COVID-19’s cost to the arts

— Created March 18, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

The arts community is one of the earliest economic casualties of the Coronavirus pandemic. As stringent new guidelines were issued last week to restrict the size of gatherings, concerts, plays and stage productions around the country were forced to close.

Now, in the wake of Gov. Jay Inslee’s newest restrictions, even museums and art galleries have been told to close temporarily as the country wages battle on a scale most have never encountered. As in any battle, there are victims…and survivors.

The Whidbey Island Arts community had to start announcing cancellations last week – Saratoga Orchestra, Whidbey Island Center for the Arts, OutCast Productions, Whidbey Children’s Theatre and Whidbey Playhouse all postponed or cancelled concerts and productions. Monday, the Island County Historical Museum and the Pacific Northwest Art School in Coupeville announced their closings.

These closings will be costly, but already the arts community is coming together to support one another and to encourage the community at large to do the same.

“Under normal circumstances, our purpose is to produce, present, and support works and events that entertain, educate, and bring our community together,” said Verna Everitt, WICA’s executive director. “From the moment we made the decision to postpone or cancel programming, our focus shifted to: preparing for reopening later this season; decision-making that ensures we are good stewards of the resources we have at hand; supporting our staff and community partners; and exploring new ways to keep the community engaged in the arts as opportunities to do so in person become more limited.”

“This current disruption in our concert season has certainly had an impact not only for the organization but for the musicians individually,” said Larry Heidel, executive director of Whidbey’s Saratoga Orchestra. “Our musicians are contract workers and therefore patchwork their livelihood together with performing in several ensembles as well as teaching. With performance halls shut down and ‘social distancing’ being the norm these days, most of these performance and teaching jobs have vanished overnight.

“However, these challenges give us opportunities to think of creative solutions to bridge us until we can once again get on stage,” Heidel continued. “Luckily, Saratoga Orchestra has a few things going for us. We are a small and nimble arts organization with relatively little overhead, we have a wonderful patron base and a very committed board of directors.” 

Saratoga Orchestra has set up a virtual concert hall on its website,, to share pieces from past performances. The organization is asking all those who can donate to its Emergency Musician Fund that has been set up to help musicians who have lost jobs because of the Coronavirus restrictions.

Although the Island Shakespeare Festival has not been affected so far (rehearsals begin in June, with the season running from July to September), Artistic Director Olena Hodges said it is hard to know where to begin when considering all the economic impacts the closures from the COVID-19 pandemic could have.

“Cancelling even a single event in a season can have an impact on an arts organization,” she said. “Right now, we’re seeing an entire industry cancelling an entire month or more, unable to compensate the artists they employ, who now have nowhere to seek alternative employment in their profession because everything else is also shut down. 

“For many organizations, ticket sales from one event provide a financial foundation to produce the next,” continued Hodges. “Many production costs have been incurred before an event takes place, and recouping those costs isn’t possible, even though refunding ticket sales is required.” 

Hodges said there is an emotional toll on artists and audiences, as the shared experience “nourishes the soul.” Therefore, limiting access to these gatherings, while necessary, is still painful.

“We can’t predict when this pandemic will peak, and therefore can’t predict when we will be safe to gather again,” she said. “That unknown makes it very hard to plan how we will sustain through and after this crisis. We are all making day-to-day decisions and are doing our best to act responsibly and with care for our community. We also know many of the businesses who support the arts through sponsorship are hurting. This will impact future fundraising.”

“Roughly 45 percent of our budget comes from earned income that includes ticket, concessions, and bar sales,” said Everitt. “The rest of our income is generated through individual giving, grants, and contributions made by local businesses that are also beginning to feel the effects of the pandemic. We’re learning daily about the effects that arts and entertainment closures are having on local economies. WICA is the largest arts employer and organization in Island County, and our community understands a suspension of programming will have a big impact on the center’s – and county’s – financial health.”

Lisa Bernhardt, director of the Pacific Northwest Art School, said even though the nonprofit has had to close its doors for now, the school can survive for the short term.

“If this continues, it could be a whole different story,” she said. “This would potentially impact a faculty of over 35 and hundreds of students. We are a staff of two and potentially, I would have to lay off my one employee and myself as well. Worst case scenario, the school could close if we have to cancel our entire workshop season. We are working with our faculty, students, our local banker and our board of directors to weather this the best we can, to put contingencies in place.”

And this, say members of the arts community, is where the Whidbey Island community can help.

“We are encouraging the public to continue supporting our work,” said Rick Castellano, director of the Island County Historical Museum, in a statement released Monday. “Donations have never been more important. While we are not a publicly-owned business, we provide a service for the public benefit. Please know that our work continues, your support is greatly appreciated, and it makes a difference.”

“We operate mainly on donations and grants,” said Heidel. “Of course, with the uncertainty of how long we will be on hiatus, we do have operational bills every month that will begin to rack up, so donations of any size are most welcome.”

“In spite of our closure, and significant reductions in spending, there are expenses that will need to be paid,” Everitt said. “Donating tickets or making other gifts now will help us to come back from this hiatus wiser, stronger, and better than ever.”

“Please, if you have means, donate,” said Hodges. “Donate to any and/or all arts organizations you love. And when we can come together to celebrate humanity through art, please come. Funnel as much money as you can back into our local economy. Shop local. Order takeout.”

“Our businesses are transitioning to curbside, takeout and concierge services,” said Kay Parsons, executive director of Whidbey Island Arts Council. “Many of our children are receiving online classes. We ourselves are exploring ways we can continue a selection of free art classes online for children. Beth Herrild of Out of the Box Creations is creating basic art lessons online for children. Christine Maifeld is working on an idea for virtual tours of our closed galleries. We are exploring how to help our mail order arts businesses.” 

“We need beauty at this time of turmoil and art is healing…it’s a powerful tool,” Bernhardt said. “I anticipate, and it is my sincere wish, that once the social gathering ban is lifted, more folks will realize the need for art and beauty and buy art from local artists, sign up for classes and get out and visit galleries.”

“We as a community are working together,” Parsons said. “We will be impacted but we will work through this. I believe in all of us.” 

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