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Iowa arts presenters continue to ride the pandemic roller coaster as they build a new normal out of lessons learned in shutdowns that lasted from a few months to nearly two years.
But COVID-19 still is nipping at their heels.
“We continue to play onstage completely masked,” Orchestra Iowa Music Director Timothy Hankewich said in May. “Some people sometimes scoff at the orchestra for being masked onstage during times when (COVID-19 case) numbers are low. But I have to remind audiences that if one person gets infected, it could easily bring down the entire enterprise. The financial loss, let alone the artistic loss, would be extremely difficult to overcome.”
Administration and musicians had to make some last-minute adjustments for a May 7 pops concert in Cedar Rapids when conductor Hankewich tested positive for coronavirus just before the event.
“With a day’s notice, we had to scramble to find a replacement for me. That’s something that could easily scuttle a concert,” he said.
That’s been a huge cloud over the Broadway and touring show realm, of which the staff at Des Moines Performing Arts remains keenly aware. When touring shows returned to the Des Moines Civic Center and its satellite venues, beginning with the Tony-winning musical “The Band’s Visit” in October 2021, audiences were required to wear masks and show proof of vaccinations or a recent negative COVID-19 test.
That regulation has been relaxed for audiences, but not for personnel working behind the scenes as they moved into the summer season.
“We have very, very stringent protocols with our backstage people, because they’re coming in contact with the company,” said Jeff Chelesvig, president and chief executive officer of Des Moines Performing Arts.
That’s the umbrella organization for the 2,744-seat Des Moines Civic Center, the 200-seat black box Stoner Theater, the 299-seat Temple Theater and the outdoor Cowles Commons, all in downtown Des Moines.
The overall budget tends to run between $15 million and $25 million, depending on the number of “mega” shows such as “Hamilton,” “Wicked” or “The Lion King” in any given season. Broadway touring shows make up 70 percent to 80 percent of the organization’s revenue stream, Chelesvig said, with donations and grants primarily supporting other offerings like the dance series and family programming.
With no one touring during the pandemic, Paycheck Protection Program and Shuttered Venue Operators Grant funding helped keep Des Moines Performing Arts afloat during an 18-month shutdown.
“Those were a godsend,” Chelesvig said, “because they really helped to replace a portion of what we would have earned during that time when we were shut down. We never dreamed that we’d get something like that.
“It’s the first time that the federal government has really stepped in and offered some kind of relief to us. Not that we’ve ever really needed it in the past, but we were among the first to close and one of the last to reopen, so that was a godsend.
“I really can’t say enough how much we appreciated those kinds of things,” Chelesvig added, “because our donors were really great to hang in there with us, providing funds to keep us afloat, but we did have to lay off (employees). When it started, we made the tough decision to lay off people and everybody else got a salary cut. So it was a rough time for a while.”
Layoffs and salary cuts were common throughout the arts, and so many independent artists who depend on touring, performing and/or teaching to make a living were out of work.About
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This article is from Iowa Ideas magazine, published by The Gazette.
The staff at Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls were happy to create online and outdoor programming to give local out-of-work artists the chance to make some money. It also helped further the center’s educational mission, and brought the arts to communities and under-served neighborhoods.
The pandemic pause allowed the UNI center’s staff to dig into projects that hadn’t been fully explored, including a television studio that had been built “bit by bit,” said Steve Carignan, the UNI center’s executive director.
Now they had the time to hone their editing and livestreaming skills to produce educational pre- and post-show discussions for outreach learning experiences, as well as film and live-mix shows and add in animation with actors to bring stories to life for children. Carignan said the videos have proved more popular than the previous written study guides designed to help teachers prepare students for their arts experiences.
But video production skills require “a very distinct skill set,” he noted. “We had people that were equipment savvy, but shooting a couple dozen live concerts — the last one was a lot better than the first one. We got so much better as we went, and that was really important for us because we’re continuing that.
“We have streamed performances for our children’s (programming) that’s going to keep going because we can serve more people that way. During our COVID year, we served 75,000 children. Usually we serve only 45,000, but we picked up kids in Philadelphia, Toronto, Seattle, the Philippines — because people were looking for that kind of content. We want to keep providing that content.”
Another thing that’s changed, he added with a laugh, “is it turns out we like our neighbors. And there are plenty of communities that are under-represented in our spaces, or are economically unable to participate or have a limited participation. When we go to them, they can have an arts experience and have a relationship with us that they’ve never had before.”
Those continuing programs will reap reciprocal benefits in the short term and long term as they build arts knowledge, appreciation and current and future audiences.
“We also have this really fun relationship with regional artists now,” he said. “We pay them to do our outdoor stuff. We’ve started helping support our local music scene and have shows that work on different levels.”
Hoping for audiences’ return
Whereas arts presenters such as the Des Moines Performing Arts or Gallagher Bluedorn can go to New York for artist showcases that lead to bookings — oftentimes offering shows midweek as the artists or productions travel between major Midwest metropolitan areas — a much smaller venue such as the Ohnward Fine Arts Center in Maquoketa needs to find shows that can play there on the weekends, to capture out-of-town audiences.
The center, which includes the Drew Art Gallery and 841-seat Kopel Theatre, opened in December 2004. In the beginning, the center relied heavily on finding performers through the Arts Midwest talent showcases. Director Richard Hall, who came onboard 13 years ago, also has strong ties with artists in Branson, Mo., known for its many live theater and performance venues.
Des Moines Performing Arts — 2,744-seat Des Moines Civic Center, 200-seat black box Stoner Theater, 299-seat Temple Theater and the outdoor Cowles Commons, all in downtown Des Moines; $15 million to $25 million budget; 40 to 50 full-time, 400 part-time employees; desmoinesperformingarts.org
Gallagher Bluedorn Performing Arts Center — University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls; 1,680-seat Great Hall, flexible rehearsal/recital Davis Hall, Jebe Hall with a $500,000, 38-rank pipe organ; $3.5 million to $3.6 million budget; 10 employees, 120 student employees, separate ticketing staff; gbpac.com
Hancher — 191,977-squre-foot building includes a 1,800-seat theater; $4 million to $5 million budget for its 2020-21 season; approximately 20 full-time and 100 part-time employees; hancher.uiowa.edu
Ohnward Fine Arts Center, Maquoketa — 841-seat Kopel Theatre, Drew Art Gallery with 3,600-square-foot exhibition space; $200,000 budget; 1.5 employees, 75 volunteers; ohnwardfineartscenter.com
Orchestra Iowa — based at the 1,700-seat Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids and also performing in venues in Iowa City, Coralville and sites around the state; $3 million budget; seven full-time and seven part-time employees, plus musicians and volunteers; celebrating its 100th season in 2022-23; artsiowa.com/orchestra-iowa/
Sioux City Art Center — 45,000 square-foot museum and galleries, 11,000-square-foot Gilchrist Learning Center; $1.5 million budget; eight full-time and seven part time employees, plus a few hundred volunteers for annual ArtSplash event; siouxcityartcenter.org
Built entirely on private donations, the center is used heavily by the community for school plays, musicals and concerts, but also brings in tribute shows from Nashville, Branson and around the Midwest. The theater is “just about booked” through 2023, which gives artists “the opportunity to find other shows to do if they’re coming up here,“ Hall said.
He’s eager to return to pre-pandemic days and ways, crossing his fingers that artists and audiences will return in full force, as well.
With a slow rollout from the pandemic, audiences are starting to come back, he said, just in time for road construction around the center to make it look harder than it is to find the two driveways for entering and exiting.
Planners for Hancher, on the University of Iowa’s Iowa City campus, have had high hopes for its 50th anniversary program, which began in August. Its list of performers and shows include, among others, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, “Annie,” singer Patti LaBelle, dance theater troupe Pilobolus and, the final event of the 2022-23 season, American Ballet Theater on May 6.
“Hancher’s 50th anniversary season celebrates where we have been and starts to point the way forward,” Director Andre Perry told The Gazette in July.
Another relatively new facility is the Sioux Center Art Center, which opened in March 1997. Its roots, however, reach back to 1914 with the incorporation of the Arts Center Association of Sioux City and the opening of its first center in 1938.
A second capital campaign reached its goal with the opening of the adjacent Gilchrist Learning Center in September 2018, which freed up space within the Art Center for more storage and galleries.
The museum, which has 1,200 to 1,300 pieces in its permanent collection, also exhibited the University of Iowa’s crown jewel, Jackson Pollock’s “Mural,” from June 2014 to April 2015.
That was “a really giddy time for all of us here,” Director Todd Behrens recalled. Behrens began as the museum’s curator in 2009, then became director at the beginning of 2020, shepherding the facility and its programs through the pandemic.
The museum reopened in July 2020, but didn’t hold its first in-person reception until the end of May 2021.
“That was a relief,” Behrens said. “Through the summer, understandably, visitation was still pretty slow.”
But socially distanced classes and moving the popular ArtSplash family-oriented Labor Day festival to the Art Center’s grounds last year “helped us begin re-emerging from the doldrums,” he noted.
The 2021 festival brought in “just shy of 12,000 clicks,” and thousands of people back inside the center.
“It was probably the busiest weekend the building has ever seen, coming after the worst year the building has seen, and helped us start to get back to normal,” Behrens said.
All the presenters said they spent more time applying for grants and increasing online learning opportunities, which will continue going forward.
Orchestra Iowa is no stranger to finding a new normal, after flooding in 2008 nearly destroyed its home in the Paramount Theatre in downtown Cedar Rapids and roof damage during the 2020 derecho ruined the orchestra’s music library and damaged its offices, school and Opus Concert cafe adjacent to the Paramount.
“Surprisingly, the easiest part of the whole (pandemic) adventure” was getting audiences back in the seats for the 2021-22 season, from the September season opener on the front lawn of Brucemore mansion in southeast Cedar Rapids to the late May season-closing concerts at the Paramount and the Coralville Center for the Performing Arts.
“People were really hungry to come back to concerts,” Hankewich said. “We had gamed out two possible scenarios — a slow comeback, and the other was a spike in audience attendance, flatlining, then a decrease.
“Both scenarios were actually incorrect,” he said. “From our first concert on to our last concert, they’ve been very well attended.”
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