Pandemic-Related Challenges Loom Large Over Those in Arts Sector

July 14, 2020 by Sara Wilkerson

Angie Benson, a freelance theatrical musician based in northern Virginia, minced no words about her beliefs during a recent conversation with The Well News.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, “the arts are essential,” she said. 

“Now more than ever,” she added.

Over the course of her career, Benson has worked as a music director, conductor and keyboardist for regional theatres and tours.

When the pandemic started in mid-March, she was serving as a rehearsal accompanist for the world premiere of the musical “Camille Claudel” at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, Va., by Tony-nominees Nan Knighton and Frank Wildhorn. 

Suddenly, the theatre postponed all performances and shuttered its doors to the public. 

“We were just two days shy of moving from the rehearsal hall to the actual theatre, in addition to having our first orchestra rehearsal,” Benson said.

“I remember many different feelings: sadness that the public wouldn’t see the piece for now, disappointment that we didn’t get to hear the orchestrations in full, gratefulness that the theatre was taking necessary precautions for our health and safety, and just plain shock that it was really happening,” she said.

“I don’t think any of us could have predicted how long this would last,” she added.

The ongoing pandemic and recent spike in coronavirus cases across the country has proven to be a monumental challenge to artists like Benson as more and more theaters and events are postponed for the foreseeable future and, in some cases, until next year.

Michael Benson, Angie Benson’s husband, told The Well News that his family has taken a “significant financial hit” due to the lost freelance work his wife had, however he said they have coped with the pandemic by giving each other emotional support and having weekly family “happy hours” on Fridays where they, “sit on the porch and talk about what we’re thinking and share things we’ve read throughout the day.”

Hard Times

According to a recent report from the nonprofit Americans for the Arts, nonprofit arts and cultural institutions have lost an estimated $9.1 billion since the onset of the pandemic.

A separate report from the same organization says 94% of artists have reported lost income and 62% of artists surveyed have become unemployed. On a national scale, artists are expected to lose $50.6 billion in income this year. 

Rachel Podber, who works at Universal Studios in Los Angeles, Calif., said the coronavirus outbreak put her in a double-bind – while Universal cut her hourly wages, her union continued to charge what she described as “extremely high union dues … even though we aren’t working.”

Podber said she has been receiving unemployment insurance benefits and that the benefits have “been a life saver.” 

But she also expressed anxiety about what will happen when the $600 unemployment bonus in the federal relief package expires at the end of the month.

“It’s going to be more of a struggle,” she said.

Podber continued, “The $600 stimulus bonus for unemployment needs to be extended, or the housing and financial crisis will reach new heights next month.” 

Adapting to Sudden Change 

Erick Boscana, a 2020 graduate of the University of Mary Washington, was still in the midst of scenic design classes when the university informed students facilities were being closed and they had to continue their classes remotely.

“For most of us, adapting to that new reality was impossible,” Boscana said.

“The shutdown placed the [UMW Theatre and Dance] Department in a very precarious position academically because for many of the seniors, their senior project hinged on either a completed performance in ‘Much Ado’ [the spring semester play] or an executed design.” 

Boscana continues, “Fortunately, they were able to organize a Zoom format for an abridged production of ‘Much Ado,’ allowing the actors to showcase the work they had spen[t] the past three months on and the department created a video featuring the work we had already completed.” 

The students at the university weren’t the only ones adapting to uncharted territory.

Michael Benson, an assistant professor in the UMW Theatre and Dance Department, said his initial reaction to having to teach remotely was to ask himself what it was going to take to adjust to the new situation.

“Frankly, most of my energy was funneled to migrating my classes online,” said Benson.

To improve his ability to teach in the remote environment, Benson learned new software and technology, one byproduct being a set of online lectures for his technical production class. 

He goes on to joke that for his scene painting class, he “devised modality of instruction that resembled ‘The Joy of Painting’, sans the cool hair.” 

Benson says as a result of all these adaptations, he “gained a new and healthy respect for instructors who regularly teach online.” 

The need to adapt also manifested itself in the film exhibition business. 

Scotta Magnelli, Executive Director of the Campus Theater, a 501c3 non-profit art deco, single screen cinema in Lewisburg, Pa., says that the Campus Theater pivoted to showcasing independent films for rent on their website after the theater closed on March 13.

Magnelli describes having success as well with the Campus Theater’s virtual independent film screenings, saying that, “As a small, community theatre, we have tremendous support from our local and regional patrons.” 

Magnelli predicts that the pandemic “will have far reaching, long term effects on our [film exhibition] industry, and that it will surely result in some studios, distributors, and theatres closing and/or reevaluating their mission and business models.” 

Michael Benson believes economic recovery for the arts will take time and that the pandemic “was destined to be a bad situation for everyone, but this is especially hard on the smaller, younger arts organizations.” 

Until the pandemic lessens its impact on the arts and the world at large, those in the arts sector will continue to miss the social aspect of their profession. 

Jennifer Keller, a programming and events coordinator at the Westport Library in Connecticut, says she misses “seeing our ‘regulars’” at the library’s events.

Podber echoed Keller’s sentiments by stating, “I miss seeing my coworkers, interacting with customers, and having more of a stable routine for my day to day life.”

For the arts industry as a whole, Boscana urges others to value the arts’ contribution to society.

“Saying you love the arts then refusing to fund them and allow them to be inclusive and divergent is just as good as doing nothing at all.

“The arts and culture are what make a nation great and without them, the nation loses its soul.” 

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