The Uncertain Future of the Arts in PA - Paycheck

The Uncertain Future of the Arts in PA

Pennsylvania has long boasted of the Commonwealth’s robust cultural life.  From world-class orchestras and museums in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to a startling array of smaller institutions around the state, few Pennsylvanians are far from places where they can immerse themselves in music, art, and history.

         The next year or two promise to be difficult ones for many of those organizations.   Some began the year in far healthier shape than others, thanks to aggressive fund-raising efforts in the last decade, but precisely none of them could possibly have prepared to weather the storm of a global pandemic.

         The immediate blow is that every one of them is about to begin a third month without so much as a penny in ticket sales.

          In the short term, museums may face the toughest challenge.  Bills for heat, electricity, security systems, and insurance for room after room of Old Masters or Civil War artifacts don’t go away in a health crisis, and with a few rare exceptions, museums are heavily dependent on ticket sales for routine expenses while fund-raising campaigns and what are frequently dwindling endowments are reserved for acquisitions and other one-time costs.

The saving grace for museums may be that as the world slowly and cautiously begins to stir, they can find ways for patrons to maintain a measure of social distancing on which many will insist for some time to come.

The same cannot be said for the performing arts.  There is simply no way for an orchestra, a ballet troupe, or a theater company to break even without a crowded house for most of their shows—even if it were somehow possible for patrons to pass through small lobbies without coming much closer to one another than is likely to engender comfort.

One member of the executive board of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra summed it up to me in a single word: “devastating.”

The challenge is not limited to a handful of high-profile organizations in the state’s largest cities, which face staggering monthly costs but benefit from solid corporate support and networks of well-heeled donors.  Organizations in smaller cities may face lower costs, but are limited to a much smaller pool of potential donors.

For arts organizations across the Commonwealth, the next few years will be fraught with difficulty as they find themselves far more dependent on private fund-raising than they could possibly have anticipated a few months ago, with no planning and an edge of desperation in their appeal—all while potential donors wrestle with a highly uncertain economic future and much diminished stock market.

         For the professionals and committed volunteers at the helm of hundreds of organizations, it will be a challenging time—but my sense is that in a few years, they benefited because of the sense of community that runs much deeper than commonly imagined in Pennsylvania’s towns and cities.

Michael O'Connell

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