Another big storm brings the threat of flooding, high winds and property damage.
And headaches. Lots of headaches.
For Charleston’s cultural institutions, hurricanes that have the city in its sights, such as Dorian, cause major disruptions, logistical challenges and financial losses, whether or not the storms inflict significant damage. The mere possibility of a hit, direct or indirect, can send the managers of arts organizations into a frenzy.
They must activate (and protect) their staff, go into emergency mode, rejigger their event calendars, decide when to close to the public, prepare their buildings for the deluge, calculate how all of this will impact their budgets and then scramble to repair any physical or financial damage.
It’s never good.
The Labor Day Weekend is the unofficial start of the fall season, and arts organizations are in full swing. Theater companies mount their first productions of the new season; classical music ensembles and jazz bands are occupying concert halls, salons and clubs. The museums and galleries are introducing new exhibitions.
The venues and arts organizations have worked for months, sometimes years, to arrange their schedules, and it’s not easy to make last-minute changes, said Charles Carmody, director of the Charleston Music Hall. His team was especially hard-hit last week because of Dorian.
Early mandatory evacuations (Gov. Henry McMaster gave the order on Sunday, Sept. 1, three full days before the storm was due to arrive off the coast of Charleston) are understandable, Carmody said. It’s important to give people enough time to leave. But the economic impact can be devastating. It cancels a full week’s worth of business. And for arts organizations, nonprofits and venues that often operate with small margins, that can make the difference between ending the fiscal year in the black or in the red.
The Music Hall staff had to cancel five events, Carmody said. The Johnnyswim show was quickly rescheduled for Oct. 24, and the Three Dog Night concert was rescheduled for Jan. 22. But the others — PechaKucha, the Fleetwood Mac tribute and Preacher Lawson — are in need of new dates.
“It’s a painful process we are going through now,” Carmody said.
The logistical challenge is significant. Carmody’s team must contact artists and agents, agree on new dates that work for both sides, notify ticketholders, issue refunds to those who can’t attend on the new date, reorganize the marketing effort and more.
Overall, about 2,700 tickets sold, each costing between $25 and $50, are suddenly in play, Carmody said. Even if all goes as well as possible, even if every canceled show is rescheduled, there’s still some loss incurred, Carmody said. You can’t get back those lost nights.
“This is our first big week of the season, and it’s now not happening,” he said. “It’s a big hit, especially coming out of August, which is usually a loss for us, because it’s very slow.”
Some arts organizations require a long lead-time to set up their calendars. For example, the Charleston Symphony books some guest artists a year or more in advance as the artists have busy schedules. And the orchestra blocks out specific weeks for its Masterworks and Pops concerts at the Gaillard Center, which manages its own programming schedule.
A storm can cause all kinds of damage, Executive Director Michael Smith said.
A couple of years ago, the Charleston Symphony was forced to cancel an early Masterworks concert, reschedule it for January, then cancel it again because of a freak winter storm, Smith recalled.
It requires a careful balance between avoiding disruptions, securing revenue and prioritizing the safety of musicians and patrons, he said.
Now he hopes to include a thicker financial buffer in the annual budget, some contingency money that can help cover the costs of lost income.
“Right now, we’re definitely exposed by these storms if they happen on the wrong weekend,” Smith said.
The Gibbes Museum of Art doesn’t have much of a financial buffer either, according to Executive Director Angela Mack. But it does have a little extra money in the budget meant to help carry the organization through a bad month or two, and ensure its staff gets paid.
It also has “loss of business” insurance, a renovated building that’s better able to withstand weather assaults and emergency procedures that minimize, or at least contain, major disruption, Mack said.
“Since we reopened to the public in 2016, we’ve experienced four storms,” she noted. “As a result, as far as procedure is concerned, it’s become a pretty well-oiled machine at this point. Something crazy always can happen.”
The Gibbes staff has learned to keep the schedule light during hurricane season, though certain programming, like new exhibits, are a must. The museum was forced to cancel the opening event for "Influence and Inspiration: The Art of Jill Hooper, Ben Long, and Frank Mason," for which artists and special guests had planned to travel to Charleston.
Mack said storm season causes her staff to "think twice about major rental exhibitions" and to worry about how Charleston is perceived by tourists who, naturally, would prefer to avoid hurricane encounters.
"Cultural nonprofits are just so dedicated," she said. "We go through day-long disaster plans, so we all know what we’re supposed to do and how to do it and when. And everybody follows through."
And, increasingly, it's not just institutions along the vulnerable southeast or Gulf coasts that must prepare for bad weather and natural disasters.
"There is no museum on the East Coast that is not dealing with this right now, all the way up to New England," Mack said.