How four of the city’s arts institutions have weathered—and survived—COVID challenges
Arts Garage President Marjorie Waldo has seen firsthand the positive impact of arts and culture. “Art and music really matter to a lot of people,” she says. “They bridge segments of a community. They bring people together in a common language that erases the things that divide us.”
Their absence has been palpable during the coronavirus pandemic and its many months of shuttered cultural nonprofits. Arts Garage has been something of a microcosm for the crises faced by most performing-arts venues: taking one day at a time, rapidly adapting to virtual programming while facing nearly existential setbacks, only to receive sorely needed federal largesse in the nick of time, when funding through the Paycheck Protection Program came through last spring.
But the economic toll borne by the organization has been seismic. At the height of lockdown, Arts Garage was forced to lay off 10 of its 24 employees and reduce others’ hours to part-time. “For me, one of the biggest burdens as the leader of the organization is knowing the impact my decisions have on the people who work for us,” Waldo says. “You have to do what’s right for the organization, but it’s a harsh reality for the people who work for you.”
And yet Arts Garage has been at the forefront of spreading positive vibes through its online platforms. Early in the pandemic, Waldo and her team launched the “From our heARTs to your home” series, featuring local talent performing on its stages and streamed on YouTube, all of the performers donating their time.
“The generosity of our artists who came and presented their art form on the stage for us—the visual artists, dancers, comedians—blew my mind,” Waldo says. “We were so humbled by everyone’s willingness to come together. The best they got out of it was a video they could use to book future gigs. … I will find a way to book these artists, and pay them for their craft.”
The venue’s Grassroots Gallery also opened its walls to artists who created new work during quarantine and, later, who debuted work related to racial justice and police brutality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd; these virtual galleries were “open” 24/7 even when spectators couldn’t visit them in person.
Arts Garage resumed live concerts in September, in addition to live-streaming them for a lower ticket price, but audiences have been slow to return: On a good night, 30 attendees might show up, and Waldo has rehired only a handful of employees.
“It makes sense that people are wary [about returning],” she says. “We understand people are concerned, and we’re excited about this damn vaccine.” Waldo is fighting, at this point, simply to break even. “Our gross revenues in August and September combined equaled one bad day in season,” she says.
“When you buy a live stream ticket, you’re helping save the arts,” she adds. “Everybody knows that live music is absolutely the best experience. But it’s not something that can easily be attained right now for most of us. That live stream helps keeps the doors open at their favorite places.
“We’re determined to make it, come hell or high water. Arts Garage will be standing at the end. It’s important that now, more than ever, supporters come out of the woodwork.”
Arts Warehouse was on a roll when COVID came barreling in like a silent hurricane. “It all happened really quickly,” recalls Grace Gdaniec, manager of the CRA-run arts incubator. “I remember we had a really awesome First Friday Art Walk on March 6 , with great turnout. We had a couple hundred people here. And I was really happy with the momentum we were gaining. That was our goal entering into 2020: visibility.
“The next week, we had an emergency staff meeting, and the mayor came, who was also our board chair. … That was probably the 16th, and then the next day, it was decided we would be closing down. I didn’t know, as far as Arts Warehouse goes, what that was going to look like. At that time, we didn’t know if it was two weeks, two months … now we know it ended up being a lot longer than we were expecting.”
Arts Warehouse would not reopen until November. In that seven-month interval, the venue, which operates with a staff of two, had to reinvent itself as a virtual space in order to assist both patrons and the local artists whose exhibition received only a 10-day run before the closure. Gdaniec, who still came into the office every day, shot professional images of the work and uploaded the show to the Web as a virtual exhibit. Next, she helped ensure that Arts Warehouse’s resident artists, who relied on foot traffic to boost sales, had the digital exposure they needed by creating Resident Artist galleries on the website.
“That kick-started thinking in a more virtual realm in the beginning,” Gdaniec says; she would increase the group’s online videos, virtual workshops and Instagram presence over the summer and fall. “I felt busier than ever over those months, even though we were closed. I think creating an online presence takes up more time than just visiting with people in person.”
In late October, the CRA opted for a “gentle” reopening, timed for the return of Delray’s First Friday Art Walk on Nov. 6. Gdaniec hustled to install two new exhibitions in the galleries, while opening on a pared-down, three-day-a-week schedule, and at 40 percent of its usual capacity. With its free admission, Arts Warehouse has never relied on ticket sales to survive, and so took less of a hit than some of its peers in the arts world. Gdaniec is grateful to have never been furloughed, and to once again be welcoming visitors.
“I think the want has always been there,” she says. “We’re slowly getting that momentum again, getting into people’s minds that we’re open again, as safe as we can be. As of now, we have a few visitors that come in throughout the day, which is a win in my book; even one person a day is great.”
Back to the Boards
The Delray Beach Playhouse is not only the oldest theater in South Florida, with more than 70 years of history; it’s also one of the region’s most prolific, with a year-round calendar of some 200 performances. It was in the midst of high season last March when everything on its docket suddenly had to be canceled.
“Once we had to shut down, we literally spent the next two months on the phones, talking to all of our customers, canceling shows and re-booking folks,” recalls Executive Director Kevin Barrett. “And that required a lot of labor, a lot of staff time. Once everything seemed to reverse itself as far as restrictions, we … began the long journey to reopen.”
Despite these financial and logistical challenges, it was a constructive summer for the Playhouse, which finally had the time to install a long-awaited new wing of the building, called Memory Lane. Offering a bit of nostalgia during pre-shows and intermissions, it features seven decades of archived newspaper stories and photographs from the venue’s rich history, rescued from dusty archives and lovingly mounted.
Barrett also invested in the building’s air conditioning units, replacing them with state-of-the-art filters. And he spent months surveying his subscriber base of 3,000, which had shrunk to about one-third of that total.
“We called thousands of people, and the ones that aren’t coming back? It’s until there’s a vaccine. So we have a very optimistic outlook over the next 12 to 24 months that once a vaccine is in place and people are able to get it, they will return. And they’ll return hungrier for theatre than they ever were before, because you always want what you can’t have.”
Barrett finally opted to reopen in December, with a production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” even if the majority of his clientele preferred to stay home. “We scrub down every point of contact after every single performance,” he says. “We’ve communicated that to our audience, and I think it’s helped boost sales somewhat, in that they know we’re doing everything possible.”
As for the actors, they wore masks during rehearsals and were asked to undergo COVID tests weekly. For the foreseeable future, Barrett expects to continue operating at a maximum 80 attendees per show, down from the venue’s capacity of 238. It’s a financial hit he’s willing to absorb for the rest of this season.
“The main issue now is demand,” Barrett says. “Over the next six months we’ll gradually begin to see an uptick in attendance and sales. Hopefully in 2021/2022, I don’t think we’ll get back to 100 percent of where we were, but even if we got back to 80 percent, we’d be in good shape.”
Pod Save America
It seemed to happen almost overnight last fall: All of a sudden, big-name musical acts began to slowly hit the road again for the first time since the COVID lockdowns. Here in South Florida, they found perhaps the perfect venue: The Pavilion at Old School Square.
First, it was feel-good genre hopper G. Love in November. That was followed in December by the return of “Carols by Candlelight” with Matthew and Gunner Nelson, sons of proto-rocker Ricky Nelson; modern swing revivalists Big Bad Voodoo Daddy; and Smith & Myers of the rock band Shinedown.
“It’s a different and unique situation that’s happening now, where a lot of the larger organizations you would normally see putting together major tours—the AEGs, the Live Nations—are still dark at the moment, because they can’t commit to the variations in everybody’s state and county rules and regulations,” says Holland Ryan, Old School Square’s chief operating officer. “Whereas these artists, for the most part, are comfortable with getting out and doing a smaller show. So what would normally be a giant 20-tractor-trailer type show, they’re coming out in a bus, because they just want to play to their audiences. They’re just getting back to their roots, and playing their music.”
That Old School Square is now serving as a central spot for regional tours in South Florida is a victory for what might be called the campus’ incremental approach to reopening. While Ryan says his team “started to come up with ideas on how we could have a safe and sustainable concert experience for our patrons as early as April,” they held off until the time was right, watching as other live-music guinea pigs opened prematurely—like Funky Biscuit and Boca Black Box, which opened, then closed, then reopened again.
All the while, Old School Square was redesigning its Pavilion capacity to meet CDC guidelines for social distancing. At great expense, it installed 3,000 linear feet of French barricades and 123 pod seats for parties of up to four. As of this writing, it is in the process of applying for GBAC STAR Accreditation, the gold standard for safety compliance in COVID-era hospitality and entertainment. This means that concerts at the Pavilion, even when sold out, will look quite different from their previous capacity, which could reach 10,000; it is presently at 500.
As a result of the added cost to install the new seats and barricades, the venue’s Friday concerts are no longer free, but they’re not terribly expensive either. Standard pods for four run $45, or about $11 per ticket, and VIP pods for four run $150 and include table and bar service. Prices vary for the national touring acts.
So far, Ryan’s patient and rigorous approach has been paying off. The return of Friday concerts, last October, brought a 90-percent capacity despite being announced just nine days in advance.
“There was a lot of interest, not only from patrons but also a lot of other municipalities that have come by and subsequently reached out to ask how we did this, how did we push this through the cities, the counties?” Ryan says. “And I’m working with them independently, with Old School Square, to show them a way to move forward in these crazy times.”
In the live music world, we still may be a long way from that much-desired “return to normal.” But for those of us a little tired of virtual everything, Old School Square is helping us getting a little bit closer to the energy and electricity that only a performer and spectator, symbiotically connected in the same space, can generate.