By Heidi Waleson
How do you plan an orchestra season during a global pandemic, when planning is impossible? By having more than one script. As government agencies revise pandemic projections and health authorities issue new safety guidance, fixed plans are out, and flexible plans that outline multiple scenarios offering ways to move forward are in.
In late February 2020, American performing arts organizations were in the final months of their 2019-20 seasons, working on plans for future seasons and, in many cases, gearing up for fundraising galas. Then, in mid-March, the sudden total shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything, with performances cancelled, no ticket revenue, administrators working from home, and artists thrown out of work.
Any hopes that this would be a shortterm emergency were quickly dashed as the virus raged on; temporary stay-athome orders and prohibitions on large gatherings were extended for weeks, and then months. What began as a few postponed concerts gave way to the cancellation of the remainders of seasons and tours. Next came the cascade of summer cancellations; by mid-May, much of the U.S. summer festival scene was off. In the performing arts world as in so many other arenas, the extent of the catastrophe was unprecedented. A study from Southern Methodist University’s DataArts and the management consulting firm TRG, released in May, calculated that the average U.S. arts and culture nonprofit faces a 26 percent deficit as a result of the pandemic, and estimated the total loss in the sector at $6.8 billion.
Three months after the initial shutdown, with no clear end in sight, arts administrators have shifted their focus from managing the immediate emergency to considering how to move forward. Future planning in an environment where the picture shifts almost daily represents a strategic challenge that few, if any, managers have had to confront before.