Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, theaters and other performing arts organizations were working to reimagine their business models.
Just as was felt during the Great Recession, the pandemic both highlighted and exacerbated the many challenges they face, such as aging audiences, changing tastes, competition from in-home streaming services, increases in rent, decreased availability of funding for arts and culture in our region, and more. Baltimore’s Single Carrot Theater, which recently ceased operations, details the struggle of addressing these obstacles in their impact report.
The business model for nonprofits is challenging. Arts administration expert Michael Kaiser pointed out that nonprofit theaters can’t indefinitely raise prices as costs go up, or they would quickly become unaffordable to everyone. For arts organizations, costs continue to rise, but there is no possible model for recouping all expenses through ticket sales at a price that audiences would or could continue to attend. This is a crisis long in the making.
So, what are theaters doing? Unfortunately, some are closing or severely curbing operations by cutting the number of shows in a season. In New York City, The Public Theater just announced it’s cutting 19% of its staff. Others are collaborating and consolidating, and some, like The Long Wharf, are after 55 years of operation, shedding their homes and becoming nomadic.
In Baltimore, a city known for its abundance of affordable and available space, things are also changing. Smaller, young, experimental theaters are finding it difficult to secure reasonably priced locations suited for rehearsals and performances. Larger theaters with homes of their own must cover their fixed costs.
It’s time, as the Mayor’s Transition Team on Arts and Culture recommended, to revisit the 2017 report on Safe Arts Space, and to build the political and financial will to address the fundamental improvements that would reduce bureaucratic roadblocks, while safely improving and hastening access to the incredible stock of commercial properties in Baltimore. In addition to helping arts organizations, it would improve the challenges faced by many other small businesses that the city values and wishes to attract.
Happily, some new spaces such as the reimagined M&T Bank Pavillion planned for The France Merrick Center for the Performing Arts, are being designed as a space for the community. To quote Wally Pinkard, Chairman of the Hippodrome Foundation, "This new space will allow the Foundation to provide even more educational programming and diverse arts presentations while offering an accessible, more affordable rental space for smaller cultural organizations." New community-based spaces are also being imagined at The Harlem Theater and The Ambassador Theater.
In other good news, The Maryland State Legislature authorized $3 million in new funding for capital grants to organizations with an operating budget under $3 million. These grants, administered through the Maryland State Arts Council, may be awarded for the acquisition, expansion, renovation, or major repairs to a facility or other infrastructure that is operated by an eligible recipient. For any fiscal year, an organization may not receive a grant of more than $1 million for a single project. This means that smaller organizations with limited advocacy capacity can more easily and equitably secure funding.
There is much work left to be done!