Arts community battles through wrenching major changes
Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic forced closure across Miami-Dade in March, the county Department of Cultural Affairs began sending artists and organizations monthly surveys to gauge how deeply the sector is suffering.
Unsurprisingly, the toll has been severe. Through July, individuals and groups collectively reported almost $100 million in lost revenue, an impact affecting some 16,000 jobs.
That’s a sizeable hit to a $1.4 billion local industry that encompasses museums, theaters, festivals, events and entrepreneurs and supports about 40,000 jobs, according to recent county figures.
“Everybody said it’s had an awful impact on their business,” Cultural Affairs Director Michael Spring said.
To survive, the arts and culture community has had to make big changes, downsizing to better cover expenses and shifting to online activities where possible to continue connecting with audiences and supporters.
Some are showcasing footage of past performances. Others have commissioned new work specifically for digital dissemination.
One such example is the South Florida Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, which since early May has streamed newly commissioned music, dance and theatrical work on Facebook every Thursday at 7 p.m.
The series, called “Sessions: Virtual Cabaret,” features five- to 10-minute videos of artists performing in their current, isolated environs. Eric Fliss, the center’s executive director, said the idea is to give viewers a different look at artists they might have ever seen only onstage.
“I don’t want old stock footage of them performing in the theater,” he said. “I want to see how they’re doing their art at home.”
“Sessions,” which ends this month, is open by invitation only to artists with prior ties to the center. Performances are archived in a gallery on the center’s website after they stream on the social media platform.
While Mr. Fliss declined to say how much the center pays artists for appearing on “Sessions,” he confirmed it’s a flat, per-performance rate regardless of the number of performers in a video. To further help artists make ends meet, he said, the stream includes a “virtual tip” jar.
“If they have PayPal, Venmo or one of the million other ways people can get money now, we put it at the bottom of the screen and people tuning in can donate to the artist,” he said. “And to this day, people are still receiving small donations through the gallery we created on our website.”
Many other organizations have gone virtual as well. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts has “a very sophisticated digital platform,” Mr. Spring said.
Culture Shock Miami, which provided event tickets to high school and college students before the pandemic, has converted its website into a platform showcasing virtual programming.
“As long as it’s accessible online, we’d like to hear about it!” the group’s homepage says.
GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, like the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, has commissioned new work to premiere on its website every week. The nonprofit hired director-playwright Margaret Ledford to curate the series, titled Engage@GableStage.
“As you can guess, it’s edgy work,” Mr. Spring said. “Everyone’s trying to talk to their audience and keep them engaged with the kind of artistic experience they’re known for.”
The Miami City Ballet canceled all scheduled venue performances this season, but as Executive Director Tania Castrovedre Moskalenko told Miami Today last month, the organization is “reimagining” the season with new digital and outdoor performances.
Those organizations and around 55 others, including the Deering Estate, Fountainhead Residency and Studios, HistoryMiami Museum, New World Symphony and O, Miami, have combined their efforts on a new website, MiamiArtStrong.org.
The Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau has also thrown its weight behind the cause, featuring related materials on its website.
Meanwhile, some arts organizations have reopened physically at limited capacities, including the Frost Museum of Science, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Institute of Contemporary Art and the Rubell Museum. Vizcaya is asking for public donations. The Institute, which opened again this month, has since sold out of its time-specific tickets.
The Department of Cultural Affairs is also helping to connect artists and arts organizations with vital financial resources. In late March, when Congress passed the Cares Act, the department advised groups to pursue funding allotments available to them, including through the Paycheck Protection Program.
A month later, through a resolution by Eileen Higgins, commissioners also launched the Miami-Dade Arts Support program to provide $5,000 to $15,000 grants from a $10 million set-aside of Cares Act dollars. Artists, creatives and cultural gig workers could seek $500 apiece from the program. The deadline to apply was Aug. 31.
Mr. Spring said the county received roughly 250 applications for the funds, which can be used for business interruption costs, covering overhead expenses and toward reopening preparations. And it’s a good time for organizations that operate facilities to begin preparing for visitors to return, he said.
“You might want to do things as obvious as installing sneeze screens for ticket booths and concession desks, converting faucets in bathrooms to touchless or establishing hand-sanitizing stations in your building,” he said.
The money can also go toward helping art and culture businesses transition to further online programming.
“If an organization needs to upgrade a computer, buy a video camera or subscribe to a streaming service, these Cares Act monies can help them convert to online or virtual,” he said.
Some good news: Mayor Carlos Giménez’s recommended 2021 budget includes funding for county arts grants equal to last year’s allocation.
That should help artists and organizations stay afloat next year, Mr. Spring said, but amid pulls for public dollars from every direction, arts groups need to plan for what is likely to be a slow return to normal.
“Rebuilding confidence is going to be critical so that they think it’s a safe experience,” he said. “You also can’t come out of this as if nothing happened and resume things at normal levels. You need to right-size them to what the public capacity will be for participation. That’s a little unknowable at the moment, but it’s important for arts groups to think about that and monitor it as the health situation evolves.”