As arts organizations began to process the gravity of the coronavirus crisis and announce cancellations and postponements, Spoleto Festival USA organizers held out cautious hope that perhaps the worst of the health emergency would pass in time to launch the 2020 festival at the end of May.
But hope faded during the past couple of weeks. Each day brought news of a worsening pandemic in Europe and the U.S. — from which most of the festival’s visiting artists hail — and by late last week the proverbial writing was scrawled on Spoleto’s walls.
A full board meeting was convened Tuesday morning. General Director Nigel Redden informed attendees that, after thoughtful deliberation, the board’s executive committee had recommended to call off the 2020 festival in its entirety.
The information came as no surprise to the more than 50 board members on the conference call. After some discussion of the programming disruptions, administrative and logistical challenges, financial damage, and marketing and communication plans, all ultimately voted in favor of cancellation.
The 17-day international arts event is an expensive and complicated undertaking. Staff select and invite performers, execute contracts, secure travel visas, arrange for accommodations, coordinate with the city and the College of Charleston, audition orchestra players, rehearse concerts and opera productions, and build sets.
The moving parts are many, and scheduling begins early, with festival activity ramping up in Charleston in April.
The 2020 season was off to a terrific start, according to board President Bill Medich. The big opera production “Omar” was getting lots of attention, ticket sales were exceeding expectations, community outreach initiatives were expanded this year, and funding was coming in from generous donors and possibly from the state of South Carolina.
The festival was “on the way to an operating surplus,” Medich said. “But things have changed.”
The city of Charleston has passed an ordinance banning gatherings of more than 10 people through May 15 (a date three weeks after the start of opera rehearsals); the College of Charleston indicated that its dorm rooms, used by festival musicians, might not be available; and airline restrictions have inhibited or prevented many artists from traveling to Charleston.
One Spoleto board member, Robert Ball, is a retired epidemiologist who spoke with Spoleto Festival's general director recently about the novel coronavirus.
“He basically said we have no choice,” Nigel told meeting participants. “It would be irresponsible to continue. There is no telling when the epidemic will be under control.”
After spending about $4.5 million that can't be recovered, Spoleto Festival now must cope with a projected $756,000 deficit for 2020. (It did manage to avoid spending another $4.5 million that had been budgeted.)
“So we’re looking at a deficit that’s quite significant, and quite a sad turn of events,” Redden said.
Typically, the festival sells around 60,000 tickets each year, and approximately half of the patrons are from out of state. Normally, they would spend money on hotels and restaurants, historic sites, and city tours.
Medich offered some reassurance. He said the organization plans no staff reductions or furloughs, but will consider other cost-cutting options. Ticket buyers will receive credit for future transactions, or they can choose to receive a refund or donate money spent.
The financial impact “is significant, but not something we can’t overcome,” he said.
Spoleto Festival has some cash liquidity, access to resources and strong support from donors and patrons. The situation, Medich said, is serious but not debilitating.
Festival staff will reach out to donors and ticket holders in the coming days to provide options and information.
Some on the conference call pointed out a couple of silver linings.
Redden said performers were very understanding and most expressed enthusiasm about coming to Charleston in 2021. Much of this year’s schedule will shift, while some of what had been planned for 2021 will move to 2022, he said.
The festival also will strive to find ways this year to “remain relevant” by broadcasting on radio and the internet recorded performances from previous seasons, including 2016’s “Porgy and Bess,” and a variety of chamber music series concerts.
John Kennedy, the festival’s director of orchestra activities and conductor of “Omar,” said Spoleto Festival is in better shape than some other arts organizations that have been compelled to reduce staff and furlough or fire artists.
“One bright spot is that this gives the creators of ‘Omar’ longer to finish the opera,” he said.
Already its composer, Rhiannon Giddens, and its director, Charlotte Brathwaite, have indicated they can continue to work on the opera and come to Charleston in 2021 for the world premiere, Redden said.
Spoleto Festival's sister event, the city of Charleston's Piccolo Spoleto Festival, almost certainly will be impacted by the pandemic, too, because of venue restrictions, regulations about public gatherings, travel challenges, and limits on accommodations and services. City officials did not respond on Tuesday to a request for the status of the festival.