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As COVID-19 Pandemic Drags On, Donors Scale Back Support For Kansas City Arts Organizations

Musical Theatre Heritage's "The Music of Motown," filmed in a gallery in the Crossroads Hotel, features a musical revue of the Motown era of the 1960s and 70s. It's streaming online through Feb.6.
courtesy: Musical Theater Heritage
Musical Theater Heritage's "The Music of Motown," filmed in a gallery in the Crossroads Hotel, features a musical revue of the Motown era of the 1960s and 70s. The production is streaming online through Feb.6.

Arts organizations cut costs and continue on-line offerings, as vaccine rollout gets underway.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is taking a financial and emotional toll on the arts in Kansas City and elsewhere.

"In some cases, some of our donors have made, I think, a very conscientious and very conscious decision to allocate resources over to frontline workers and other parts of our community who are dealing with this pandemic,"Kansas City Ballet executive director Jeff Bentley said. "No one can fault them on that.”

According to a recent story in The New York Times, total giving to arts organizations across North America dropped by about 14% on average over the past year. Leaders of local arts groups say they're seeing their revenues decline, as well, as most indoor live performances have been canceled or postponed..

Bentley said the majority of Kansas City Ballet patrons contributed the value of their tickets for canceled performances dating back to March 2020. And long-time supporters have provided additional funds for pandemic projects, such as boosting the quality of online video offerings.

But he knows people have lost jobs and income, so donors are “stepping up depending on their ability.” And without ticket sales, the most significant revenue stream, the organization has cut costs, keeping the company intact but shortening dancers' contracts by several weeks. Other staffers have taken across-the-board pay cuts of 20% to 25%.

Musical Theater Heritage, housed in Crown Center, has about 1,500 season subscribers. Executive director Chad Gerlt said an estimated 30% of patrons requested refunds for canceled shows, and grants tied to the canceled performances also dried up. The organization also pivoted in 2020 to online or outdoor performances.

Kansas City foundations, like the Muriel McBrien Kauffman Foundation, Theatre League, and others, stepped in to fill some of the gaps, Gerlt said. For now, they’re down to a bare-bones staff, from 30 to about five as of early February.

“So we’re doing fine,” Gerlt said, “but we obviously need to be able to start doing shows live and in person again.”

He added, “Our audience is understanding, but at some point, they’re gonna probably start to get tired of it. And not be able to financially help us moving forward. But, we’ll see.”

Melanie Miller, CEO of Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, said revenue for that organization was down significantly in 2020, and she is "mindful of the increased level of need across the city" as people are out of work or their income levels have dropped.

But the trials of the pandemic have also served to reinforce the need for strong arts programs, Miller said.

"If there's one thing that we've learned in this past year it's that what we do matters — that we can still deliver on our mission in a virtual way, and that we need to be here," she said.

The organization's three-part mission — as a presenter, a provider of arts education, and a promoter of conversations about issues of race — allows it to target donors who might have a passion for one aspect, Miller said. And in lieu of ticket sales, they've explored sponsorships to help fund specific needs.

"In this time where dollars are stretched, we are trying not to knock on the same doors all the time," Miller said.

So far, she said, "we are keeping our head above water," keeping expenses in line with revenue.

A production photo for Lyric Opera of Kansas City's "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Live, in-person performances were canceled after new COVID-19 restrictions in Kansas City, Missouri, were announced. A performance recording is available online.
Don Ipock
A production photo for Lyric Opera of Kansas City's "Amahl and the Night Visitors." Live, in-person performances were canceled after new COVID-19 restrictions in Kansas City, Missouri, were announced. A performance recording is available online.

In early March 2020, Lyric Opera of Kansas City's board of directors passed a budget for the fiscal year ending in June 2021. This was, as general director and CEO Deborah Sandler described it, "before COVID blossomed into its full fury." After shows were canceled, she said, the budget was revised in July, and the Lyric has since cut about 25% of its staff.

"The goal is to keep ourselves and sustain ourselves to a point where we can emerge," Sandler said. "We tried to be realistic about what the environment would be like."

It's a landscape that continues to change — as COVID-19 restrictions are extended in some parts of the Kansas City metro area and as vaccine rollouts get underway.

The Lyric has also seen generous contributions of the value of tickets from canceled performances. But, Sandler said, some of its donors are tabling their arts funding “through the current crisis.”

That doesn’t mean donors have stopped giving — just that that they might be directing funds to other types of organizations.

“In 2020, our donors used their donor-advised funds to give more, and more often,” Leanne Breiby, vice president of communications at Greater Kansas City Community Foundation, said in an email. “We had a significant uptick in donors making grants to charities from their donor-advised funds.”

The results haven’t been completely tabulated yet, Breiby said, but, so far, in 2020, the foundation has seen increases of more than 40% in both the number and dollar amount of grants.

“Unfortunately it’s too early for us to report which sectors received these grants,” said Breiby. “But anecdotally, the increase was most likely in health and human services, as donors wanted to respond to critical needs related to the pandemic.”

In December, front-line healthcare workers started to receive COVID-19 vaccines in the Kansas City metro area. Both Kansas and Missouri have phases of availability. But widespread vaccination, which will enable audiences to congregate safely, is still months away.

"Every time I've talked with our patrons, they are so, 'I'm ready to get back to the theater.' You know, they just want the vaccine first," Gerlt said. "And so that is probably the biggest challenge — to make sure that everybody gets the vaccine, that they feel safe."

Bentley and Sandler cautioned that even when the majority of the population has received a vaccine, it could take years for arts organizations to build back to where they were before the pandemic.

"There will be a return to normalcy," Bentley said, "but it's going to be in gradations. It's not going to be over and done. So the switch is not going to light the room again."

Sandler added, "It will all look very different in the future. And by that, I mean the kinds of things we put on stage, the number of things we put on stage, the distribution of what we create. Artistically, I think it will be different."

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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