As the performers take their final bow on Theater Lawrence’s outdoor stage, car horns of different pitches and lengths replace the usual symphony of applause following each production.
In order to adapt to social distancing restrictions, organizations like Theater Lawrence are doing whatever it takes to keep attendance high — including migrating outdoors.
However, the arts and culture industry in Lawrence is still suffering from an economic fallout due to the COVID-19 pandemic that is mirrored across the country.
“I hope you all stuck it out through the eight minutes of credits at the end of ‘Hamilton,’” said Mary Doveton, chief executive of Theater Lawrence, to the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission. “The sobering fact is that all those people listed there are probably unemployed right now.”
Theater Lawrence has lost around $300,000 of this year’s anticipated income, Doveton said. Additionally, the Arts Center lost $500,000, and the Watkins Museum of History lost around $150,000 respective CEOs Margaret Morris and Steve Nowak said. These numbers are a combination of layoffs and furloughs, as well as a steady decrease in revenue.
$8.4 billion disappeared in the industry since July and approximately 120,000 employees in the country have been furloughed or laid off, according to Americans for the Arts.
“The social distancing practice that is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 has really gutted the field,” said Margaret Morris, chief executive officer of the Lawrence Arts Center.
In a virtual meeting with the Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission, Morris presented numbers of the pandemic’s personal effects on the arts center which included a decline in attendance and loss of permanent employees.
Nationally, overall attendance to any arts or culture event has dropped to 88 million less than the average with 96% of organizations canceled, according to Americans for the Arts.
Government funding provides little hope for Kansas due to this period’s results. Steve Nowak, chief executive of the Watkins Museum, shared Douglas County’s results from this period’s NEH’s round of grants – the $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
The government had $40.3 million to give to 312 organizations in the country in early June. Kansas received $226,495, approximately 5% of the funding, Nowak said. The amount was distributed evenly between two organizations in Douglas County: the Spencer Museum of Arts and the Watkins Museum of History.
“Getting that NEH grant has very much changed our financial outlook,” Nowak said.
Yet, no amount of federal aid can boost attendance rates previously seen before the pandemic. Doveton said in her presentation that fear is attributed to what keeps away people from attending the socially-distant events. However, she said that fear should not hold people back from potentially saving the industry from an economic blackout.
“Somehow those of us in the arts, connected with the arts, who care about the arts, have to find a way forward,” Doveton said.
The industry is learning to adapt by offering socially distant alternatives to their productions and events. The Arts Center hosts Virtual School of Dance and gave their annual Benefit Art Auction Exhibition a virtual platform this year. Theater Lawrence constructed an outdoor stage for their productions where attendees watch in the comfort of their vehicles, applauding with their car horns.
When the weather retaliates and drops in temperature, Theater Lawrence plans to move their productions back indoors with proper precautions in place. Only 96 seats of the 300 in their auditorium will be filled later this year, according to Theatre Lawrence.
The community is also heeding the industry’s call to action. The Lawrence Cultural Arts Commission brainstormed a plethora of city-wide art projects that successfully combines social distancing and the arts. In their July meeting, the commission pitched an idea called “yarn bombing,” a method of street art that uses knitted or crocheted yarn over paint or chalk.
“We are eager to share this with the community,” Doveton said.