Arts Fundraising During the COVID Crisis IN Wilmington

The Grand is just one of many arts organizations forced to close its doors during COVID-19

The Grand Opera House lost millions in ticket sales and other revenue when it was forced to close for the coronavirus lockdown, with three Broadway shows and about 15 smaller performances shuttered.

Delaware Theatre Company had to whack its big fundraiser of the year and its final show of the season, “Million Dollar Quartet,” the spring musical that always brings in huge ticket sales. The show alone was a loss of more than $250,000.

OperaDelaware’s spring festival, its premiere event for its 75th Anniversary Season, had to be cancelled, taking $200,000 in revenue with it, along with the fundraiser that traditionally followed. And Delaware Shakespeare hadn’t even begun to sell tickets for its summer in Rockwood Park production of “The Tempest.”

Now, as Delaware’s economy begins to reopen, Wilmington’s arts groups are shifting focus from keeping their staff paid and  lights on to wondering how they can safely put performers on stage and patrons in the seats, and how to launch fundraising efforts when so many people have lost jobs and are watching their portfolios drop.

Most arts groups don’t believe live performances of any size can get underway until fall, with bigger shows set for 2021. And until now, the companies largely have been reluctant to press patrons for money, using reserve cash to pay staff and applying for paycheck protection program loans and grants from many organizations.

“I think our feeling is that the attention and focus of the crisis should be on the immediate needs of the medical community and our volunteer populations,” said Molly Giordano, interim director of Delaware Art Museum. “The arts, of course, are vital to the health of the community, but at this time, the focus needs to be on critical care.”

In the meantime, the organizations have reached out to members and patrons, both for a little help paying artists and staff and also to check in on their patrons, connect them with social services where needed and even—as one OperaDelaware staff member did—run to Walgreen’s to pick up a prescription for a patron who did not want to go out.

There have been INspiring success stories.

Delaware Symphony Orchestra, which had to cancel its March 27 classic concert and the rest of its season, already expected a deficit for the year. However, interim CEO David Fleming and its board decided the organization had a moral obligation to pay musicians for the work they would miss. With help from board members, patrons and foundations, DSO has raised $138,000 to do that. Delaware Shakespeare and OperaDelaware also raised money for their artists.

Christina Cultural Arts Center, which services many low-income families, helped students get internet access through donations of laptops. Now, all manner of classes and mentoring sessions are online, and executive director James Ray Rhodes said, “We’re putting a major emphasis on technology and virtual classes when we come back in the fall.”

The Choir School of Delaware decided to move its annual gala online, with a mixture of recorded and live streaming performances and an online auction. The move sold 48 tickets when it was announced by email. “I was just stunned,” said Arreon Harley-Emerson, director of music and operations. The event usually makes about $25,000 and attracts about 200. He’s hoping that after official invitations go out, the event might break its attendance record.

Organizations have used a mixture of traditional and nontraditional ways to raise money.

To pay its musicians, Delaware Symphony called subscribers and asked to keep ticket money for performers. The Maurice Amado Foundation, which had signed on to sponsor a downstate concert, allowed some money to be used for musician pay and also gave the symphony a $35,000 challenge grant. Symphony superfan Tatiana Copeland agreed to match that and more donors stepped up. M&T Bank agreed to allow some of its sponsorship money to go to paying the performers.

“Before long, we were coming pretty close to the total,” Fleming said. If payroll protection loans come in, the symphony will be able to pay the musicians for every show canceled. There has been enough support, he said, that when new executive director J.C. Barker arrives May 15, the symphony expected deficit of $150,000 may be greatly reduced.

Christina Cultural Arts Center, which as of May 1 had not yet been approved for any kind of payroll loans, relied on unrestricted funds to keep staff on board and began contacting longtime supporters. As the shutdown continued, staff members began calling student families, making sure they were connected to any social services they needed, and asking for help for the center. The center has made regular online appeals and got $300 from an Easter one.

United Way and NerdiT Now helped the center, which operates a school and arts classes, provide laptops to students who didn’t have them. The center is working with Comcast and WhyFly to see if its families can get help with internet service.

Instead of postponing spring recitals, the CCAC has postponed them until right before kids go off to college, so they can still participate. It’s also planning a big celebration and fundraising event this fall, when social distancing restrictions are expected to be lifted.

Most of the arts groups have created online offerings for their patrons, partly to help stay visible and partly to help patrons connect to the art they love. Delaware Shakespeare turned theirs into a small fundraiser to help pay actors who each day recite one of Shakespeare sonnets.

“We tell them that for each $30 in sales, we’re able to pay an actor to record a sonnet,” said David Stradley, producing artistic director. As of May 1, they had done 32. He’s hoping the lockdown lifts and economy returns before there’s a need to do all 154.

Delaware Shakespeare will go ahead with its annual fundraiser, with a letter expected to go out the first week in May.

“We changed the message a little bit to try to be in touch with the times,” Stradley said. “We haven’t officially postponed our summer yet. We didn’t want our fundraising letter to be ‘We really look forward to seeing you in the park this summer’ and two weeks later, we aren’t going to be able to produce the show.

“The letter is trying to capture the essence of what Delaware Shakespeare is and how we serve our community, and making the argument that we will do that one way or another, depending on what circumstances allow us to do.”

DelShakes has an internal deadline of Memorial Day to make a go-no go decision for the summer production.

The Delaware Art Museum also will go forward with a spring fundraiser. “It will have a much more gentle ask,” said interim director Molly Giordano. “We play a really integral role in society and we want to be there to help everybody heal from the crisis.”

But what “being there” means is still a fuzzy concept.

Museums, gardens and historical sites may be able to open soon because they can honor social distancing norms as people wander their hallways and grounds.

But it’s different in the performing arts. Those groups have to worry not only about space between patrons in seats but also about performers on stage. Most don’t expect to offer anything until September and their new seasons.

“When you’re in the business of getting 65-year-olds together in a theater, you have to take a look at the mission and what you can do to get people to come back in,” said Brendan Cooke, general director of OperaDelaware.

The Delaware Theatre Company has created four different seating charts for its venue.

“If you’re going with three people who live in a house together, you can sit together,” said Matt Sliva, managing director of DTC. “But then there has to be three to four seats apart and three rows between each person. Safely, the most we could get into the 389 seats is 125 people, and that’s, of course, if 125 people feel safe enough to come.”

Management there is encouraged because Its 2020-21 subscription sales had been running ahead of projections when the shutdown took place, and they are still coming in. Another 18 came in the week of April 27.

Outdoor performances such as those of Delaware Shakespeare’s Rockwood Park productions rely on both permission from Wilmington and Delaware officials, as well as being able to make sure their patrons, which often include entire families and friend groups, feel safe. Stradley said DelShakes has been encouraged that longtime summer sponsor Paula Janssen of Janssens Market called and asked if it would be helpful if she sent their check early.

He’s wondering what coronavirus restrictions will mean to the organization’s award-winning fall tour. It sends a company of actors performing in a 15-square-foot space into Delaware prisons, senior facilities and mental health facilities, where the audience sits close to action.

The Delaware Symphony hopes to have its chamber series, which features a few musicians and about 200 patrons, continue in the fall in the Hotel DuPont Gold Ballroom. The musicians can be spaced apart, and so can patrons.

“Are there 200 brave souls willing to do that?” asks interim director Fleming. “I think we’re about to find out the answer to that.”

However, its classics concerts present problems. Symphony musicians sit side by side on stage, and The Grand’s Copeland Hall is often packed for the shows. Nobody knows yet whether musicians will be willing to perform shoulder to shoulder when shows are expected to return in 2021, much less audience members.

The Grand hopes to be able to reschedule many of its canceled shows, while adding new ones, but a lot will depend on what performers are willing to do, said Mark Fields, executive director. He’s hoping patrons will be able to see performers they’ve already bought tickets for, or be willing to trade them in for another show.

He has participated in meetings of the Delaware Arts Trust, a group of the state’s 14 largest arts, culture and heritage groups, as they talk about how performances and sites should reopen. There is no consensus yet.

“What we’re trying to do is have everybody think about what their capacity is and could you viably operate at that capacity,” said Jessica Ball, executive director of the Delaware Arts Alliance.

“We really don’t know,” said Arreon Harley-Emerson of the Choir School. “I feel like I keep saying that a lot this year. We really don’t know.”

One thing is for sure: The pandemic and shutdown of the U.S. economy is an issue that the arts world will revisit.

“Great art comes out of difficult times,” said Bud Martin of Delaware Theatre Company. “I’m sure going to be looking forward to reading some plays that come out of this. There are some pretty serious issues that all these frontline people are having to deal with. It’s incredible drama.”