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The Long Intermission

First the good news about Orange County’s art scene.

The biggest entities—from the Segerstrom Center for the Arts to the Laguna Playhouse to the Pacific Symphony—all say they expect to survive shutdowns forced by the coronavirus pandemic.

Now the bad: no one knows for sure when venues can reopen and start scheduling shows, which looks likely to be this fall if not next year. Nor is anyone certain how social distancing will affect their spaces and future revenue. They also worry if the audience will be too afraid to show up.

“Our entire business model has been turned upside down,” Pacific Symphony President John Forsyte told the Business Journal.

“This is undoubtedly one of the most challenging moments in the life of the Pacific Symphony. Unlike the Great Recession, here we have a situation where we cannot put on live performances.”

The world is no longer merely just a stage for Orange County’s once lively art scene, where many of the county’s top executives volunteer their time as directors.

Their annual revenue streams may be off by up to a third of what they originally budgeted, if not more. Their assets have fallen along with the general market. They don’t have a date for a potential reopening and layoffs have begun.

“By and large, a lot of the summer is lost,” Segerstrom Center for the Arts President Casey Reitz said. “I’m hopeful that we can open for our fall program.”

What follows are comments from six of the area’s better-known entities:

Segerstrom Center for the Arts

The Segerstrom Center’s last open day was March 12.

“When you’re in the business of bringing people in groups to experience a shared experience, this virus is the exact opposite,” Reitz said during an interview late last month.

About three-fourths of its $79 million annual budget is from ticket sales while the remainder is contributions.

The Segerstrom Center, which hasn’t laid off any employees yet, is losing about $1.5 million a month.

“We’re doing our best to support our staff and keep our staff whole and take care of them,” Reitz said.

“We’re doing everything we possibly can.”

The center is still running many online classes, particularly for local school districts and is providing videos of prior performances.

The center is facing difficulties on the timing of its top revenue generators, which are touring Broadway shows and international musical groups, many of which come from European nations that have been heavily hit such as Italy.

Reitz said he’s relying heavily on county and state officials to advise them on when the reopening may occur.

“We’re making assumptions—we’re probably one of the last types of business to come back,” he said.

“It’s terribly difficult to plan right now.”

A leading indicator may be the state of Georgia, which is opening non-essential businesses, said Reitz, who grew up in that state.

They are looking at social distancing such as using the center’s newest addition, the outdoor Argyros Plaza, where people can move around more freely.

Attendees from the same household could sit with each other, but with some degree of separation from the stage and others. Ushers and house managers need to wear masks and tickets will not be physically touched.

“It’s critically important that people feel safe before they come in,” he said.

Reitz is looking forward to the day when the arts can start again performing in Orange County.

“Since everybody’s been forced into isolation, people will be longing for the shared experience,” he said.

“It’s not just the audience, but the staff and artists.

“People will be reminded how much arts means to the community.”

Pacific Symphony

In recent years, the Pacific Symphony, which was founded in 1978, has been rising in the ranks of the top tier orchestras in America. It’s performed at New York City’s Carnegie Hall and at a nationally broadcast concert on PBS Great Performances and toured China.

It was just March 11 when Pacific Symphony hosted its most successful gala benefit, picking up $1.8 million in a 30-year salute to Music Director Carl St. Clair.

In the space of a few weeks, the increasing fame of a symphony that annually presents more than 100 concerts to 275,000 was halted in its tracks.

The Pacific Symphony, which had enjoyed 28 straight years of balanced budgets, is facing an income loss up to $2 million on its budget of approximately $21 million. Its endowment, which was a relatively small $22 million, has fallen to $18 million.

“I’m very confident we can survive,” Forsyte said. “We have highly supportive patron base. Many are renewing their subscriptions.”

It hasn’t had to lay off its estimated 140 employees, which include about 78 musicians, because East West Bank helped it obtained $2.1 million from the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), one of the few orchestras to get such funding.

It’s currently in “amicable conversations” with the union that represents the musicians.

“Everyone understands the difficulty of this current time when you cannot produce an event. Everyone understands this is a time of sacrifice,” Forsyte said.

It’s launching new initiatives online such as musicians creating online concerts from their living rooms and offering old performances from its radio and studio archives. It’s providing virtual classroom teachers.

He expects the opening to be a gradual process beginning with stage performances for online audiences. The audience may be introduced gradually such as shorter concerts with smaller audiences rotated through the house.

“I’d imagine guidelines that family households can sit together.”

He said it’s helpful when customers can donate their tickets back rather than demand refunds.

“It’s important for people who have an interest in the arts to know that their investments in subscriptions and events are a vote of confidence in the institutions,” Forsyte said. “We’re all focused on serving our community, a bringer of extraordinary beauty to the lives of people who need it.”

South Coast Repertory (SCR)

South Coast Repertory has never encountered a more difficult situation in its 56-year history.

“We’ve faced difficult situations before like the 2008 economic downturn or Sept. 11, 2001, but we were always able to continue performing,” Managing Director Paula Tomei said in an email.

“This is unprecedented in our lifetimes.”

It’s canceled five productions, its national showcase of new works at the Pacific Playwrights Festival and two student productions. It has cut its staff in half, letting go about 33 employees; it’s still covering their medical benefits.

“We made the heart-wrenching decision to furlough nearly half of our staff at the start of April,” she said.

A timeline to reopen hasn’t been decided.

“To be quite honest, we just don’t know,” Tomei said. “As infectious disease specialist Dr. Anthony Fauci has stated, COVID-19 is making the timeline for us.”

She’s not sure how social distancing will impact the theaters, such as whether couples will have to sit apart from one another.

In fiscal 2019, SCR had 10,129 subscribers and sold an additional 46,771 single tickets. Its budget was $10.9 million.

“As of now, we are anticipating a drop of about 25% in overall earned income this year,” she said.

“We estimate attendance will be down by at least 30%.”

Its fundraising has also been affected.

“Our most loyal individual supporters are sticking with us and agreeing to keep their contributions in the Annual Fund, even with canceling shows and programs,” she said.

“Some corporate support has been redirected to COVID-19 relief and others are still evaluating what’s possible with an eye towards June. We have reasons to hope that people will be there for us in the end.”

Orange County Museum of the Art (OCMA)

The Orange County Museum of the Art has probably had the most luck out of the biggest arts entities.

Just as the coronavirus pandemic hit, it was scheduled to close for a month for its transition from its third season to its fourth season at its temporary site in Santa Ana. It still cannot put together its upcoming show because art shipments are at a standstill.

It’s been able to keep most of its 10-person staff except for its front desk and security guards. It’s shifted to virtual programming.

The museum will probably be able to open sooner than other arts entities because it can regulate the flow of traffic, said Chief Executive Todd Smith.

“Our reopening date is uncertain,” Smith said. “We’re hopeful for the summer.”

It was able to complete the hiring a new director of development, Susan Totten, who was scheduled to start May 2.

Since it provides free admissions, it doesn’t rely on ticket sales. So this year’s $2.3 million budget, which comes from donations, is relatively unaffected. 

“We haven’t seen a significant hit to our bottom line,” Smith said. “We’re in a slightly better place than many arts organization.

“We will be able to survive.”

It’s also been able to continue construction on its new building next to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. It broke ground in September. The project will cost an estimated $73 million, for which almost $50 million has been raised to date, Smith said at the time of the groundbreaking.

“When those buildings can continue in bleak economic times, it’s a good endorsement for the community,” Smith said. “It’s an important moment for civic pride.”

Laguna Playhouse

Ellen Richard, a longtime veteran of New York City’s theater industry, has never seen anything like the current pandemic.

“9/11 felt like kindergarten compared to this,” the executive director of the Laguna Playhouse told the Business Journal.

“We’re trying to stay in the business of staying alive in every sense of the word.”

The uncertainty can be seen in the scheduling at the 400-seat theater.

It originally canceled its events until at least June with the goal of being back onstage by mid-July. In early April, it said that Hershey Felder’s Monsieur Chopin, originally slated for April, has been rescheduled to October. Even that later date might get pushed back.

“How long will it be before people are comfortable gathering in the dark, sitting shoulder to shoulder?” she said.

Richard, who has won six Tony awards as a producer, including Cabaret (1998) and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005), is studying national surveys to determine people’s comfort levels at attending events.

“It seems to be low—it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be performing this summer,” she said, saying the next play might not be until 2021.

“It’s not an optimistic picture.”

With the talk of social distancing, she wonders if the Laguna theater will be limited to only sell 25% of its 400 seats. “I know it wouldn’t work economically to sell 100 seats,” she said.

In mid-March, the Laguna Playhouse laid off 22, or about 60% of its staff, leaving a skeleton crew of about 15.

“What can you sustain when you’re not bringing in ticket sales? It’s a huge economic impact for us.”

The Laguna Playhouse had budgeted about $7 million for the fiscal year ending in June. She now expects about $5.5 million. Still, she expects the Laguna Playhouse to survive.

“We are absolutely going to be back in business when this is over.”

Fundraising has been “solid.” For support, she’s asking people to buy subscriptions.

“We normally sell a seven-play subscription. Buy those seven plays and whenever we come back live again, we’ll give you seven plays. We’re not going to cancel a play.

“That’s the single biggest thing for us—it’s knowing that we’ll have an audience when we come back.”

Pageant of the Masters

The Pageant of the Masters’ website last week said it’s still planning to hold its annual two-month event beginning July 8.

That is not a sure thing.

“If the current depressed pace of sales continues, we expect there will be insufficient revenue to support production of our summer programs,” David Perry, president of the parent Festival of Arts, said in a statement.

“We’ve been a part of a SoCal tradition since the early 1930s, and we are not prepared to throw down our paintbrushes without engaging in this outreach program.”

That outreach program includes asking for public donations because the Festival of Arts is faced with “unprecedented financial uncertainty.”

The pageant, which began in 1933, provides 85% of the annual budget of the Laguna Beach-based Festival of Arts.

This year’s theme, “Made in America,” features early 20th century impressionists and plein air painters who set up their easels outdoors to revel in natural beauty.

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Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan
Peter J. Brennan has been a journalist for 40 years. He spent a decade in Latin America covering wars, narcotic traffickers, earthquakes, and business. His resume includes 15 years at Bloomberg News where his headlines and articles sometimes moved the market caps of companies he covered by hundreds of millions of dollars. His articles have been published worldwide, including the New York Times and the Washington Post; he's appeared on CNN, CBC, BBC, and Bloomberg TV. He was awarded a Kiplinger Fellowship at The Ohio State University.
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