Arts and culture hubs in America devastated in the wake of coronavirus outbreak

File photo of an installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. Photo: Sujeet Rajan

NEW YORK – The coronavirus outbreak has come like a sinkhole for many businesses globally, and in its cataclysmic wake – as people begin indefinite days of shelter-in-place voluntarily or involuntarily, the arts and culture hubs too in America, are in turmoil.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on March 24, 2020, #CongressSaveCulture, a campaign to support broader efforts advocating for financial relief for non-profit arts organizations to be included in the trillion-dollar stimulus package currently being debated in Congress.

Specifically, the Met is calling on the federal government to include at least $4 billion in government support for financially at-risk non-profit arts organizations and the implementation of a universal charitable tax deduction to incentivize giving to these institutions, according to a press release. The current relief package is expected to include funding for many industries impacted by COVID-19, including casinos, airlines, and more.

The Met has already announced an expected shortfall of at least $100 million, exemplifying the devastating affect the world’s health crisis is having on cultural organizations.

The Met—one of the world’s largest art museums, with 7 million visitors annually—will be calling on its robust community of 2,000 staff, over 1,000 volunteers, 120,000 members, 9 million social media followers, and all of its supporters to amplify the #CongressSaveCulture campaign.

Daniel H. Weiss, President and CEO of the Museum, commented, “As we prioritize the health and safety of people around the globe first and foremost, we must also plan for the world we will re-enter once this crisis finally subsides. With that in mind, we must ensure that arts organizations, large and small, will be able to withstand the economic devastation so many are facing.”

Weiss added: “Cultural organizations are important not just because of the value that the arts bring to our lives but because these institutions also drive tourism and create jobs. Despite the abundance and excellence of the programs and resources that our country’s arts groups deliver, and the legions of audiences they serve, many already operate on the edge, with very limited reserves. All are facing unprecedented financial damage as a result of the immediate and long-term effects of the coronavirus on the economy. The need for government relief for arts institutions and their employees cannot be underestimated.”

The Met is encouraging supporters to go to the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) website and send a letter to representatives in Congress; share the hashtag #CongressSaveCulture on social media platforms; and sign the Met’s petition to support arts organizations at

Already, COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the arts and culture sector. Museums across the nation collectively are projected to lose at least $33 million a day because of closures. The AAM estimates that 30 percent of museums—mostly in small and rural communities—will not be able to reopen without swift financial support from the government.

Museums provide important educational, cultural, and economic value to communities around the United States. AAM and Oxford Economics estimate that museums contribute $50 billion to the U.S. economy and $12 billion in tax revenue each year. Beyond that, museums support more than 725,000 jobs across the country, providing local employment to Americans in every state.

The downturn is evident in every part of America.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week the galleries of San Francisco’s de Young Museum are filled with works by one of the most significant — and most popular — painters of the 20th century. But not a single visitor, much less the anticipated blockbuster crowd, is anywhere to be seen.

The exhibition, “Frida Kahlo: Appearances Can Be Deceiving,” was to open to the public Saturday, March 21, after two days of celebratory parties and previews. Ticket, membership and concession sales associated with this show were expected to provide 15% of the year’s total revenue for the museum’s parent organization, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Now the loss could amount to $9 million if the city’s coronavirus shelter-in-place regulations stay in effect until June.

“We, like the entire arts community, have just been sideswiped” by this shutdown, FAMSF director Thomas P. Campbell said in an interview with The Chronicle. “The impact is immediate, and I think we are typical.”

A study reports that arts organizations stand to lose more than $73 million in revenue and donations if the shutdown continues through summer, the Chronicle reported. The American Conservatory Theater has laid off about 230 workers — including 25 full-time employees, 75 part-timers and 130 who had been hired for specific productions.

Among the cancellations is the West Coast premiere of “Toni Stone,” a highly anticipated play about the first woman to play professional baseball, who got her start with the Negro Leagues’ San Francisco Sea Lions. The production opened March 5 and was shut down the next day after Mayor London Breed ordered a ban on large gatherings.

The San Francisco Ballet also hasn’t performed publicly since the opening night of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which was the night before Breed ordered the closure of the War Memorial Opera House and Performing Arts Center venues.

“Seventy-two percent of our budget is human,” said Kelly Tweeddale, executive director of the San Francisco Ballet, who has been in her job for barely six months after a 35-year career in arts leadership, to the Chronicle. Many of the dance company’s artists make their homes in other countries. “These are people on work visas, and in 30 days we have to return them” if they are not legitimately working here, she said. Others will lose their union-provided insurance if they don’t work a sufficient number of days.

The San Francisco Arts Alliance, a loosely organized assembly of the leaders of about 15 of the largest arts institutions in the city, has come together in this moment of crisis to conduct what it has dubbed the San Francisco COVID-19 Arts Impact Survey. The alliance gathered data from 145 organizations in the city, large and small, in all arts disciplines, which were shared exclusively with The Chronicle.

The results of the survey show that as of Friday, March 20, arts groups had already lost a combined $21.4 million in earned income because of the city-ordered shutdown. That is a figure expected to grow to $42.5 million if the crisis lasts until June 15, and $47.8 million — a whopping loss of 25% of all expected earned income from ticket and concessions sales for the entire year — if programs must be curtailed into mid-September.

Members of Congress and staffers on Capitol Hill know the problem roiling the arts and culture world, well enough.

In Tysons, Va., 1st Stage suspended the musical “A New Brain” with the hope of resuming performances when conditions improve. Synetic Theater in Arlington canceled “Life Is A Dream” — laying off some 30 people in the process — while postponing “Teen Romeo and Juliet,” a piece its student artists have been working on for eight months. Women in Film and Video canceled almost a dozen events over the next month, although some are being shifted to virtual settings, reported The Washington Post.

“It’s going to be long, sad haul for everybody,” said Rebecca Medrano, executive director of GALA Hispanic Theatre, which canceled its current production — a crushing blow because it included 13 sold-out student matinees — and is discussing the fate of “Tía Julia y el Escribidor (Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter),” slated to run April 23 to May 17. The future rests with the final show of the season — “Ella es Tango,” a musical review in collaboration with the Pan American Symphony Orchestra, set to open June 10.

Christopher Morgan, executive artistic director at Dance Place in Washington, is concerned about the dancers and choreographers whose incomes will be decimated over the coming months. Like dominoes falling on each other, he said, each action he takes ripples through the community, the Post reported.

Dance Place is closed at least through this month — a loss of at least $28,000 in revenue — but that’s just the start.

Morgan has postponed performances scheduled for April and May, too. Rehearsal space has closed, so new work won’t be ready, and paying travel expenses for out-of-town performers seems too risky. His focus is on paying the salaries of his 23 employees, and covering most of contracts of the independent artists whose dates he’s going to try to reschedule.

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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