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The $4.1 billion question: What’s to become of Philadelphia’s world-class arts and culture, post-coronavirus?

The absence of the city’s cultural meccas is acutely felt by all, but nowhere is the pain of absence more keenly observed than at the arts organizations themselves.

Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the orchestra at the Kimmel Center in March with no audience in Verizon Hall
Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the orchestra at the Kimmel Center in March with no audience in Verizon HallRead moreTom Gralish / File Photograph

It’s been more than six weeks since Philadelphia shut down. Gone from a city of music are its concerts. Gone from a city defined by its artists are paintings and sculptures closed off from the public landscape. Gone from a city known for its movement are its dance performances and festivals.

The absence of the city’s cultural meccas is acutely felt — there are only so many movies and TV shows on Netflix the mind can withstand — but nowhere is the pain of absence more keenly observed than at the arts organizations themselves.

And with good reason. These institutions and organizations are hurting. For some, the coronavirus has brought on a kind of financial Armageddon. Tickets are not sold. Fund-raisers are not held. Programs are shut down. A $4.1 billion economic engine has ground to a halt.

The question is, can it be restarted, and if so, when and how? There are multiple answers to these questions, some of them grim. As Philadelphia’s cultural community scrambles for answers, we’ve asked several leaders to describe their thinking and their prospects.

Wilma Theater ushers in a new model

This time of year, the Wilma Theater would normally be selling subscriptions for next season. But not knowing when audiences might be able to physically gather again, the Wilma is sending aloft a trial-balloon successor to the old subscription model.

For $100, theatergoers can buy something called the WilmaPass, giving them access to four tickets to productions to be experienced either in person or, if they happen while audiences are still unable or unwilling to gather, virtually.

“That way we would be able to hold onto our folks who are committed and want to see the work happen,” says Leigh Goldenberg, the Wilma’s managing director.

“That price is lower than the subscription price,” she says, which translates into less revenue for the theater. But the Wilma considers maintaining contact with its fans a primary goal right now.

The coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the last production of the year, Is God Is by Aleshea Harris (which may be revived in a digital-only production), as well as jeopardizing rent from BalletX, which performs in the theater. Still, for its fiscal year ending July 31, the Wilma is not anticipating a deficit. It cut expenses by 20%, diverted money from specific productions to its overall budget, and tapped more quickly into funding set aside for future projects.

Since no one knows when live performances can begin again, the Wilma is preparing plans that follow different timelines. It is also considering putting on shows with a smaller, socially distanced live audience in the house — say, with only half of the 300 seats filled — plus a virtual audience watching at home.

“What are the risks audiences are willing to take? We are just starting to look at that,” says Goldenberg. “How does the performance still feel live in a way that theater does as opposed to film?”

All of these questions come as the theater begins to imagine how its artistic direction evolves beyond Blanka Zizka, who has been a guiding force for decades.

» READ MORE: Blanka Zizka adds James Ijames as her ‘co-artistic director’ at the Wilma, with two others

In February, the Wilma announced that Zizka would be joined by three co-directors: playwright/director James Ijames, Russian-born director Yury Urnov, and Morgan Green of the New Saloon Theater Co. in Brooklyn.

“The new artistic directors alongside Blanka are all interested in what it means not just for our company but also for how theater is shared and what that means for the entire model of regional theater,” says Goldenberg. “This feels like if there is a company that can envision a new paradigm, it could very well be us.”

A looming deficit for the Kimmel Center

In some ways, the city’s busiest performing arts entity was the most vulnerable financially to the shutdown. Since March 16, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts has canceled or rescheduled about 300 events. Instead of taking in a Broadway show or Beethoven symphony cycle, more than 100,000 patrons stayed home.

The effect has been devastating on finances at the Kimmel, which includes not just Verizon Hall and the Perelman, but also the Academy of Music and the Merriam. The center expects a $5 million deficit on a budget of $54 million for its fiscal year ending June 30. If the shutdown goes beyond July 1, that number will grow.

What was once touted as a great strength — its reliance on ticket sales ― now seems like an Achilles’ heel. Other arts groups can rely on the depth of a loyal donor base. The Kimmel can’t. Since opening in 2001, the arts center has shifted its revenue mix away from philanthropy and toward earned revenue. Its Broadway series, other commercial entertainment, and rentals pay for 93% of its budget, with the rest coming from donations.

Now, says Kimmel president and CEO Anne C. Ewers, corporate and philanthropic support has stalled. “What we are hearing from many corporations is they are worried about what will happen with their business and what will happen if there are no performances for them to sponsor,” she says.

That, of course, points to the great unknowable: When will audiences gather again?

» READ MORE: New fund sparked by William Penn Foundation will dole out millions to arts groups and artists in ‘severe financial straits’

The Kimmel is planning on several possible scenarios. The first envisions no audiences through June, the second no audiences through the beginning of September. A third scenario sees some concerts and activities from September through November, but expecting lower-than-usual audience turnout.

A fourth possibility is that performances won’t resume until January.

The most severe possibility is that the Kimmel would stay closed through the summer of 2021, and open only “if you believe a vaccine can be available by then,” says Ewers.

In the meantime, it has cut costs and pay for senior staff on a sliding scale between 10% and 20%. The Kimmel is also pushing for a change in state law to permit organizations to temporarily dip more deeply into their endowments for operating cash. It wants to raise the cap to 10% from the current 7%.

Much depends on making the right choices. The Kimmel is home to eight resident companies, including the Philadelphia Orchestra, Opera Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania Ballet, which the center charges rent to perform in its spaces.

“We know we’re going to be called on to [financially] support the resident companies to a greater degree than we already do,” says Ewers. “That is what we are just beginning to think about. How do we change things to respond to the new normal?”

Opera Philadelphia: When your cash cow slips away

Before the middle of March, Opera Philadelphia was gearing up for what was to have been its biggest-grossing opera of the season, Madame Butterfly. Proceeds from tickets and fund-raising tied to the opera would have helped the company break even for the year.

But Butterfly was scrapped, postponed until a later season. Like other performing arts groups, Opera Philadelphia does not know when it can host live audiences again.

In the meantime, Opera Philadelphia has unveiled plans for a “digital festival.” Five productions from previous seasons — including The Barber of Seville and Denis & Katya — will be streamed in a series of “digital premieres” in May.

But while a robust online presence may keep fans hooked and spur donations, no one expects it to fully replace ticket revenue.

The company has been buoyed by nearly $4 million in loans given in the form of Program Related Investments, a philanthropic tool in which charitable money is loaned rather than given outright. Sometimes the loans are forgiven, sometimes not.

“These were investments from four sources who really believed in what we were doing as far as moving the dial with artists and audiences,” says David B. Devan, the company’s general director and president. “All of these people want us to be a success.”

What shows Opera Philadelphia will put on becomes an increasingly critical question as the company faces its annual fall festival — its annual artistic statement concentrating a number of ambitious productions into a short span. This year’s iteration, O20, slated for Sept. 17-27, has been years in the planning.

Opera is always an act of faith. Now it seems so more than ever.

“We still have every intention until told otherwise to produce a festival in the fall,” says Devan. “We very much are trying to make sure that we are able to be part of rebuilding our community with music when that time come. And we think the festival is going to be an important part of that.”

Pennsylvania Ballet snaps back, for now

The dancers of Pennsylvania Ballet are back, in a sense. Laid off after the company’s run of La Bayadère was interrupted by the arrival of social distancing, the dancers are once again on payroll. They have eight weeks of employment through June 20, thanks to federal Paycheck Protection Program money.

Another windfall: Ballet board member Sarah J.M. Marshall has donated about 50 dance mats. All have been delivered to dancers’ homes, and while they aren’t big enough for some ballet moves — at five feet by six — they do allow for barre work, small jumps, and other work.

Pennsylvania Ballet artistic director Angel Corella “will run through some rehearsals with them where he sends videos for them to learn and will coach them," says Shelly Power, the company’s executive director.

The PPP funds have also allowed the ballet to bring back staff, to pay the orchestra for the May rehearsals and performances that aren’t happening, and to look ahead. They hope big draws like Cinderella in October and The Nutcracker in December can still happen.

“If we don’t have Nutcracker and Cinderella in the fall, it’ll affect our ability to maintain our full workforce and we’ll look different next season,” says Power. “We are talking about all kinds of potential budget scenarios.”

The company is still trying to assess the damage to this year’s balance sheet. “I’m not sure how the fiscal year will end. We lost about a million dollars of ticket revenue, and that was a huge hit,” says Power.

Like other companies, the ballet has made various plans for phasing back into performance, depending on the march of the pandemic and audience attitudes about returning.

That may mean gatherings that build gradually. One plan would have the ballet performing vignettes for audiences perhaps as small as 25.

And then there is the question of dancer proximity — in performance, rehearsal, and daily classes.

“With dancers, you’re sweating over each other. Is there a way to have groups of five in classes and rotate them throughout the day?” asks Power. “We won’t do it unless it’s safe.”

Philadelphia Orchestra: ‘Our life is scenario-planning right now.’

The most important thing is making sure you look after the people and the integrity of the ensemble and business, says Matias Tarnopolsky, Philadelphia Orchestra president and chief executive. That, plus “making sure we arrive into next year with a [cash] reserve, so this is a slope and not a cliff.”

The orchestra’s final performance as the coronavirus crisis set in was both hopeful and elegiac. It played to an empty house on March 12, delivering music virtually, the triumph of music over severe constraints.

The elegiac aspect is hard to ignore, though. The financial model of an orchestra is not unlike that of a department store or newspaper: It only works when people show up and pay, and lots of them.

Can they? And if they can, will they?

“Our life is scenario-planning right now,” says Tarnopolsky.

» READ MORE: Arts groups upset over Gov. Tom Wolf’s sudden move to freeze Pa. grant money

Will the orchestra’s usual summer of concerts at the Mann, Vail in Colorado, and Saratoga Springs, N.Y., pan out?

Tarnopolsky does not know.

The future of touring? “It’s too soon to tell.”

The orchestra takes heart that so many ticket holders have donated their tickets back to the orchestra, rather than request a refund — more than $1 million worth, he says. But it’s not as much a donation program as an exchange program. For each ticket donated back to the orchestra, patrons receive a voucher for a free ticket next season, so that means a certain amount of lost revenue later.

To open next season in a strong position, the orchestra figures it needs to raise another $5.5 million in donations by midyear.

“The fiscal year ends Aug. 31, but because we are already focused on next year we want to wrap up this year’s fund-raising. It is fund-raising for next year that is really critical, because we don’t know when we are going to be back on stage.”

It is not even clear what will be safe, for audiences or the closely spaced players of an orchestra.

Of this much, Tarnopolsky is certain:

“We need to get people back. There is going to be I hope a flowering of artistic output in person as soon as we can. We all need it.”

FringeArts: ‘Cash is king’

First to go was the High Pressure Fire Service, a series of new theater and performance works, which FringeArts had scheduled to present in April and May. It has been postponed.

Next big event to fall victim to the coronavirus shutdown: the Hand to Hand Circus Festival, set for the end of May into mid-June. It was called off just a week ago.

Now looming is FringeArts’ signature event, slated for the fall: the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, an ambitious monthlong festival unfolding across the city involving international artists and organizations and local groups and events, all presented by or affiliated with FringeArts, led by founder, Nick Stuccio.

» READ MORE: Philly actors, musicians, dancers can’t imagine when they’ll work again

What form will the Fringe Festival take during a global pandemic when artists have been unable to travel and producing theaters have been closed? Not surprisingly, that depends.

“We’re optimistic,” Stuccio said. “We’ll rally and we’ll reinvent and we’ll survive and we’ll thrive — despite this. That’s my feeling. I think for those who make theater and really rely on people coming into a room and sitting down and seeing something, they believe that in the near future, that need will be even more acute than ever. And they feel great about that. And this sucks in the short term.”

Still, virtual presentations in some form will undoubtedly play a big part in the festival, almost certainly for the September and October events presented by FringeArts itself. Stuccio is hoping that some form of physical performance in a space can make an appearance in the late stages of the festival, if not sooner.

But to get to that point, he needs to conserve cash and build it up. There have already been some staff furloughs in the wake of vanished revenue. The near future may see workers taking on new tasks, contract work may be radically reduced. Stuccio is hesitant to predict.

In April, the Fringe applied for — but did not receive — a $225,000 loan in the first round of loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program. It has reapplied. If the money materializes, eight weeks of salaries are taken care of. FringeArts is trying to scrape together six months of cash.

“We’re getting smaller,” Stuccio said. “Reducing our burn rate.”

“Cash,” he added, “is king.”

Franklin Institute: Bringing the visitors back

The coronavirus shutdown has blown a huge $5 million hole in the Franklin Institute’s budget — that is, if it is able to reopen by the end of June. If not, all bets are off.

“It's just surreal,” said Larry Dubinski, president and chief executive. “Just surreal.”

Closed since March 13, during the most robust revenue period of the fiscal year, the Franklin Institute has had its revenue driver — visitors — stripped away. While some big institutions may depend only minimally on the gate, the Franklin Institute, with an annual operating budget of roughly $35 million, is in a different league.

“In 2019, admission revenue was 35% of our total budget,” Dubinski said. Add in retail sales from the store, food service, parking, and theater admission, and visitors account directly for 43% of income.

Reopening is an imperative.

“I would say the planning of opening, obviously, is key for us and so we have multiple scenarios in place,” Dubinski said. “Obviously the later we open the worse it is. The lack of earned revenue is truly unprecedented and candidly just devastating.”

» HELP US REPORT: Are you a health care worker, medical provider, government worker, patient, frontline worker or other expert? We want to hear from you.

The institute felt compelled to move quickly in imposing layoffs after its March 13 closing. All part-time employees and 36 percent of full-time staffers were let go; 97 employees remain.

The museum now hopes to reopen July 1.

“We project our visitor rate [upon reopening] as beginning as low as 15% of what we had budgeted going in, starting on July 1," Dubinski said. That might rise to 50% of what had previously been budgeted for the months after that. “So we’ve taken this approach that it’s going to be a slow buildup.”

And what if it’s not safe to reopen in July? Or worse, another shutdown comes along after a reopening?

Over the short term, the institute can dip into a $2.9 million federal Paycheck Protection Program loan it recently garnered.

Longer term?

“We are hopeful that things will move along and that once we open, we’re able to stay open,” he said. “But we know that resurgence of the virus is possible and we would take the necessary action at that point. First and foremost we’re a science organization and we will follow what the data and what the commonwealth and the CDC and local officials are saying, as we go forward. So, you know, I can’t say it enough: safety.”

Mütter Museum: Timed entrances, and concern for the docents

Anna Dhody, curator at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, ventures into the shuttered museum on South 22nd Street about once a week these days to check on the skulls and tumors and specimens preserved in jars of formalin or formaldehyde. “They’re family,” she says. “We want to do right by them.”

So far the collection is in good shape.

“We’ve had 15 years of straight up growth,” said Dr. George M. Wohlreich, president and chief executive of the College of Physicians. “We closed the museum on Friday, the 13th of March. And unlike many of our peers, we’ve been able for two full months to keep everybody, full time and part time, fully employed at full salary.”

While that will change — salary reductions will kick in, for instance — other real problems loom large down the road. The Mütter’s diminutive physical space will not accommodate the large and growing number of visitors that poured in pre-pandemic — not with social distancing in place. That means some manner of timed tickets, and additional staff for crowd control.

“We will be struggling with how do you allow people into your environment in a safe manner, which I think will require stringent environmental control, which may require even greater staffing for fewer number of people, which will create its own financial imbalances,” said Wohlreich.

He pointed to another issue facing many institutions: the future role of volunteers, as docent guides and so on.

“Many of those people are elderly, however you define that word,” Wohlreich said. "How many elderly people are going to want to go into an art museum or a gallery or any type of museum and be a docent in this environment?”

The Mütter has also been planning an expansion within its historic building and less than a year ago announced a $25 million capital campaign to fund it.

Village of Arts and Humanities: Staying vital as a community hub

The Village of Arts and Humanities is what might be called a high-touch business. The combination arts center and community development corporation operates in North Philadelphia, matching artists and musicians with children and community members.

The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t changed what they do, but how they do it.

Rather than stressing face-to-face contacts, the center has found ways for artists and residents of the area to interact online. Recently, a film about redlining was posted on the web and discussed afterward in a Zoom call.

“All of that moved to the virtual space pretty successfully,” says Aviva Kapust, the Village’s executive director.

The center, at North 10th Street and Germantown Ave., has also become a distribution site for food, creator of an emergency fund for black artists, and a force behind an online campaign to free incarcerated youth across the country in light of the COVID-19 threat behind bars.

» READ MORE: Black artists already had less access to resources. An emergency fund aims to get them through the pandemic.

So far, the organization is navigating the crisis with a sense of urgency and its finances intact.

“It’s kind of unbelievable to say right now, but we are in pretty good shape, actually,” says Kapust. “It’s all relative. We’re never in as good shape as our endowed friends, but because of that, possibly, because of not operating from an endowment, we have a diverse revenue makeup.”

Which is not to say the Village isn’t vulnerable as government budgets shrink and philanthropy becomes strained.

“My plea to donors and funders is that right now is the time to double down on their investments,” says Kapust. “For those who were already focusing on the most serious societal issues, on the most vulnerable people, it’s not the time to leave organizations that are out there alone.”

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts: Studios minus students

Uncertainty bedevils the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Since a March shutdown, students at its art school have plugged into online classes but have no access to the bronze foundry, printmaking facilities, or even studios. Museumgoers are now museum viewers, looking at the academy’s collection online. When this will end is anyone’s guess, and there’s the rub.

“The financial impact of closing our campus is pretty dramatic,” said David Brigham, academy president and chief executive.

If the lockdown continues, and students are presented with virtual art school, will they accept it? Are they accepting it now as the current semester winds down?

“Our students have really shown some incredible fortitude and determination to continue working,” Brigham said. “And our faculty are reporting that they’re making some of their best work.

“They fully understand that we may be back in an online learning environment. And at least at this stage, our registration for the fall is actually running exactly or even slightly ahead of where it was last year.”

That said, there are courses that are almost impossible to adapt online. Metalworking, for instance. But the academy has told students that they will be able to use currently shuttered facilities at some point in the future, perhaps the summer.

A loan of $1.8 million from the federal Paycheck Protection Program is helping the academy retain its staff for the moment — at least to the start of the next fiscal year, July 1. “We know we’ve got a significant challenge over the summer, because there will be a lot of revenue that will not be flowing to us,” Brigham said. Rental income, problematic summer programs, retail and dining — all will vanish or be significantly reduced.

“And we also know that our expenses will increase faster than our income. So immediately, as soon as you start opening up the building, utility costs or security costs, or housekeeping costs, all those things will go up dramatically,” Brigham said. “We’re eager to open, but it does create new challenges.”

Philadelphia Museum of Art: Budgeting for uncertainty

The Art Museum closed on March 13. Since then, the neoclassical temple atop Fairmount has seemed an increasingly brooding presence. People gathered on the famous steps to watch the Blue Angels flyover last week. But the galleries, of course, were closed.

Signs of life have flickered from the construction girdling the building. Contractor LF Driscoll, who stopped work on March 13, received a waiver from Gov. Tom Wolf’s office to undertake a limited amount of cleanup and assessment of the museum’s critical “Core Project,” as officials call it, a complete $228 million reworking of the museum interior, designed by fabled architect Frank Gehry.

That work was supposed to be finished in September. That will not happen.

Museum officials said that there had been significant construction progress before the pandemic. A North Entrance with a vaulted walkway traversing the museum opened last fall and the new galleries were “very far along” at the time of the March shutdown. Now the museum is declining to set an opening date.

And there is the money issue, always the money issue. At this point, it is “too early to assess the impact of the pandemic on philanthropy,” said museum director and CEO Timothy Rub.

The Core Project was almost fully funded at the time of the shutdown, but “almost” for a $200-million-plus project represents more than pocket change.

The museum is putting its fund-raising focus on funding operations and the Core Project. No one knows how it is going to work.

The key date for the museum: July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year. If the museum is unable to open by that point, or operate only modestly, staff and operational decisions will have to be made to accommodate a severely reduced budget. Museum leaders are cautious in their public comments.

“Given evolving information on the COVID-19 pandemic, the uncertainty of its duration and the possibility of a second wave in the future, the museum is evaluating multiple timing scenarios for fully reopening to the public,” a museum spokesman said.

Asian Arts Initiative: Existential questions going forward

The Asian Arts Initiative, a multidisciplinary arts center that operates out of an old Warner Brothers screening building in the 1200 block of Vine Street, felt the impact of the coronavirus as soon as it hit the United States. As early as February, executive director Anne Ishii said, nearly half of the initiative’s after-school students — largely drawn from Chinatown — stopped showing up. They were fearful, she believes, of racial hostility in America fueled by the calamity overtaking China.

The situation has remained difficult.

All programs have ceased. Exhibitions are closed. When and how after-school programs, art workshops for the community, and performances begin again is a puzzle almost impossible to put together.

“We’re trying to come up with a budget for the next fiscal year, our fiscal year ends June 30, but it's impossible for us to see past September,” Ishii said.

It hasn’t helped that donor money has migrated to fund frontline responders to the epidemic.

“I think it comes down to the question of when everybody’s in like panic/triage/crisis/emergency mode, how do we continue to talk about art and culture in a way that feels meaningful, not contrived? It’s hard,” she said.

AAI’s operations are being clobbered. While a $150,000 loan from the Paycheck Protection Program will support the organization’s 15 artists and staffers for two months, what happens after that? About 20 percent of the initiative’s income has vanished for fiscal 2020.

But what about next fiscal year? Ishii believes the budget of about $1.8 million will most likely be halved.

Maintaining staff has become the key priority, she said, and no layoffs have occurred. There are available means of corralling cash — a modest endowment can be tapped, a mortgage-free building could be loan collateral. But the organization is nowhere near drawing on those resources at the moment.

She says the situation feels existential and her thinking is survivalist.

“We’re approaching this as — let’s just make sure we all get out of this, we being our staff and our constituents, the immediate artists we serve,” she said.

Rather than focus on fall exhibitions or programming, Ishii said, the initiative is concentrating on an even more basic issue — “what do artists need to continue to believe in the arts.”