By Patti Roberts | Solving Sacramento | Special to the OBSERVER

Local arts leaders give panel discussion on the state of the performing arts sector, what can be done to boost audience engagement and create a more sustainable arts scene. Hosted at Celebration Arts theater on B Street in Sacramento, Aug. 18. (Photo courtesy of Patti Roberts)
Local arts leaders give panel discussion on the state of the performing arts sector, what can be done to boost audience engagement and create a more sustainable arts scene. Hosted at Celebration Arts theater on B Street in Sacramento, Aug. 18. (Photo courtesy of Patti Roberts) 

Many businesses were affected by the economic downturn spurred by COVID lockdowns and social-distancing mandates. Especially hard hit were local performing arts organizations including theater, dance and music.

“The nonprofit performing arts sector is facing an existential crisis like never before,” said Julie Baker, CEO of Californians for the Arts. “During COVID, we were the first to close and the last to reopen.”

Baker made these stark remarks at a workshop held in Sacramento on Aug. 18 in response to the growing concern about the impact of COVID and other challenges facing arts nonprofits. Californians for the Arts organized workshops in four other cities – Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and San Diego – titled “Adapting in Crisis: Toward a Resilient Performing Arts Sector.”

Here in Sacramento, Californians for the Arts partnered with the city’s Office of Arts and Culture, the Latino Center for Arts and Culture, and Celebration Arts to host more than 80 local participants gathered at the Celebration Arts theater on B Street to listen to presenters and panelists discuss the trials, tribulations and solutions for getting audiences back in seats.

Besides losing revenue during two years of darkened stages, arts groups have also had to acknowledge that there has been an increase in their costs and a shift in what people are looking for in entertainment.

“In addition to the lockdowns, performing arts are facing audience behavior changes, the rising costs of production and employment, racial reckoning due to a lack of diverse representation, as well the end of relief funds, have put performing arts organizations across the state in peril,” said Baker.

“The goal is to not only survive, but to thrive,” was a recurring theme of the workshop that examined how collaboration and innovation in the performing arts sector would help bring back audiences, subscribers, and funders.

The Sacramento audience and panel members came from a wide range of the local performing arts communities including theater, dance, orchestras, ballet, art galleries, music venues, poetry, and university and college arts programs. Besides filling venues, there were also discussions on how to represent and make the arts accessible to diverse communities of ethnicities, sexual orientations, genders, ages and disabilities.

There is a clear interest among the groups that it’s more important than ever to help each other, to build a sense of community and collaboration in an effort to welcome in new audiences and create new opportunities. And just as essential, were conversations on how to tap into local and state arts grants to help defray costs.

The local four-member panelists were: James Ellison III, artistic director for Celebration Arts; Nicole C. Limón, founder and artistic director of Matriarchy Theatre, member of Teatro Espejo, and CSU Sacramento theater professor; Giuliano Kornberg, executive director for Sacramento Philharmonic & Opera; Daniel Romandia, marketing director for Harlow’s, the Starlet Room and Café Colonial. And the moderator was Lorelei Bayne, vice chair of Sacramento State’s department of theater and dance.

“Lots of audiences [are] not coming back,” said Ellison. “We need to cultivate new ways of getting them back while fostering new audiences.” Ellison pointed out that many in the arts community rely on older audience members and there is the challenge of attracting the next generation to fill seats.

“We need the younger audiences – we need to listen to them and value them, expose them to all performing arts forms,” Limón said. “We also need opportunities to tell the stories of everyone in the community and get people involved. We aren’t just a product.”

Kornberg also notes the importance of bringing in younger members of the community, a challenge for orchestras and operas that rely on such classics as Bach and Beethoven. One solution is to offer more modern selections as well as partnering with other arts groups like a collaboration between the Sacramento Philharmonic and the Sacramento Ballet.

“We want to balance our regular orchestra selections that make the money through traditional older, white audiences, with a more diverse musical offerings,” Kornberg said. He also stressed the importance of arts organizations using social media to not only push out information about their own productions, but to be more collaborative by posting information about other performing arts shows.

In agreement is Romandia, who juggles booking acts in smaller venues including Harlow’s, the Starlet Room and Café Colonial. “With the local music scene, we encourage supporting each other through social media posts. We need to work together,” she said.

Finding ways for additional funding and budgeting to help sustain rent, cover employment costs and face other expenses also were main topics. Pandemic relief funds that helped nonprofit performance groups have ended, but there are still viable ways of getting one-time grants and local assistance grants, though the process and results can be frustrating.

Limon pointed out that “we see that grants and fundings seem to always go to the same organizations,” which is why it’s important to be a voice and an advocate.

Audience member and Celebration Arts board member Halifu Osumare also pointed out that some smaller organizations lack big-ticket donors: “We don’t have the patrons that larger theaters have – ours is a working-class audience.”

There was an acknowledgement with both the panelists and audience members throughout the workshop that the nonprofit arts communities face challenging times. But a persevering passion for the arts drives the need to make necessary changes, welcoming the idea of creating a collaborating spirit among the organizations and ensuring their place as an integral part of their local communities.

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. Take our reader survey.