Why The Pandemic Could Create Bigger Audiences

As arts institutions reimagine how they interact with their members, barriers are being broken down. Could the crisis of the Century set the stage for a reinvigorated arts community?

            Theaters, galleries, museums, and performance halls of all types have been among the most drastically impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Relying on live and often crowded events to engage with the public, most arts venues across CNY and the world have had to shut their doors since March of 2020. The drive to stay afloat has pushed many to redesign their operations – investing in streaming technology, virtual experiences, and improved communication with patrons. While there is no doubt that the current situation is dire, many hope that these changes will lead to a more vibrant, democratic, and accessible arts scene in the future.

Yusuf Abdul-Qadir is the Director of the NYCLU's CNY Chapter and is working to address the civil liberties and civil rights issues surrounding the I-81 project.

With in-person performances off limits, the Redhouse entertained audiences remotely over the holidays with a live performance of the radio play “It’s a Wonderful Life”.

            For Samara Hannah, Executive Director of the Redhouse in downtown Syracuse, meeting the demands of the times has meant converting much of their programing to streaming. The Redhouse has a large modern space on Salina St. which features three theaters, a sizable reception area, and much more. While they have been able to continue some of their in-person children’s programs and camps, their normal live performances have had to be cancelled. When this first happened, Hannah prioritized having candid conversations with Redhouse ticket holders to inform them of changes and let them know how they could stay involved. “We had to be honest and communicate what we can and can’t do.”

            A grant from The Gifford Foundation helped secure a new camera system which enabled the Redhouse to start providing a wider range of high production virtual content. “Redtalks”, a new interview series featuring actors, artists, designers, and directors, can be accessed on their website. Virtual summer camps for children were organized over Zoom, and theatrical productions were recorded and streamed to virtual audiences. All in all, Redhouse is offering between six and ten streaming events per month. Now they are looking at what has worked and seeing what to emphasize for 2021. “The efforts to bring new programing to our audience has been received incredibly well, and as we hunker down for the winter, we are seeing numbers go up,” says Hannah.

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The Pros of Virtual Performances

New Communities

Young people, residents with transportation challenges, and others who are not used to attending in-person shows are more likely to participate.

Virus Free

Allowing people to view a performance from their home prevents the spread of the coronavirus.

Limitless Reach

Viewers can tune in from anywhere, allowing arts organizations to attract followers from around the world.

            Tracking the impact of the new virtual programming has revealed a potential to reach new audiences as well as those who live too far away to attend the theater in person. Hannah says that in-person theater audiences tend to be older, but that the increased streaming of theatrical productions presents an opportunity to engage with younger audiences. “Bring them in on their terms, and then help them get to where you are,” she says. “To be relevant in 20 years, we have to bring technology into the conversation.”

            The Redhouse is far from the only arts institution in CNY that is making this kind of pivot: The Everson Museum has created virtual walkthroughs of many exhibits, allowing online visitors to explore from their computer or smartphone, along with a range of videos and other materials showcasing their collections. Symphoria has continued their orchestral performances via livestream, and Syracuse Stage is offering subscriptions to recorded productions for the 2020/2021 season. The list goes on and on.

Symphoria, like many arts organizations, has expanded their online resources and switched their season to streaming to stay connected with their audience during the pandemic.

            Everson Board Member Ryan Maness points out that many of these new distribution channels are not likely to go away even when the COVID pandemic is behind us. People who previously had difficulty accessing the arts due to financial challenges, lack of transportation, or an irregular work schedule have had a door opened for them, and arts providers are unlikely to want to give up on that audience. Maness argues that making the arts more accessible through technology will have a net positive effect. “The arts are a wonder and inspiration – the lifeblood of mankind, so to make that as democratically available and ubiquitous as possible is all for the good,” he says. “There is no value in beauty that is kept in a locked box.” 

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The Cons of Virtual Performances

Stricter Licensing

Due to the higher reach potential, licenses to stream are not granted as freely as licenses for in-person performances.

Ticket Sharing

When viewers can all gather around a single screen, only one ticket needs to be purchased.

Lower Prices

The diminished prestige of a virtual show compared to a live one means that venues have to charge less per ticket.

Tech Spending

To be done right, venues who want to stream must not only invest in the necessary equipment, but also teach audiences how to tune in.

            Streaming and other digital resources have proven to be a powerful way for arts organizations to remain connected with their audiences and even attract new participants. For some, it has also brought in money in the form of online ticket sales and increased voluntary donations. But it is essential to remember that “going virtual” does not solve everything. In fact, it can create a new host of challenges.

           For example, consider a performing arts theater that has transitioned to livestreaming shows:

  • Due to the large viewing potential that streaming offers, licensing is more restricted that it is for live in-person productions.
  • Tickets are sold per “household” rather than per individual. Consider a family of four who would normally purchase four tickets to see a live performance. If they purchase streaming access, they only need to buy one ticket and can then gather and watch in front of the television.
  • Consumers are accustomed to paying higher amounts for in-person performances, and therefore expect streaming tickets to be cheaper.
  • Many theaters, galleries, and other arts organizations do not have the technology to offer a professional livestreaming or virtual experience. Having to build those capabilities can be expensive and requires extensive training and planning. It also means that they have to train their audience to use these new tools once they are available.

          Stephen Butler, Executive Director of CNY Arts, is hopeful that the outreach happening via digital media will help pave the way for higher in-person numbers when it’s finally safe to gather again. “For me, the silver lining of what has happened is that we have engaged tremendous numbers of people that would not otherwise be engaged as a live audience,” Butler says. He explains that streaming will continue, but when things go live again – arts institutions need to work on bringing those virtual attendees back into the live communal experience. “There’s nothing that tops that.”

          Butler recalls the holiday show that CNY Arts puts on each year, normally held at the Civic Center. Normally between 4,000 and 5,000 students are bussed in to see it live.

Stephen Butler is the Executive Director of CNY Arts – an advocacy organization that provides funding, training, and other resources to artists and arts organizations.

When they recorded it one year and shared the video, it was seen by over 6,800 students – many living too far away to ever be brought in by bus to see it live. Now, Butler says they have to think about that moving forward and how to keep those more distant viewers engaged in future performances. “I can’t afford to let that go,” he says, “and I can’t imagine that other artistic directors won’t be having the same thoughts. The question will be how they can monetize it.”

            CNY Arts is an arts advocacy organization that provides funding, training, and other resources to individuals and organizations across the region. When the pandemic hit, they immediately began assessing the potential impact and realized that across CNY, the arts community was facing as much as $55 million in lost revenue. Realizing that most emerging relief funds were aimed at health and human service needs, they decided to create an emergency grant fund dedicated to supporting artists and arts organizations. By the end of 2020, they had given out over $200,000. Butler reminds people that they can apply again, even if they have already received funding in the past. On a national level, Butler is hopeful that the second round of PPP funding combined with the Save Our Stages act will make a difference in helping the arts survive.

          Butler says that reading the grant applications that came in revealed that the CNY arts community is indeed struggling with the existential burden having to close their doors indefinitely. Many stories from individuals and organizations were difficult to read. Butler sees this crisis as a call to action for CNY Arts: “It’s really the Arts Council’s job to not let the fabric that’s been woven collectively through the sector tear and fray, and lead people back to the common purpose of working better together.”

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