- Kirstin Roper Photography
- Utah Arts Alliance's Derek Dyer
As people try to settle into a new normal of social distancing, and its impact on their own lives, it can be easy to lose track of the individuals and organizations most devastated by the cancellation of events resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of an unprecedented tumultuous week, leaders of local arts organizations dealt with the harsh realities of "what now" and "what next."
Brooke Horejsi, executive director of the University of Utah's Utah Presents, faces a unique set of challenges as part of an organization that books primarily touring acts, rather than local productions. As she has attempted to reschedule canceled events for later in the year, she's had to work closely directly with artists and other organizations on scheduling that makes sense.
"Other presenters in this state, like BYU's similar professional performing arts presenter, or Cache Valley Center for the Arts, we all worked together very quickly last week to reschedule a group we all had scheduled, called Air Play," Horejsi says. "Coordinating three separate organizational calendars, we did that overnight essentially, and with the artists as well. We all tweaked our plans to see, how can we get this together in the same block of time."
While the university was able to commit to paying support staff for cancelled events, Horejsi realizes that not all individuals working for arts organizations will be as fortunate. "We're not just talking about organizations; we're talking about people's livelihoods," she says. "It's not just the full-time staff but all the part-time people. We have an amazing usher crew made up of students and community members, and they also work for county facilities. That's how they make their living."
Derek Dyer, Executive Director of Utah Arts Alliance, acknowledges that the closure of the organization's Urban Arts Gallery and the cancellation of events will have a huge impact on the artists they represent. "We work with about 1,600 artists now annually, and we're trying to figure out how to support them," Dyer says. "I sign 100 checks a month for artists selling work in the gallery. They're probably not making their full-time living at it, but it does help make ends meet."
Dyer also notes that, in terms of its own "rainy-day fund," UAA might be better positioned than others to weather the storm. He says that as of now, all 27 staff members will continue to be paid, as they work on projects like long-delayed renovations to facilities or working on inventory. "No one's taking vacation right now," he says.
Additionally, Dyer is trying to look at whatever bright side is possible, in terms of recognizing the need to adapt and adjust to unexpected changes in the arts landscape. "We're trying to take this as a good learning opportunity," he says. "The world is always changing, and it's the one thing we can always depend on. We also know nothing lasts forever, and that includes bad things."
For Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan-B Theatre Co., the week following Gov. Gary Herbert's initial guidelines for events was a whirlwind. While Plan-B had a production planned to open March 26, The Audacity, Rapier at first thought its small theater space would not be impacted by the 100 person recommendation. "At this time last week, we didn't figure we'd have to change anything," Rapier says. "We quickly realized that wouldn't be the case, that we wouldn't be able to do the original run at all. Then maybe a delayed run. Everything's been evolving—or devolving—rapidly."
He also soon realized that the financial fallout would force them to make adjustments. "For 20 years, we've been super-focused on a balanced budget; it's a point of pride for us," Rapier says. "The first thing we had to do was give ourselves permission that we wouldn't have a balanced budget this season."
Those financial impacts will, of course, move well beyond individual organizations to the many artists, craftspeople, technicians and support staff that are part of their productions. "There are very few fields that are populated primarily by independent contractors, people who have to find work literally every month," Rapier says. "How do you make plans for the future when you don't know when it's going to start."
Like Dyer, Rapier hopes that there are silver linings to be found in this crisis, whether that involves organizations around the country—and the world—supporting one another, or non-artists recognizing the value of those organizations in their communities. "Whatever is coming our way, there are myriad companies facing the same thing at the same time," he says. "Even though we don't know each other, there's some peace that comes from that.
"One of the great outcomes of this may be that communities everywhere will realize, the thing they expect to be there to help them escape from things like this, doesn't just happen. And the people who make those things happen for other people have to piece their lives together in complicated ways in terms of job security."