Philadelphia’s robust arts and culture scene is returning to center stage. Are audiences?
The shutdown of performances by the pandemic is ending. Whether audiences will follow is the critical question.
Ann Cohen was standing in the lobby of the Kimmel Center not long ago as a film was about to start in the Perelman Theater. Across the Kimmel plaza in Verizon Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra was warming up.
“Philadelphia’s getting back to being Philadelphia, where there are at least six things a night to choose from,” said Cohen, a frequent culture consumer from Roxborough.
Artists, actors, and musicians might be getting back to stages and galleries in the region after what has been, for many groups, a painfully long hiatus forced by the pandemic. But are audiences returning?
“The arts can really revive activity and life downtown, and every time we have hundreds or thousands of people at a performance it’s another indicator that we’re beginning to get over the shock to the system that is the pandemic,” says Matias Tarnopolsky, president and CEO of the parent company of the combined Kimmel Center and Philadelphia Orchestra.
Popular shows like Hamilton appear to retain the power to draw thousands per night. But other events are drawing well below capacity as many patrons mull the prospect of returning to theaters and concert halls with caution. As the pandemic wears on, the drop in ticket revenue is shrinking budgets of the area’s arts and culture sector, and many expect to run a deficit this season, a new study by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance shows.
At museums and galleries, the relationship between pandemic and visitation levels is somewhat different than it is with performance venues. Yes, attendance remains below pre-COVID levels — but not because of the unwillingness of visitors to turn out in large numbers. Rather, attendance figures are down at museums and galleries largely because of pandemic-related capacity limitations imposed by the institutions themselves and by the absence of school groups, which have yet to resume regular visits.
But adult visitors appear to be all in on attending exhibitions and museum shows.
“I think compared to our dark days forecasting in April of 2020, we feel like we’re in a much stronger position, certainly than we imagined we would be at this point, although who knew it was going to go on for so long?” said R. Scott Stephenson, president and chief executive of the Museum of the American Revolution.
For one thing, federal relief money (a total of about $3 million for this museum) plugged a huge lost-revenue gap, he said, allowing the institution, and many others, to survive lengthy lockdowns.
“The good news is that visitation really has rebounded since the summer and I’d say we are currently about 70 to 75% of pre-pandemic visitation,” Stephenson said. “What has not come back is our school visits, the group school visits. That was about maybe 25% of our visitation, pre-pandemic.”
A similar story is heard from many other institutions.
“I’m very optimistic about where we’re at and where we’re headed,” said Larry Dubinski, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute. “The visitors that we’ve had here, they’re universally just happy, positive. They’re glad to be back out experiencing things. They’re taking advantage of everything when they’re here. ... I have to say, it’s wonderful to see and it’s energizing. A perfect example is we’ve sold over 63,000 tickets for Harry Potter, which doesn’t open until February.
“I think that’s a really good indication of where people’s mind-sets are.”
The Philadelphia Museum of Art tells a similar story. “After a very modest start, recent attendance at the museum has been running at approximately 75% of pre-COVID levels and is trending upwards, in large part because of the great interest in three new exhibitions that are currently on display — Jasper Johns, Emma Amos, and Richard Benson,” said a museum spokesperson. “We are cautiously optimistic that this upward trend in attendance will continue.”
For performing-arts audiences, the calculation seems to be somewhat different.
“They are looking at this as a risk equation,” says Priscilla Luce, interim president and CEO at the Great Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “How much risk can I take to do something I really, really want to do? We’re starting to see those kinds of questions being asked, so maybe shows and performances that have big names or big titles or an important performer, those may find an audience more easily than more leading-edge work or newer work, where people might be saying, ‘I think I need to pass on this because I just don’t feel comfortable.’ That’s the equation we’ve been seeing since delta.”
“My impression is some of them are coming back and they are very enthusiastic to be there, and some folks just don’t feel ready,” says Leigh Goldenberg, managing director of the Wilma Theater.
“People are waiting longer to buy tickets,” says Christopher Gruits, executive and artistic director of Penn Live Arts.
Fall has meant a return of the arts, but layers of uncertainty remain. Most cultural groups received substantial federal pandemic aid to help make up for lost ticket revenue and bolster finances this season. Will more aid be available if needed? And what effect will news of the omicron variant have on potential audiences?
Like other groups, the Wilma had planned on smaller audiences this season. But some had planned for smaller audiences and still aren’t seeing those numbers. The Philadelphia Orchestra, for instance, budgeted for a concert hall 70% full but so far is averaging houses at just 50% of capacity.
The Wilma capped attendance at half of its 300 seats for its 22-performance October run of Minor Character and sold only 67% of those 150 seats.
Ballet X, which pre-COVID routinely sold out two-week runs, is selling just 70% of its available tickets, says company artistic and executive director Christine Cox.
“I have to be honest. I feel like we will be rebuilding audiences. People are hesitant to subscribe and I don’t blame them,” she says. “It’s going to take time.”
Critically, Philadelphia Ballet is about to test the waters. Its annual production of The Nutcracker runs Dec. 10-31, with expectations that the production will provide 60% of the company’s ticket revenue for the entire season. Ticket sales so far for the Tchaikovsky/Balanchine favorite are a little ahead of goal, and the hope is that last-minute decisions will buoy sales figures even more. “A lot of it is last-minute,” says executive director Shelly Power, “but we saw this trend of last-minute buying coming pre-pandemic and I think this [the pandemic] has accelerated that a little more.”
Audience attitudes brightened considerably during the spring and summer. In a survey by consultant Wolf Brown for the New Jersey Theatre Alliance (covering the Wilma and other Philadelphia-area theaters), only 16% of vaccinated respondents said in February that they were ready to return to in-person cultural events. By April, that number was up to 33%, in June 58%, August 43%, and October 52%.
Now, with omicron dominating headlines, attitudes seem likely to shift again.
“My suspicion is that it’s not going to help,” says GPCA’s Luce.
Visual-arts venues have generally fared better than performing-arts groups.
At the Mütter Museum, officials have put a 700-person-a-day cap on visitation, a number that is routinely hit now on weekends.
“There’s definitely a desire for people to come and visit,” said Julia Jordan, Mütter associate director of visitor services. “But we’re trying to maintain having a reasonable amount of people in the museum at one point or another. ... We do tend to sell out on the weekends, so people are eager to come.”
At the Franklin Institute, the lag in school-group attendance has held down overall numbers.
“We’re going to end the year with about a quarter of a million visitors,” said Dubinski. “I would say on the weekends we’re seeing visitation of about 50% of the pre COVID number. Some of our attendance challenge obviously is that, for the most part, school groups have not returned. And we’re rebuilding our membership program. I mean, pre-pandemic, we had over 30,000 member households. It went down to almost 9,000 member households. We’re continuing to build on that number.”
For the Franklin Institute, he said, development of vaccines for younger children has been extremely important.
“We’re starting to see that number pick up and build as well,” Dubinski said. “The message I keep telling people is Philadelphia is open for business. And from a science point of view, I really keep saying, you know, people need to get vaccinated for us to continue on this trajectory.”
In performing arts, shows with wide appeal appear to be doing well. The Kimmel on Thursday welcomed its 210,000th visitor since its official reopening Sept. 18, and its biggest name of the season did draw a crowd. Hamilton rolled into the Academy of Music for 48 performances from Oct. 20 to Nov. 28, and although a Kimmel spokesperson says an agreement with the show’s producers prohibits revealing sales figures, one recent Tuesday night in November filled the hall with an estimated 2,300 patrons of the nearly 2,400 tickets on sale.
Still, the pandemic has sapped the vitality of the arts and culture sector to an astonishing degree.
The budgets of Philadelphia arts and culture organizations have dropped by 26% so far during the pandemic, from a combined $1.17 billion in fiscal year 2019 to $866 million in 2021, according to a GPCA impact study released this month that took in responses from 138 Philadelphia-area groups. (By comparison, budgets shrank only 12% during the 2008 Great Recession.)
Even with their budgets slashed, more than a third of groups responding to the GPCA survey expected to post a deficit this year.
The biggest drop came in the category of earned revenue — typically ticket sales. Earned revenue dropped an average of 46%.
Many groups have been able to stay afloat this season with pandemic-relief financial assistance in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program or with a Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. With no such additional aid on the horizon, arts groups fear they will soon face serious questions about their viability.
“It does seem 2022 is going to be a moment when things are going to start to become clear as far as organizations feeling a huge impact and asking questions of whether they can go forward,” says GPCA’s Luce. “There is a question of sustainability of the sector we have. If earned revenue is reduced and foundation and corporate giving is at the max that it can be, then where is the support going to come from? Those are very real questions.”