How COVID-19 Is Drawing The Curtain On Local Performing Arts Groups

Illustration by Curt Merlo

Last March, as COVID-19 carved a path from the coasts to the Midwest, the Indiana Repertory Theatre was in the middle of a run of Murder on the Orient Express, the seventh entry in its nine-show season. “We were hoping we would be able to produce the final two plays of the season,” IRT managing director Suzanne Sweeney says. “Looking back, we were so naive.”

IRT shut down Murder on the Orient Express on March 16. Its stages have been dark ever since. The company kept its staff employed for a few months thanks to cash reserves and a Paycheck Protection Loan, but when funds ran out in June, it furloughed its production team and half of its administrative employees.

The dire circumstances the IRT finds itself in are not unique. Arts organizations around the country are in crisis mode as they try to mitigate the havoc caused by the pandemic. According to the Americans for the Arts advocacy group, arts institutions nationwide have lost a total of $8.4 billion. Fifty-one percent have canceled events at least through the end of this month. Forty-seven percent have no target date for reopening. Locally, the nonprofit arts sector was projected to endure 30,000 cancellations and $51 million in lost revenue by this month—with another $20 million in restart costs on the horizon. Nearly every organization has laid off or furloughed staff.

Performing-arts groups—theaters, dance companies, choirs, and orchestras—seem to be in particularly bad shape. Unlike museums, they require audiences to gather together closely indoors and involve performers singing, dancing, and playing together on stage. How can you rehearse a theatrical or musical concert, much less stage a show, without putting your own performers and patrons at risk?

By and large, the answer to that question on the part of performing-arts groups has been: “You can’t.” But the cost of not performing has been steep. The IRT’s spring cancellations alone cost it about $1 million in revenue. The financial hit it would take if it abandoned the entire 2020–2021 season—as some regional theater companies have already done—is something IRT leadership would rather not ponder.

While the IRT is still hoping for a return to the stage this fall, most other large performing-arts groups called off their remaining 2020 performances after a surge in COVID-19 cases in July. As the costs of these cancellations pile up, a disquieting question looms for local performing arts groups: Will they survive? And, if so, in what form?


The Indianapolis performing-arts community has fallen on hard times before. The 2008 recession was especially brutal. “But there has always been light at the end of the tunnel,” Sweeney says. “We always knew people would come back to the theater. Now, not understanding how that is going to work, the uncertainty of it is like nothing we’ve seen before.”

It’s also like nothing theater-goers have experienced before. According to audience research, many of them aren’t sure when they’ll be ready to return. In one survey conducted by the Arts Council of Indianapolis in April, less than half of the respondents said they would attend indoor events at large performing-arts venues in the next six months.

Nevertheless, as of press time, the IRT still hoped to relaunch in November with its annual production of A Christmas Carol accompanied by some dramatic new safety measures. All songs have been removed from the play to reduce the risk of virus transmission. Only 130 people will be admitted to the 600-seat theater. Electronic programs will replace paper ones. And an upgraded HVAC system will feature enhanced filters and UV lights.

[pullquote align=”left” caption=”Ruby Lopez Harper, Americans for the Arts”]The pandemic has exposed a lot of the fractures that we knew already existed.[/pullquote]Even with those measures in place, Sweeney remains equivocal about whether the show will go on if COVID-19 continues to spread. “We’ll be evaluating what is going on in the sports world, in theaters, and what audiences are saying in surveys,” she says. “There’s still a big question mark.”

James Johnson feels Sweeney’s pain. As CEO of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, he oversaw the cancellation of all of the orchestra’s 2020 summer performances, including its popular Symphony on the Prairie series. After exhausting $2.9 million in Paycheck Protection Program funds, the ISO furloughed 107 of its employees, including 76 musicians, last spring. When interviewed for this story in June, Johnson was confident that the ISO would return to the stage this fall. “We’re going to have to figure out how we can operate under these conditions,” he said. But a little more than a month later, the ISO announced the cancellation of its entire 2020–2021 indoor concert season, citing “challenges presented to the ISO by the pandemic and unforeseen economic pressures.”

For now, the ISO plans to relaunch in summer 2021 with Symphony on the Prairie. But if recent history has taught Johnson anything, it’s that all plans made during a pandemic are tentative.


Central Indiana Community Foundation CEO Brian Payne is well-known for his optimism. But when discussing how local performing-arts groups can survive the threats posed by the pandemic, the former IRT managing director (and current board member) sounds a rare note of despair. “I just don’t know,” he says. “And the fact that no one knows what’s going to happen makes it 10 times harder.”

The unpredictability of the situation, he says, is the biggest problem. There’s no way to know when conditions will be safe for large gatherings, or when another spike in cases will trigger more government-mandated closures. No one knows when a vaccine might be available. So performing-arts organizations are left to either make expensive plans for a future that might not arrive, or shut down operations and save money until the pandemic cools down—all while hoping they’re not making a fatal mistake.

“The pandemic has exposed a lot of the fractures that we knew already existed,” says Ruby Lopez Harper, a senior director at the advocacy group Americans for the Arts. “Organizations have been operating with very lean budgets and small cash reserves to get them through emergencies.” While local organizations like the IRT and the ISO have sizable endowments (roughly $23 million and $83 million, respectively), that isn’t necessarily a panacea for pandemic woes. “With the stock market in high flux, the revenue from endowments may not help as much as usual,” Lopez Harper says.

In a national survey conducted by Americans for the Arts last summer, 10 percent of nonprofit arts organizations said they were “not confident” they would survive the pandemic. Locally, the Indianapolis Contemporary museum closed in April. No closures of major institutions have been announced, but Lopez Harper believes they are inevitable. “We aren’t going to hear about it until it’s too late,” she says.

A study conducted by the Arts Council of Indianapolis found that two types of arts groups are most at risk: those serving youth and those led by, and serving, communities of color. Asante Children’s Theatre (ACT), which provides Afrocentric performing-arts programming primarily to Black and low-income youth, falls into both categories. Earlier this year, ACT was forced to cancel its three annual theatrical performances, and may yet cancel its holiday concert in December. Ticket sales from those shows are a key source of revenue for ACT, but executive director Keesha Dixon isn’t sounding the alarm bells just yet. “We have thrived in other ways during the pandemic,” she says, adding that fundraising has been particularly strong.

ACT enjoys robust support from CICF and the Lilly Endowment, two of the Indianapolis arts community’s most generous funders. Moving forward, nonprofit arts groups will be even more dependent on them. This past summer, the Lilly Endowment made a $10.2 million grant to the Arts Council of Indianapolis to launch the Arts & Culture Restart and Resilience Fund, which made grants of up to $500,000 to help arts groups pay for the upgrades necessary to reopen safely. While performing-arts groups are no doubt grateful for the money, it’s of limited use when they can’t be sure when it will be safe to perform in front of an audience again.


Most performing-arts groups rely on two types of revenue: earned income and donations. The pandemic has obliterated the former—which consists mostly of ticket sales, sponsorships, and concessions. As for donations, few organizations have seen the uptick that ACT has. You might assume arts patrons would step up their giving during a time of crisis, but Paul Hansen, marketing director for Dance Kaleidoscope, says this isn’t so. “Donations go down when you’re not performing,” he says. “That’s when people are paying attention and give money.”

After canceling its spring and summer performances, DK worked to keep patrons’ attention with virtual performances and moved its annual fundraising gala online. Although Hansen felt the latter was a success, he admits it didn’t raise as much money as it normally does.

The pandemic comes at a crucial time for the dance troupe, which was preparing to move to a new studio at the Circle City Industrial Complex when the cancellations started. The new space opened to DK dancers last month, and they’re now rehearsing (with masks on, at a safe distance from one another) for a return to the stage. Hansen says artistic director David Hochoy has put together a show of “mostly solos” so dancers can perform at minimal risk. DK had hoped to stage the show live at Indiana Repertory Theatre next month, but after virus cases surged in July, the troupe decided to stream it online. “We are not driving this,” Hansen says. “COVID-19 is driving.”

As a nearly 50-year-old group with an endowment established by a $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment in 2015, DK seems likely to survive this. Their reserves will take a hit, but they’re established enough to have a financial plan for hard times. According to Lopez Harper, the groups at the most risk are those that weren’t managing their financials well before, and weren’t thinking about disaster planning. But, she adds, the pandemic will test those with even the most careful financial strategies. “They’ve been closed since March,” she says. “Who plans for that?”

Payne at CICF believes mid-sized organizations with significant overhead and limited cash reserves are in the most peril. “I don’t want to name names, but there are some that have quite a lot of infrastructure, but not a sizable endowment,” he says. “That’s where the biggest pain point lies.” But Payne says that most of the small theater groups will be OK. He points to IndyFringe Theatre, which owns its own building, and was able to pivot to outdoor performances this summer with relative ease. The same is true of Fonseca Theatre Company on West Michigan Street, where producing director Bryan Fonseca plans to bring shows indoors this fall, “contingent on virus conditions.”

Payne contrasted these small, adaptable theaters with entrenched legacy organizations like the IRT, with large facilities and staffs. While their endowments will keep them afloat, they may have to endure a painful rebuilding process once the pandemic is over. “You might still have an endowment and a theater, but what if everything you’ve been building as an artistic collective for 30 years is gone?” Payne says, referring to the performers and crew members who may look for employment elsewhere. “We have to maintain that ecosystem of skilled crews, actors, musicians so that when we get the go-ahead, we aren’t starting from zero.”

If the government’s various mitigation efforts—a statewide mask mandate, delayed school openings, ongoing restrictions on public gatherings—manage to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Central Indiana, it would go a long way toward keeping that ecosystem intact. But if the pandemic rages on and another shutdown is ordered, the future of local performing-arts organizations will be called into further question. In the meantime, groups such as the IRT and ISO can only put on a brave face and hope for the best.

“Theater has been around for thousands of years,” the IRT’s Sweeney says. “I know we’ll find a way to make sure it continues.”