Dayton arts community ‘facing a crisis’

Arts groups navigate challenging path in response to the coronavirus pandemic

With shows canceled and auditoriums empty, Dayton’s arts organizations are on high alert and looking for ways to stay artistically strong and financially afloat during the coronavirus pandemic.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s executive order banning mass gatherings of 100 people or more stopped the thriving arts season in its tracks, swiftly leading to numerous cancelations and postponements as well as ongoing reassessments of how to conduct business.

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Recently, leaders from seven prominent arts organizations — Culture Works, the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Dayton Live, the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, the Contemporary Dayton and the Human Race Theatre Company — united to share their concerns in a prepared statement:

“Here in Dayton, the arts community is facing a crisis. The necessary cancellation of public gatherings has meant not only lost revenue, but has also dramatically slowed contributed income. Like human and social service agencies, arts organizations are mission-driven — providing services thanks to support from generous grants and donations in addition to ticket sales and admissions.

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“Arts organizations across our region rely on a mix of revenue streams to fulfill their individual missions. Annual contributions, ticket sales, admission fees, grants, classes, performance fees, sponsorships, events and other fundraising avenues are all key to each operation. To keep ticket prices and entry fees affordable and to offer programs for students, artists and others, we rely on contributed income to fill the gap. We are watching that gap widen at an unprecedented rate.”

Fundraising: a delicate balance

One week before DeWine’s order, Culture Works, Dayton’s leading arts funding and advocacy organization, launched its 2020 Campaign for the Arts, which helps provide operating support to numerous arts groups. The campaign will relaunch in the summer but organizers hope individual donors will support them now.

Credit: Lisa Hanson

Credit: Lisa Hanson

“We have to continue to be able to raise dollars while being sensitive to this crisis,” said Lisa Hanson, Executive Director for Culture Works. “We recognize it’s tough to shout from the mountaintops to support the arts while people are ending up in the hospital over this illness. But this is a critical time for everyone involved. We want the arts to continue to improve our lives. Organizations are dependent on 60 percent and sometimes 80 percent on ticket sales. And if they have to shut their doors over the course of three months, it’s quite impactful. There are a number of professional sectors that will be affected, from the hospitality industry to electricians and stagehands. We could lose about $50 million from this shutdown.”

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Funding also remains crucial to Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, which was able to perform in Bermuda at the Bermuda Festival of the Performing Arts before COVID-19 travel restrictions hit. Having canceled its annual Soulstice fundraising gala as well as two concerts, the world-renowned troupe, entering its 52nd season this fall, is reevaluating its business framework.

“This is a setback for us as an organization, a business and as a minority arts organization especially within this community,” said Ro Nita Hawes-Saunders, DCDC Chief Executive Officer. “Right now, we are planning a different look to next season while still being able to have performances and our gala next spring, hopefully. Optimistically, we are looking at ways to change our business model and structure. We’re looking at new strategies, new opportunities. In this world of technology, we see opportunities we hadn’t thought about and other opportunities we had thought about in terms of product but it wasn’t on our radar for now but rather six months or a year from now. Our dancers are still rehearsing, practicing and doing workouts virtually.”

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At the Dayton Art Institute, spring would typically be filled with chatter surrounding its impending Art Ball but organizers have moved the gala from June 13 to late fall. The DAI’s equally popular Oktoberfest may also undergo significant changes.


“Art Ball, our second largest fundraiser, will likely be a little different, but I think it will be special,” said Michael Roediger, DAI Director and Chief Executive Officer. “It will have to be on a Friday night since all our Saturdays are booked.

“We are definitely considering what Oktoberfest, our largest fundraiser, looks like post-pandemic. If the virus remains active or has a resurgence through late summer and early fall, and we are still permitted to host the outdoor festival, we may have to hold a smaller Oktoberfest, with more open space. If the virus has passed, and we are getting back to normal, we will come through this and the community may want to unite, much like they did following 9/11, and come out and celebrate together.”

According to Roediger, the DAI’s annual budget is slightly below $5 million and contributed income makes up about 50 percent of it. Losing the Art Ball and Oktoberfest would likely be devastating.

“Not having the events is a game changer for our budget and we will have to take drastic measures if canceling them is required. We will know more in the coming weeks.”

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The complexities of the moment

Forty-eight hours before DeWine’s order, Dayton Live (formerly Victoria Theatre Association) celebrated its debut as a leading presenter of arts, culture and entertainment in the Miami Valley. Revealing an 2020-2021 slate featuring the local premieres of Tony Award-winning musicals “Come From Away” and “The Band’s Visit” in addition to the blockbuster return of Disney’s “The Lion King” generated excitement. However, the remainder of its current season quickly fell apart including the regional premiere of “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical.”

“Going from the Dayton Live announcement to an immediate ban on mass gatherings was incredibly disappointing,” said Ty Sutton, Dayton Live President and Chief Executive Officer. “For now, we are doing our best to weather this. We’re asking donors to help us continue our operation. We have had to make significant staffing reductions. We also don’t know what the future looks like as (an organization) that operates theatres. Some shows may not be able to come back for a long time, like ‘Summer’ and ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’”

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Dayton Live was able to reschedule its engagement of the new national tour of “Cats” for July 14-19 at the Schuster Center. Even so, without any income right now, the company is surviving on assets and endowments.

“We are facing massive losses that will have a long-term effect on the organization,” he said. “Every week we continue to operate we are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Although the community has been very generous for a long time, this (crisis) is having a serious impact on our ability to operate. But my bigger concern is our local arts organizations. This (crisis) is threatening to their existence and we will lose local arts organizations that don’t have a way to weather it.”

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Contemplating a new normal

Realizing the necessity of keeping the arts alive during this period of isolation, Discover Classical – Dayton’s 24/7 classical music radio station – has partnered with Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra to present “Concert Night” on Saturday evenings. The weekly series spotlights DPO Artistic Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman’s 10 favorite DPO concerts from the last five years.

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive and it’s clear the community is clamoring for experiences like these,” said Shaun Yu, Discover Classical President and Chief Executive Officer. “In the months ahead, we will need to heal and the arts will be critical in helping to mend from the hurt I believe is still on the way. More than ever, the arts community will need to put themselves out there in new, creative ways.”

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Among the first arts leaders to stress the importance of encouraging patrons to consider donating the cost of tickets back to presenting organizations, Yu is thankful WDPR’s recent fundraising goal was reached despite cutting its spring pledge drive short. The station hasn’t cancelled any productions or closed its doors, but did cancel its Rising Stars Gala, which raises nearly $40,000 annually.

“I believe the real test, though, will come six to 12 months from now,” he said. “When families start to grapple with their ability to make ends meet, any number of nonprofits will start to feel the true impact on our community’s ability to give.

“While I can’t predict the long-term impacts, my hope is that we will also rethink how vital the arts are to the very soul of a community.”

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