are the second and third order financial effects of a sudden shutdown?
How will set designers, actors, musicians and visual artists continue to work? What economic relief is available for employees and organizations that rely on ticket sales and donations?
Produced by Victoria Chamberlin
- Chris Young Prop Shop Director, The Shakespeare Theater Company; @ShakespeareinDC
- Adele Robey Executive Director, Anacostia Playhouse; @AnacostiaPHouse
- Mikaela Lefrak WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter; Host of WAMU's What's With Washington podcast; @mikafrak
- Busy Graham Executive Director, Carpe Diem Arts; @arts2life
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The arts employ a vast ecosystem of people in our region, and they're among the first to suffer financially in a crisis. Theaters, concert venues have shut their doors and cancelled performances for the foreseeable future. What are the second and third order financial effects of a sudden shutdown? How will set designers, actors, musicians and visual artists continue to work? What economic relief is available for employees and organizations that rely on ticket sales and donations?
KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to try to provide answers to some of these questions is Mikaela Lefrak. She is the arts and culture reporter for WAMU and the host of the "What's With Washington" podcast. Mikaela, thank you for joining us.
MIKAELA LEFRAKHi, Kojo.
NNAMDIHi, Mikaela. You report on arts and culture for WAMU. Can you set the scene for how this crisis has affected the arts industry?
LEFRAKSure. I mean, it's affected it in a truly enormous way. And I was just reflecting this morning how it seems almost surreal that just a week and a half ago, I was writing stories about how local theater employees were learning how to disinfect their cloth seats. And a few venues were postponing concerts until later in the spring. But now, the updates are just much more dire. Everything is shutdown, basically, for the entire spring. And that can have huge effects on these arts organizations' bottom lines.
LEFRAKLike, for example, just today, I got an email from Signature Theater in Arlington about they've cancelled all their performances through June. And they're asking patrons to make donations to help pay their staff since they've completely lost the revenue from ticket sales. And then D.C. Improv Comedy Club has laid off its entire staff of about 50 people, as of last week. And it's just hitting every sector of the arts, music, theater, dance, visual arts, you name it.
NNAMDIAny other ways that large nonprofit organizations and concert venues are dealing with the loss of revenue from ticket sales and donations?
LEFRAKSure. So, the arts organizations that are doing okay right now are the ones that, A., own their own buildings, they don't have to pay rent, B. have really involved boards and private donor networks, and C., have already secured grants from the city's Commission on Arts and Humanities. That's the D.C. government office that hands out grants to arts organizations.
LEFRAKSo, for example, I spoke to the president of the Kreeger Museum this morning. It's a small, modern art museum in northwest D.C. And, for all of those reasons, they're doing okay right now, but other places are having to get really creative to bring in money. For example, D.C.'s Chamber Dance Project comes to mind. They had to cancel their big fundraising gala, so now they're doing an online auction for the next few weeks.
LEFRAKI also spoke to someone at IMP, which is the company that runs the 9:30 Club and the Anthem, and other big music venues. And she said they actually just emailed their entire customer database yesterday to tell them that, you know, if they buy gift cards for future shows or merchandise, IMP's going to donate all that money to this new fund. It's set up for hourly workers who, of course, aren't getting paid right now.
NNAMDIJoining us by phone is Adele Robey, executive director of the Anacostia Playhouse. Adele, thank you for joining us.
ADELE ROBEYHey, Kojo, how are you?
NNAMDII am doing well, considering the circumstances. The Anacostia Playhouse we know is an important cultural landmark in this community. Who does your theater serve, generally?
ROBEYWe serve everybody. Now, we are -- number one in our hearts is our local community, historic Anacostia, and east of the river. I mean, that's our most important base. That's where we want to get our artists from. That's who we want to serve. And, of course, now we're not serving anybody. It's just shut down, completely. But, of course, we do serve the entire -- now we serve the entire metro area, because we have so many wonderful companies come in and audiences coming from around. And then the great thing is they come in to see our wonderful community and hopefully, you know, spend some money and stay for a while.
NNAMDI(overlapping) I know it's a location at which we have done a number of events including, Kojo in Your Community and our Road Show over the years. But, Adele, the Anacostia Playhouse is also home to the theater alliance which is the company in residence. How are they dealing with this shutdown?
ROBEYWell, I just had an email from Raymond, I don't know, 15 minutes ago, who said, everybody's on hold. It's like I feel like my brain's on fire, sometimes. They had to cancel the end of their very, very wonderful last show that they were doing, "This Bitter Earth." And they had a new show to go up in another two months, and that's getting cancelled. Everything's getting cancelled, and we're trying to move things around. I have a calendar conversation with our board and staff tomorrow.
ROBEYBut all we can do is sketch out a plan. And we don't know if it'll work, you know. Okay, are we going to be open in June? Don't know. Young Playwrights' Theater, who was supposed to be in there now tried, to move to June, because S. Robert Morgan had to leave June, because his board wanted to cancel everything. But we don't know if anything like that will really work.
ROBEYAnd Theater Alliance had a wonderful final show this season planned. You know, a brand new play, really fabulous people involved in it. And we hope that that will just get moved, so that it won't get cancelled altogether. But we don't know yet.
NNAMDI(overlapping) Tell us about the ripple effect. What are some of the related or other economic impacts for Anacostia, as a result of long term closures like this?
ROBEYWell, you know, when we bring people in, the arts are always an economic engine. And so whoever we have coming -- be it the artists who are working on it, the designers, the cast, the crew -- they don't want to leave Anacostia to eat, or whatever they want to do. They want to hang out there. So, we have, you know, immediately, you know, Bus Boys and Poets, Mama's Pizza. And, believe me, their people eat a lot of pizza. (laugh) It's terrible. I feel terrible for Mama's right now, because, you know, she's lost all of the people who would normally be working there and going there.
ROBEYBus Boys and Poets, I'm not in town, so I'm sure that they're just on, you know, curbside delivery now, as well. But, even so, we're talking, over a period of time, for “Black Nativity,” that we did in December, brought in almost 2,000 people. I know half of them went to brunch there, because I'd see them coming through the parking lot, coming from Bus Boys. That's a lot of people.
ROBEYThe Arts Center, which is also closed of course, has the retail outlets and Mahogany Books and Nubian Hueman, who you know well.
ROBEYNobody's visiting them, because we're all closed. So, it's a multipronged effect. And every show, of course, that goes up has its own number of designers and actors and staff, and then ticket sales from there, and none of that is happening now. Yeah.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Acoo, who says: Wolf Trap Institute for early learning through the arts has a wealth of teaching videos and lesson plans that are already online at education.wolftrap.org. Joining us by phone now is Chris Young. Chris Young is the prop shop director for the Shakespeare Theater Company. Chris Young, thank you for joining us.
CHRIS YOUNGYou're welcome. Hello, Kojo.
NNAMDIHello to you, Chris. When we think of the arts, we often think of musicians or visual artists. But the technical crews behind productions and exhibitions are just as vulnerable. What has been your experience so far with the Shakespeare Theater Company? How does this impact technical staff?
YOUNGWell, so far, we've had to shut down all operations until the 29th of March. Sometime that day, we'll find out what our next step is from our board. But for all the theaters -- and thank you for bringing them up -- there's a lot of even work that happens in the D.C. area. So, all of those shops are closed, as well. Anything that would've been going into the convention center, anything that would've been going on around the cherry blossoms, so all of those people are out of work, as well.
NNAMDIHow does what we're dealing with now, Chris, compare with other periods of economic downturn like, oh, 9/11 or the financial crisis in 2008? Is what you're seeing now significantly different?
YOUNGYes, it's very significant. I was talking with neighbors and family, and one of the things we recalled that, during 9/11, after the first couple days, we were actually encouraged to go out rather than stay home. So, it was all about making sure that people were still moving around and not hiding at home. Then, during the economic turndown at around 2008, fortunately, at least for the Shakespeare Theater, we had a little bit of a cushion because our subscribers and our donors had already given to us for that period.
YOUNGBut, in the next two years, we had to make adjustments to our schedule and our staffing. But while it was a downturn, it was something that we could look forward to and look forward through and make plans to recover from. There wasn't this unknown of, when do we come back to work, how many of us come back to work, how will this change our season and how we produce our upcoming season?
NNAMDIIt really is the uncertainty that is troubling a lot of people. We heard from Joy by email, who says: I'm a freelance French horn player who plays with many local orchestras including the National Symphony and Washington Opera. All of our work has been cancelled, all income lost. I'm hoping my summer festival in North Carolina will go on, but at this point, I and so many others are looking at months of no income. Joining us by phone is Busy Graham, the executive director of Carpe Diem Arts. Busy Graham, thank you for joining us.
BUSY GRAHAMThank you so much for having me, Kojo. It's a great honor.
NNAMDIThe honor's mine. Carpe Diem serves communities all over the region and employs several artists and musicians for community-based programs. What's the impact for them? Is it just like Joy just emailed us?
GRAHAMSo, we actually work with hundreds of both teaching and performing artists, and reach approximately 6,000 people a year. So, we are really active in our area communities, on many levels. And this is a topic I could expound on for hours just fueled by the countless reports from individual artists and arts organizations on the frontlines who are combating the impact of this virus crisis, which is definitely set to have devastating impact on artists and arts organizations.
GRAHAMMy greatest concern right now is for the individual artists, the freelancers, the so-called giggers who represent what we have come to call the gig economy. And this country has become more and more dependent on that gig economy. But, as you suggested, Kojo, at the beginning of this half hour, the arts are often the first and hardest to be hit and almost always the last to recover and to receive the benefit of relief funds. And that' particularly true of individual artists.
GRAHAMI got a message from Mike Noonan, from the Unified Jazz Ensemble, who wrote this week that the vast majority of artists are self-employed, have no employment insurance, cannot apply for unemployment benefits. And, as some people have realized, they have no paid leave, no sick days and all too often no resources or reserves to fall back on.
GRAHAMOne of our teaching artists texted me this past week, saying that without that paycheck for the residency that she's been doing with our afterschool program, Youth Art Beat, working with African immigrant refugee communities, she cannot pay for her baby formula. So, that really brings it home, as to what a dire situation we're facing here in terms of rescuing our artist community.
NNAMDIThere might be some forms of assistance. I'd like to go to the telephones. Here is Lissa Rosenthal-Yoffe. Go ahead, please. You're on the air.
LISSA ROSENTHAL YOFFEHi. Good afternoon, Kojo. Hi, everyone. I'm calling from the D.C. Arts and Humanities Education Collaborative. And we work with 120 cultural institutions, large and small, from Anacostia Playhouse to the Kennedy Center and others to get equitable access to arts funding opportunities for D.C. students and their families.
LISSA ROSENTHAL YOFFEAnd we actually have a distance learning database that's already populated with over 50 different options for folks to look at all of the amazing things that our cultural institutions do now while their doors are shuttered. And our biggest concern is equity in getting these opportunities out to kiddos, as well as the public programming for cultural institutions moving forward. That will be the first thing that will get decimated. So, we all have to think about what this looks like, moving ahead.
LISSA ROSENTHAL YOFFEWe're very concerned about teaching artists, because they are a part of that gig economy. And the distance learning database that's on the D.C. Collaborative website is probably the best resource to start. But we really need the help of our entire community, broadcasters such as yourself, to create more community dialogue around this, so that funders know that these are some of the first waves that are getting hit economically: public programming, educational programming and teaching artists.
NNAMDIThank you very much. I'm glad you mentioned teaching artists, because I'd like to go to Uncle Devin in Washington, D.C. Uncle Devin, you're on the air. Tell us who you are.
UNCLE DEVINOkay. Yeah, I'm Uncle Devin. I am the owner of “The Uncle Devin Show.” I am a teaching artist. And many of the organizations that you just mentioned, Wolf Trap, Carpe Diem, the D.C. Arts Council, I'm a member of. And what I like to focus on is the fact that, as an artist, I've been trying to really focus on the impact of not having appropriate music for children, is what I call music adult-tification.
UNCLE DEVINPrior to the shutdown, there were already very few places, on a regular basis, where children can listen to -- well, it won't be forced to listen to inappropriate adult music. It's even worse now. So, therefore, I have started an online radio station called I Am We Nation Radio. It's a 24/7 radio station that actually even focuses even more in the urban communities.
UNCLE DEVINBut also, I'm partnering with a local FM station to try to provide the first ever, that I know of, opportunity where children can listen over the air on FM station, music. And so, therefore, as artists, the whole system has really had an impact on all of us, and we have to be very innovative on how we do it.
NNAMDI(overlapping) I do understand that, Uncle Devin, and thank you very much for your call. Mikaela Lefrak, are there plans for local government to step in and offer some kind of financial relief?
LEFRAKYes and no. So, up until late Thursday afternoon last week, D.C.'s Arts Commission thought it was going to be able to vote on using excess funds in its budget for this emergency relief fund specifically for artists. But then the city's chief financial officer advised the commission's leader that it wasn't a good idea right now to make the fund. The Arts Commission basically gets its budget from a percentage of the city's sales tax. And who knows what's going to happen with sales tax revenue right now? So, they decided that they needed to hold off on making those new grants for artists available. They have said that any grants they’ve already committed to for artists are going to be upheld.
LEFRAKAnd then the other thing coming down the pike is the city's big relief package, which, I believe, will go into effect tomorrow. And that's going to provide grants for small businesses and people who are self-employed. So, that will include self-employed artists. And then lastly there's unemployment benefits for people who have been laid off from arts organizations.
LEFRAKBut my colleague Martin Austermuhle has reported that the city's, you know, of course seen an unprecedented spike in unemployment claims. And the website to file for unemployment benefits kept crashing last week and hold lines are insane. Same goes for Maryland and Virginia. So, it does seem like there are funds coming down the pike, but it is slower than a lot of people were excepting or hoping for.
NNAMDIHere's Drew in Rockville, Maryland. Drew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DREWHi. I just want to circle back talking about the gig economy in relationship to arts. Specifically, I work for Extraordinary Entertainment, and we gear to weddings, Bar mitzvahs, corporate events. And we typically often book our gigs two to three years in advance.
DREWSo, right now, we're, unlike a restaurant, where, you know, they can make their money pretty rapidly the next day, because, you know, people need to eat every day. People don't necessarily get married every day. So, I'm not sure where we're going to sit right now as far as how this is going to affect this in the future.
DREWOur company's been around for about five years, and we're weathering the storm so far, but, I mean, if people don't go out and start partying, then we're kind of stuck. And a lot of the violinists, lighting people, audio tech, we hire them out. I mean, we're part of that gig economy (unintelligible). In fact, I work at a lighting designer for them, but I have events, you know, all the rest of the year, that are in limbo.
DREWAnd, basically, I don't know if me nor any of my friends, work associates, this entire industry that we don't know how long we're going to be on pause, even more so than, let's say, restaurants and just regular way of life. We're looking at an additional year or two, at least. So, I don't know what's going to happen with that. So, just something to kind of think about.
DREWAnd even with things like the FAD loan, I mean, at the end of the day, it's a loan, something that we eventually have to pay back. And so we'd have to pay back something to try and keep it afloat for our situation, because we're not making money in the first place, putting us even further back. But, you know, also good luck to anybody else out there in the events industry. I mean, we're trying to weather it with you, and, as usual, the show must go on. So...
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. And, Jess, in Brentwood, Maryland, Jess we only have about a minute left, but go ahead, please.
JESSHi. Thanks, Kojo, for having me on the air. My name is...
NNAMDILike I said, we only have about a minute left, so you got to be quick.
JESSI wanted to offer a couple of ideas for individuals who are interested in supporting artists and musicians right now. Purchasing music directly from the musicians instead of streaming them on things like Spotify or Amazon would be great. Also, there are tons of artists that are putting up online shows on things like Facebook. But going ahead and participating in those shows, watching them and donating online are really great ways to help musicians that are just trying to be creative about how we can make a living right now.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much. And D.C. Girl tweets: I usually see at last one live concert each week. I'm particularly concerned about support staff, like sound crews, that work on an hourly basis. How can I help? Any suggestions, Chris Young? You've got about 30 seconds.
YOUNGEvery venue will have a donation page up, by this point. So, like, you mentioned the IMP Family Fund, the Shakespeare Theater has the Phoenix Fund. Find your favorite venue, and try to help that way.
NNAMDIThank you very much. Chris Young is the prop shop director for the Shakespeare Theater Company. Adele Robey's the executive director of the Anacostia Playhouse. Busy Graham is the executive director of Carpe Diem Arts. And Mikaela Lefrak, well, you know her. I don't have to tell you who she is. Yeah, well, she's the arts and culture reporter for WAMU and the host of "What's With Washington" podcast. Thank ou all for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thanks to Capitol Sound Track Project for providing the music that you heard in our breaks today. This segment on the toll the arts is taking during the COVID-19 pandemic was produced by Victoria Chamberlin. And our conversation about the digital divide during the Coronavirus pandemic was produced by Lauren Markoe.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, Black and Latino communities have historically been undercounted in the census. Will the coronavirus make it even worse, this year? Plus, how should we handle our anxiety and take care of our mental health during the pandemic? We'll hear from a psychologist about best practices, tele-therapy and more. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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