Pandemic takes unique toll on arts and culture venues

Posted on Dec 31, 2020 :: Insight Insider
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated organizations and businesses of all kinds. Many, from nonprofits to restaurants, have found creative new ways to serve people, but when the mission of your organization is to deliver shared live experiences, the pivot isn’t so easy.

Maria Van Laanen, president of the Fox Cities Performing Arts Center in Appleton, says venues like hers were among the first businesses to close down and will likely be some of the last to open. The PAC will need to wait for larger indoor gatherings to become safe again, and the answer to when that will be remains murky.

“We’ve been very focused on making sure that priority remains on keeping everybody healthy and safe, from our staff, the volunteers, the artists, and of course our community,” she says.

Pam Seidl, executive director of the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau, says while parts of the state with many outdoor recreational offerings saw strong tourism seasons, places like the Fox Cities that rely on events such as the PAC shows, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers games and Mile of Music have struggled.

“As we’ve watched the tourism industry in the Fox Cities, we’ve really had the perfect storm. We’ve really had so much damage to the local tourism industry,” she says.

The damage in the Fox Cities includes over $11 million in lost visitor spending since March and a 55 percent decrease in hotel and motel room taxes compared to 2019. Hotels and restaurants are operating but at diminished levels, and national researchers project it will be 2024 before tourism spending gets back on par with 2019 numbers, Seidl says.

To help organizations that have lost revenue due to canceled events, the FCCVB created the Tourism Asset Emergency Grant program, with a total of $200,000 in funds available to tourism-generating organizations and venues affected by the pandemic. Seidl says she knows it won’t save organizations, but it will help bridge the gap. 

In addition to grants like the FCCVB’s, the Wisconsin Department of Administration provided funding to struggling organizations. The COVID-19 Live Music and Entertainment Venue Grant program handed out a total of $15 million to 96 venues, and the COVID-19 Cultural Organization Grant program provided a total of $15 million to 385 cultural organizations.

Van Laanen says going after grant funding has become a major focus for the PAC, and the good news is that new opportunities become available almost daily. At the same time, no one funding source, whether grants or money from donors, will be enough on its own to keep venues like the PAC whole through the crisis. All of the pieces need to come together, she says.

“We’re really counting on the community to continue to support us in this interim so we can come back just as strong and vital as ever. So far, the community has been incredibly understanding, patient and generous,” Van Laanen says.

Northern Sky Theater in Door County was poised for a big season when the pandemic hit. A successful capital campaign allowed it to open its new Creative Center in Fish Creek in August 2019. It enjoyed record-breaking attendance at its first-ever world premiere in the Gould Theater. 

Among the economic fallout for the theater was an operating budget reduction from $2.1 million to $787,000 and the loss of more than $1.5 million in projected earned event and programming revenue. 

“Our first priority is to manage our response to the pandemic with a commitment to long-term financial resiliency and sustainability. We’ve been well served thus far by focusing and planning on worst-case financial scenarios and will maintain that tough vigilance until circumstances dictate more optimism,” says Holly Feldman, director of development and public relations for Northern Sky.

Katy Glodosky, executive director of the Stefanie H. Weill Center for the Performing Arts in Sheboygan, says her 1,150-seat venue also planned for a busy, successful season before the pandemic hit. The center is fortunate to have cash reserves to keep it going and received funds through both Wisconsin DOA grants.

“It’s difficult because in times of crisis, people turn to basic needs, and they should. Then again, people are going to need the arts after this. I think we’ve done a good job making sure that funding and services are available,” Glodosky says.

Act 2

The Fox Cities PAC, Northern Sky and Weill Center all have created virtual offerings to keep audiences engaged and, in some cases, generate some revenue. 

In addition to offering the weekly virtual “Show Must Go on Show,” the PAC is continuing its educational outreach virtually, including its Center Stage high school theater program, Amcor Education Series for K-12 students and programming available for educators and parents.

Northern Sky created a “Raise the Curtain” virtual event that offered a link to show highlights from the last 10 years and an artist marketplace. Over 400 households engaged with the reimagined event and the venue more than doubled its fundraising dollars from previous years. 

The Weill Center offered several virtual holiday shows and has been streaming some symphony performances from the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra and offering a Backstage Pass Series, which spotlights emerging artists. 

Van Laanen says the path to reopening remains unclear — the PAC had planned to open in January but had to push back its reopening until at least spring. Now that vaccines are getting rolled out, the next steps will be figuring out how to operate until large groups can safely gather again, which could take some time.

The good news is that communication remains strong between the industry, health care professionals, epidemiologists and the government, Van Laanen says. But while she anticipates pent-up demand for live theater experiences, she also says it may take time for some people to feel comfortable gathering again.

“That scenario of what reopening looks like is going to continue to evolve as long as the timeline keeps moving,” she says. 

On the web

To see virtual programming options or to donate to keep the lights on at these venues, visit: