This article has been updated.
At 5 p.m. on March 15, the Classic Theatre of San Antonio had just completed its rehearsal for Our Town, set to open March 20 for a four-week run.
Responding to CDC guidelines, Executive and Artistic Director Kelly Roush decided two hours later to postpone all performances until a later date, anticipating Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s recommendation to limit public gatherings of over 50 people for at least eight weeks. Roush felt that in order to protect the community, the Classic would observe guidelines to “flatten the curve” of the spread of coronavirus.
“We had just hit the curve ahead of them,” Roush said of the City’s recommendation, issued the following day. “I’m like, we’re not doing this [play]. As much as I want to, we have to wait.”
Sounding a note of optimism, Roush said she hoped to postpone only until May. However, the fifth and final production of the season, Brighton Beach Memoirs, has been canceled. That would have been the first time the Classic had expanded its season to a fifth production, a move intended to earn additional ticket revenue and sustained attention.
Such repercussions are just the beginning for San Antonio’s $4.8 billion arts and culture sector, already reeling from cancellations of exhibitions, events, and performances, including the remainder of the San Antonio Symphony’s 2019-2020 season. Across the city, arts organizations are due to suffer a substantial loss of funding for the foreseeable future.
Tax revenue evaporates
San Antonio’s cultural economy is driven by tourism. The collapse of the March 4-7 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference emerged as the first sign of impending doom for the hospitality industry, which annually generates billions in revenue.
“COVID-19’s impact has been seismic, and the effects are being felt by nearly every part of the $15.2 billion tourism and hospitality sector,” said Casandra Matej, president and CEO of Visit San Antonio (Visit SA).
Underlying that figure is the hotel occupancy tax (HOT), which annually funds an array of programs, including Visit SA, convention facilities, history and preservation efforts, and the Department of Arts and Culture’s funding for nonprofit arts organizations and individual artists throughout the city.
With significant losses in HOT revenue expected, San Antonio’s arts community will be hit hard.
“The repercussions of this thing are only just beginning to be understood,” said Loren Meeker, general and artistic director of Opera San Antonio. “And in some ways it just feels like it’s going to be a brave new world on the other side.”
The City projected $96 million in HOT income for 2020, of which $36 million had been received by the end of February, according to a March 19 presentation by Deputy City Manager María Villagómez to the City Council. But now, no one can be sure how much of a hit the HOT, and subsequent funding, will ultimately take in the wake of potentially weeks of empty hotel rooms.
Villagómez said hotels have experienced an estimated 90 percent reduction in occupancy rates. Even if the initial CDC-recommended eight-week public shutdown period is not extended past May 11, that would mean an immediate loss of more than $3o million, if March and April income matched that of the January-February period, and not including whatever bump might have occurred from Fiesta-related revenue. A $30 million loss alone would represent one-third of annual HOT tax funding.
Under that scenario, the Department of Arts and Culture would stand to lose $2.85 million of its projected $8.64 million arts funding budget for fiscal year 2021, plus one third of its own funding for staff and administration, which also comes from the occupancy tax.
Debbie Racca-Sittre, the department’s director, said it’s simply too early to know what effects the losses will have on the 47 nonprofit arts organizations that received City funds in the 2019-2020 fiscal year, but suggested that its newest programs, funding for performing artists and individual artists, will suffer.
“Proposed revenues for Performing Arts Funding is projected to be lower than anticipated, and the program will be evaluated in the near future,” she wrote in an email. Regarding potential funding for individual artists, “we are not in a position right now to recommend new funding.”
However, on Wednesday the department and the Luminaria Artist Foundation announced the Corona Arts Relief Program, for individual artists affected by cancellations due to social distancing protocols required by the City of San Antonio. Bexar County artists are eligible to apply for up to $600 in emergency funds for lost revenue, or for professional development training. Luminaria Director Kathy Armstrong expects to up to 40 artists to receive grants, with funds derived from the $10,000 Technical Assistance funding already provided by the City.
No quick bounce-back
According to Sabér Institute Chief Economist Steve Nivin, who assesses the economic impact of the San Antonio arts and culture sector for the Department of Arts and Culture, “I think it’s going to have a pretty negative impact on the creative industry.”
Some larger cultural institutions have already taken steps to shore up their finances. The Witte Museum just announced an emergency fund, with an initial matching grant of $50,000 from a trustee, to help offset “unprecedented financial strain.”
“While spring is usually the Witte’s busiest time, today is different,” read an announcement from the museum. “The galleries are dark and silent. By the end of this spring, the Witte will lose millions in admissions, membership, and events. … Support is now is critical for the continuation of the Witte Museum.”
George Cisneros, co-founder and music and media director of Urban-15, emphasized the positive impact his organization, and the other seven organizations of the Westside Arts Coalition, have had on underserved members of the community, and lamented the effect of the downturn. “We, too, are laying off people, shutting programs, and working hard to keep what we have struggled to get from disappearing,” he said.
A recent study from national advocacy organization Americans for the Arts reports that the nonprofit arts and culture sector is the second largest employer in the U.S., with more workers than police and firefighters combined.
With coronavirus closures affecting both the arts and culture and hospitality sectors, and a likely recession triggered by the global economic fallout, “this isn’t going to be something that I think the economy – not just for San Antonio, but globally – is going to bounce back from quickly,” said Nivin. “It’s going to take some time.”
The combination of revenue and funding losses will be most visible in closures extending beyond postponements, Nivin suggested. “It would not surprise me if we see some of the nonprofit, and maybe even some of the for-profit creative industries, have to shut their doors. It’s a tough environment right now. And I think it’s going to be for the foreseeable near future.”
Many cultural workers are independent contractors, including musician Henry Brun. In assessing current needs of the arts and culture community, Brun said cultural workers like him are considered contract labor, and thus exempt from applying for unemployment benefits.
Citing the coronavirus impact on organizations that support his industry, he wondered what lies ahead for many of them.
“With limited local corporate support, reserves that [are] nonexistent, and a sense of co-dependency on monies received from [the Department of Arts and Culture], most organizations will cease to exist, thus decimating what is known is a thriving cultural city,” he said.
“Hopefully this scenario will allow the City an opportunity to prove that they mean business, and are committed to offset the difference in the collection [of HOT]. Here’s where we’ll see if they have been sincere about saying our artists are an integral component of San Antonio’s cultural fabric.”
The City responds
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said the City is working around the clock on potential relief for its cultural workers.
“But it’s nuanced in that we’ve got to prioritize from the most vulnerable to the larger [general] population as a whole,” citing housing and food insecurity among many in San Antonio as priorities. “We know that there’s some overlap with some of our local artists in that sense.”
He added, “We have a big job to recognize that there’s a lot of people that are essentially going to be out of work, or are already at work and have no certainty about their future, so that’s where we need to be focused.”
Gearing up for its second major production of the season May 7-9, Opera San Antonio was forced to cancel Rigoletto. Meeker quickly assessed what the loss of an anticipated $200,000 in ticket revenue would mean for the company, as well as the cancellation of fundraisers, and moved immediately to strategizing for the unpredictable future.
The strategies she’s now focused on are “creative solutions to an online presence” in the short term, to deal with social distancing. Opera SA also is looking toward innovative events and collaborations “when we get to the other side of this,” she said.
Meeker called the strategy “a big-picture conversation I’ve started with the [San Antonio Symphony] to reengage the community of San Antonio and reignite passion for the arts.”
As San Antonio arts workers face unforeseen difficulties from the economic pain of trying to stop the spread of coronavirus, they won’t be struggling alone, Treviño said.
“All this is incredibly unfortunate, because at this point … [the] survival of artists is now translated to the survival of the city itself, as a whole,” Treviño said.