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Why pandemic represents 'existential crisis' for performing artists


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: What happens when the audience isn't there?

We look to the arts for entertainment and comfort, but they are also an important economic engine. Now many artists face a crisis.

Jeffrey Brown reports for canvas and for our ongoing American Creators series on rural arts.

Jeffrey Brown: Across the nation, the financial and psychological hit is profound, as performances everywhere have stopped.

New York's Metropolitan Opera, the country's largest cultural institution, canceled the rest of its season and furloughed its orchestra, chorus and other union workers, citing losses of up to $60 million.

A prominent regional troupe, the Oregon Shakespeare Theater, has as suspended shows through Labor Day and laid off 80 percent of its 500 employees.

Most individual artists are freelance workers, building careers through a patchwork of performances, shows, teaching, waiting tables, whatever it takes.

Boston-based violinist Katherine Winterstein has had a successful life as an artist for decades, before seeing it crash in one 36-hour period last month.

Katherine Winterstein: We don't have a lot of fiscal protections. But the fact that we have a diverse portfolio, you might say, you're insulated, because you may have had a rainy day fund, but none of us has had, like, a monsoon fund or a tsunami fund for a moment like this, when everything has ceased.

Jeffrey Brown: Now there's just remote teaching. And like gig workers across the economy, Winterstein is learning the complexities of the unemployment system.

The CARES Act has offered some relief, but, she says, it's a continuing struggle for many.

Katherine Winterstein: The system is not equipped really to understand our kind of income. So, almost everyone I know has gotten different answers from the system.

Jeffrey Brown: Across the country, in Portland, Oregon, the August Wilson Red Door Project uses theater to address pressing social issues, like the criminal justice system.

Last year, the "NewsHour" profiled a play featuring voices from law enforcement and the local community. In March, the company was set to take one of its shows on tour.

Artistic director and co-founder Kevin Jones:

Kevin Jones: This was going to be our best year, quite frankly. We were looking at producing 20 shows around the country. We took quite a hit. We lost about $300,000 of income. We paid out about $80,000 in salaries to actors and crew.

Jeffrey Brown: Now project team members meet on Zoom. But the art itself is missing, at a moment when the pandemic is exposing disparities Jones and his company wish they could address.

Kevin Jones: We spend a lot of time looking at what's going on, with 70 percent of the victims are black or people of color. And what does that really mean? Is it about race? Is it about culture? Is it about class?

I think all of these things, art is built for.

Jeffrey Brown: For arts groups everywhere now, the outreach is all in the digital, not physical space. To stay connected, many are making archival performances available online.

The Metropolitan Opera offers free daily encore presentations. Some groups offer classes and other activities. And livestream performances also offer other ways to raise a bit of money.

Conor Lee: The band I'm in, we just released a record. And so we had like a small tour planned. We were going to head out to different Midwest states. I think it was supposed to be our first time going to Nebraska, actually.

Jeffrey Brown: Instead, 26-year-old Conor Lee, based in Moorhead, Minnesota, performed virtually at a live-wire concert.

Lee, who earns income from teaching, also received an emergency $500 grant from a relief fund set up for artists. It's not much, but helps when everything has dried up.

Conor Lee: No, that's definitely going to cover rent and, you know, just trying to maintain.

Jeffrey Brown: That fund was set up by Springboard for the Arts, a Minnesota group that supports smaller urban and rural arts groups and their communities. It's difficult even in the best of times, says executive director Laura Zabel.

Laura Zabel: It's fragile all the time. And I think we're sort of having this collective awakening in this moment of just how fragile that ecosystem is and just how fragile so many artists' livelihoods are.

Jeffrey Brown: Last year, we joined Zabel and representatives of rural arts groups from around the country at a conference where they spoke ongoing successes and challenges.

Now the urgent challenge is survival.

Laura Zabel: It's an existential crisis for artists, for arts and culture organizations, for our whole sector.

We're hearing numbers both nationally and locally that between 60 and 70 percent of our creative work force is unemployed right now.

People's survival and ability to be housed, to feed their family, we're at that level of crisis.

Woman: We're here for you.

Jeffrey Brown: Other relief efforts are under way as well. There are grassroots, newly formed projects, such as the Artist Relief Tree. It's given out more $200,000 to some 900 individual artists, the money raised through donations and an benefit concert that featured prominent artists including J'Nai Bridges and Rachel Barton Pine.

And bigger, more established efforts like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, now turn to helping entertaining and professionals with COVID-19-related needs.

A coalition of major foundations and arts funders put together a $10 million relief package to provide $5,000 grants to artists and companies.

What are they all seeking to preserve? The artists we talked with said it goes beyond their individual plights.

Violinist Katherine Winterstein in Boston:

Katherine Winterstein: Our job is to gather people and to connect and to add meaning. And I hope that, when we come back out of our houses, we are hungry for that again.

Jeffrey Brown: Theater director Kevin Jones in Portland:

Kevin Jones: It defines the culture in so many ways. It defines who we are, the things you can't necessarily put your finger on and quantify and pull out a lot of data for, but we notice when it's gone.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: So important that they come back strong when all of this is behind us.

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