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Survey shows COVID-19 is hitting Philadelphia’s cultural nonprofits ‘like a brick wall’

By the end of April, cultural organizations and workers estimate at least $43 million in lost revenue.

A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus makes a photograph of the Rocky statue outfitted with mock surgical face mask at the Philadelphia Art Museum on Tuesday.
A person wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the coronavirus makes a photograph of the Rocky statue outfitted with mock surgical face mask at the Philadelphia Art Museum on Tuesday.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Philadelphia arts and cultural organizations, struggling with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, are facing a loss of more than $43 million by the end of April thanks to closures, canceled events, or even the inability to get into studios, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Philadelphia Office of Arts, Culture, and the Creative Economy.

The survey shows:

  1. At least 2,257 events have been canceled through April 30, accounting for an estimated 879,366 in lost audience members.

  2. As of April 10, 45% of arts organizations have canceled or rescheduled programs and events, 15% have canceled fund-raisers, and 16% have reduced salaries or cut staff.

  3. Nearly 850 responding artists and organization employees reported that they anticipated losing a total of 12,786 workdays through the end of April, for a cumulative financial loss of more than $5.5 million.

Respondents included 741 artists, 269 representatives of organizations, and 94 employees of arts groups. The survey was conducted from March 25, three days after Mayor Jim Kenney’s first stay-at-home directive, to April 10. Gov. Tom Wolf first ordered regional residents to stay at home March 23; he extended the order statewide April 1.

The numbers, said Kelly Lee, the city’s chief cultural officer, “are bad.” But she believes they are even worse because many organizations submitted their responses before the end of March, before the extension of shutdown orders.

“The majority of the losses are being reported by organizations with budgets below $250,000 and by individual artists,” she said. “A revenue loss of $1,000 or $2,500 would be significant to small arts organizations and individual artists.”

Total anticipated revenue figures, she said, are not available.

The numbers are sobering. The survey notes that 37% of responding artists reported cancellations of appearances. An additional 21% said reduction or elimination of studio time and inability to sell work contributed to their financial loss.

“We expect that these numbers will be higher when we survey arts organizations again and they have the data to report actual impacts as opposed to estimates,” Lee said. That survey will likely take place next month.

A slightly different survey conducted by the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance of its member arts organizations, cultural institutions, community groups, and educational groups suggests Lee is right to be concerned.

The GPCA survey, released April 1, contained 120 responses and reported that 60% of organizations had shut down entirely, 92% had canceled performances and events; 63% were unable to deliver community programs or arts services; and 47% could not continue educational programs, hold rehearsals, or prepare for future programs.

“This is really hitting the arts community like a brick wall,” said Maud Lyon, GPCA president. Not only have museums and other institutions been forced to shut down, but hundreds of “artists and cultural workers have lost employment,” she noted.

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A 2017 GPCA study estimated that the cultural sector generates $4.1 billion in annual economic activity in the Philadelphia region.

Compounding the problems for struggling cultural organizations and workers, Lee said, is the inability to plan in a time of overwhelming uncertainty. Planning for a shutdown that continues into July or one that continues into the fall requires organizations to do things differently now, she said.

“What happens afterwards?” Lee asked, referring to the pandemic. "How quickly? Will people feel comfortable coming out again and gathering in large groups? How does this impact the opening of the new American gallery [at the Philadelphia Museum of Art] that they have been working toward for a year? How does this delay it?

'When you’re talking to the Mann Music Center, and summer is their only season, you know they can’t make up for it in the fall, or in the spring, they don’t have a season then, so they may lose an entire operation. And how does that impact their ability to contract?"

And that doesn’t even begin to address the uncertainties facing individual artists.

“During the best of times, many artists are financially unstable," one unnamed artist quoted in the arts and culture office survey said. "For example, many artists make most of their annual income through concentrated gigs and have to stretch that money throughout the year. Any minor disruption to this cycle can have devastating results for an individual artist.”