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Columbia arts organizations chart their course through COVID-19

A Murky Path

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The Nickelodeon Theatre marquee on the morning of March 18. Photo by Thomas Hammond

Every phone interview on this Friday starts about the same, with a reporter responding to pleasantries with “How are you?” and a different Columbia arts leader mustering some version of, “I’m fine.”

Anita Floyd has the best sense of humor, but her greeting is still colored by the weight of current events.

“Oh, I’m just great,” the executive director of the Columbia Film Society offers with a wry laugh. “Everybody says the same thing, right? ‘Oh, it’s fine.’”

As they have everywhere else at this point, this city’s arts organizations are left to reckon with how to move forward with society in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. The disease’s rapid spread has pushed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to urge citizens not to gather in groups larger than 10 in an effort to slow the rate of new infections, canceling pretty much all of these groups’ public endeavors.

The Nickelodeon Theatre arthouse cinema and Columbia Museum of Art on Main Street are both closed until further notice. Trustus Theatre, the city’s lone professional theater company, canceled the second two weekends of its production of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, scheduled to run through April 4. The South Carolina Philharmonic performed its March 14 concert at the Koger Center to no audience, instead choosing to live-stream it via Facebook and broadcast it over South Carolina Public Radio.

These and similar developments obviously have huge impacts to these nonprofit groups. As the slowdown caused by COVID-19 continues, big parts of their seasons are starting to be erased, wiping out a considerable amount of work, or necessitating additional effort to get events rescheduled, and preventing them from interacting and staying top of mind with their regular patrons.

And then there are the obvious financial concerns: When tickets aren’t being sold, and admission fees aren’t being collected, these institutions feel the pinch.

The immediate losses might be most visible when it comes to Floyd’s Columbia Film Society, which oversees the Nickelodeon and Indie Grits Labs, a media education group that also puts on its annual namesake festival, a multi-day celebration of film and art crossing myriad disciplines, this year planned for March 26 through 29.

With the 2020 iteration canceled, it’s not just a disappointment for Indie Grits. It’s a big blow to the Nick, which does well for itself showing the festival’s competition films, and which will miss out, at least in the short term, on ticket sales for a solid chunk of the anticipated indie flicks on its regular spring calendar.

“It’s a significant hit because the good and bad news about our work is that a significant part of our budget is earned revenue, it’s in concessions,” Floyd explains. “So to have to stop kind of dead is definitely a challenge for us.”

“We had a pretty good lineup coming up,” she adds. “But we still intend to show that. We obviously ride waves and there’s peak times, like at Christmas some of the big stuff comes out, before Oscars they come out, and we were looking forward to some films like Emma and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But we intend that we can still show these things. And even some of the distributors have delayed [them].”

The theater is exploring the possibility of streaming such titles to Nick patrons in their homes, but Floyd isn’t sure it will work out.

“We’re seeing different folks reach out to the arthouses and offer different kinds of opportunities on specific films,” she says. “The big distributors are going to do their thing. And in fact, a lot of the big movies are going straight to — very expensive — streams online. But we’re just trying to see how it works. I can’t give you a straight answer on how much revenue we could generate. Certainly we would have to at least break even on it.”

One institution putting an especially large emphasis on reaching audiences digitally during the COVID-19 doldrums is the Columbia Museum of Art. Executive Director Della Watkins reports that the organization is exploring ways to bring more robust virtual tours, poetry readings, video interviews with artists, lectures from experts and more to their digital platforms. The museum will also look to reach and relax stressed Columbians with a new initiative called Art Oasis, which will place art with no call to action on billboards — just pleasing images and no words besides the CMA logo.

“It is just a quiet spot, a beautiful spot, an interesting spot in this world today,” Watkins offers.

For the museum, the closure comes during the middle of a particularly big exhibit — It’s Alive!, which displays horror memorabilia and sci-fi art from the collection of Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett — and the executive director admits that the balance sheet will feel the blows incurred by lost entry fees, special events and outside rentals.

“Financially we know that it’s going to pinch us,” Watkins says. “But again, that’s a small thing in this tough time.

“Don’t forget our savings. There will be some costs we’re not incurring because the building is closed right now. Now, our building is closed, but we don’t abandon the museum because we still have lots of things going on. We still have to have security. We still have to have facility oversight for environmental controls. So those things go on. We don’t walk away from that building and just go home. It’s a living environment.”

Chad Henderson, producing artistic director of Trustus Theatre, is less clear on what to do with his programming while his building is shut down. Streaming mediums don’t make sense to him for full theatrical productions, though he says his team is entertaining the idea of providing some kind of related offerings via online platforms, perhaps involving the theater’s resident improv troupe, The Mothers.

“[I’m] not of the mind that our work really is satisfying in a streaming model,” he says of sharing plays through video. “I think theater on film is film now. It’s not theater anymore once it’s captured.”

Rescheduling productions that get knocked out by the COVID-19 closure will be hard as Trustus is booked pretty solid from September to August each season. And paying for the commitments already tied to the theater’s upcoming slate without selling tickets won’t be easy.

“We do about 11 shows a year,” Henderson says. “And we spend about $20,000 a year just to have the licenses to do them. I think the good news is that a lot of the publishing companies that we work with, they created new policies because they understand that everyone in this nation in the theater is having to deal with postponement or cancellation.”

“In the case of Trustus, we contract our designers, actors and directors,” he adds. “Our directors and choreographers are contracted at the top of the year. Actors are contracted about two months before the show begins. And sort of the same with designers. So our plan right now is that every production contract that we have we are going to honor or find support to honor.”

Rhonda Hunsinger, executive director of the South Carolina Philharmonic, isn’t hitting the panic button, but she too sees a murky path ahead for her organization. The ensemble’s live-stream concert was a quick decision to make the best of a tough situation, and not a tactic it can really use again.

“Musicians and artists were already on their way into town and it just popped into my head that it’d be better to perform a show in the auditorium then tell everybody it was canceled, and we came up with the live stream idea,” she says. “We were really fortunate that it worked out and that we had access to the Koger Center. We don’t know that we will have access for the remainder of the season because it’s a university facility.”

For now, the biggest point of emphasis for Hunsinger is that the orchestra needs to find a way to perform its last Masterworks concert, initially scheduled for April 25, but now postponed.

“For the concert we just had, we had no single-ticket income,” she says. “We did have some people that bought tickets in advance of the concert and very fortunately, the majority of them have asked us to keep those funds as a donation. We also had a donation link up with the live stream, and we received over $5,000 in donations during the concert, which pretty much offset most of the single-ticket sales for that concert. So for the short term we survived that event.

“As long as we can still do the [Masterworks] concert, we should be fine. I think in our case, it’s less now single-ticket income and more about our supporters and sponsors. And as long as they’re still there supporting us — you know, nobody’s asked for their sponsorship money returned or anything like that — we should be good for a few months. And that’s about as far down the road as I can see right now.”

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