The Show Must Go On: COVID-19's Impacts on the Performing Arts

By Catherine Huang


Prologue: Normalcy, Hard Work, and Financial Security

Since 2007, Colin Huggins has hauled his 900-pound Steinway baby grand piano onto subways and across bustling Manhattan streets every weekend. The classical pianist, affectionately known to tourists and locals alike as “The Piano Guy,” delights audiences in Washington Square Park with live performances of everything from Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturnes to original improvisations.


The health fears brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly and unexpectedly dispersed much of Huggins’s audience, and with it, the normalcy and security that he has cultivated across over a decade of performing at the park.


Huggins’ plight is echoed among performing artists and arts groups across the nation. With concerts and shows cancelled, often indefinitely, individuals and groups are experiencing haltings (or at least reductions) of income and revenue.


Collapse: Heavy Losses of Money and Jobs

According to a Federal Reserve Board dataset, the Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation sector saw the second-greatest percentage of lost or laid off jobs (42 percent) amidst the pandemic, behind the Accommodation and Food Services sector. Although this sector encapsulates other operations, such as spectator sports, employment in performing arts alone still fell by 48 percent between mid-March and mid-April, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics. On top of that, arts and culture organizations have already lost an estimated $4.98 billion in ticket revenue and other funds, according to a recent Americans for the Arts survey of 11,000 organizations.


The Metropolitan Opera, commonly known as the Met, is the nation’s largest performing arts organization and operates at New York’s Lincoln Center, the largest opera house in the world. In spite of the Met’s prominence in the performing arts industry, it too has been susceptible to the current economic crisis. The organization is entirely privately funded (from ticket revenue and donations); thus, the government cannot adequately cover its up to $60 million in financial losses. Focusing on the need for financial viability and institutional longevity, the Met furloughed over 500 members of its orchestra, choir, dance troupe, and crew—a decision “most difficult and challenging of all” among the Met’s recent history, according to Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “I know that if the Met is to survive,” Gelb shares with the Financial Times, “it is not only up to me but to everybody at the Met to see us through this challenge.”


Several of the nation’s top orchestras, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), also cancelled their concerts through the end of the year, and their musicians received a 20 to 25 percent reduction in pay, on average. Robert Chen, violinist and Concertmaster of the CSO, said that he is “fortunate that the CSO is continuing to pay its musicians wages and health insurance” even though the salary “has been gradually reducing since the beginning of the work stoppage.”


Considering that even such prominent orchestras and organizations have had to enforce drastic measures in response to the pandemic, the outcomes have only been more disastrous for freelance performers and smaller performing arts groups, some of which will simply not reopen after the crisis. The Theater Wit, a 16-year-old company in Chicago, is experiencing deferred monthly rent and over $7,500 a week in losses of bar and venue sales. Huggins, likewise, is late on his rent, and his income is less than half of what it used to be. “Everyone just thinks of me as the piano guy,” Huggins told the New York Times. “No one ever thinks about what I’m going through as a person during all of this.”


While the San Francisco Symphony is among those arts organizations that got approved for federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans ranging from $5 to $10 million (the highest tier), other organizations have not been as lucky—substantial relief funding programs have not come through for The Theater Wit, whose PPP loan cannot save them from furloughing the entire staff. Even after that, “projected revenue from streaming and donations do not make up the fixed costs of rent, utilities and insurance,” said artistic director Jeremy Wechsler to the Chicago Sun-Times.


Adaptation: The Show Must Go On

With hardship, however, has come an outburst of creativity and resilience as artists try to adapt financially and spiritually to current circumstances.


The Theater Wit’s online-streamed rendition of “Teenage Dick” (a twist on a Shakespeare play) garnered sales 15 percent higher than usual, half of which came from places outside of Illinois. The Met is hosting “Nightly Met Opera Streams” of past performances on its website that have boosted its profile, site traffic, and bank balance. Huggins has live-streamed improvisations on his upright piano from home, and while he misses the personal connections he forms with his audiences, the livestreams have generated some donations. Chen, his wife, and his two children have made the most of performing together—as a string quartet, they share their music virtually on several Internet platforms and with local retirement communities.


Regarding long-term coping plans, the focus is on embracing connectivity and change just as much as financial security. The CSO is cautious towards reopening, and Chen predicts that in the meantime, the classical music industry will have to utilize and adapt to the new digital reality—a change he sees as an opportunity. “These streamed performances seem to be a way forward,” he said. “Above all, the future is about connecting art with technology.”


The performing arts is more than just an industry—it is an irreplaceable facet of culture that has continually withstood hardship throughout human history. Perhaps the pent-up demand for the in-person experience of live music, theater, opera, and dance will release itself after the crisis abates. The economic challenges that COVID-19 poses upon the arts have brought about unprecedented isolation, uncertainty, and struggle, but even if in a different format, the show must go on.