Ah, New York. The city where, this coming weekend, Hugh Jackman will make mischief out of marching bands in Broadway’s “The Music Man”; Anna Netrebko will pine stirringly as Aida for the Metropolitan Opera; and Nick Cave will command the stage with the Bad Seeds at Barclays Center.
The whole world seems to be here: Acts from Egypt, Morocco and Lebanon join an Arabic music festival at Joe’s Pub. Performances and parties herald the opening of a new $60 million home for the Irish Arts Center. And the reimagined Next Wave Festival draws adventurous artists from around the globe to BAM.
That’s not hypothetical. That’s the actual arts calendar for this weekend, Sept. 25 to 27, 2020.
Or at least, it was.
Even as culture vultures return to museums, students to schools, and diners to restaurants, the performing arts remain indefinitely dark. (There are exceptions, of course, mostly small and outdoors. And there is streaming — so much streaming.)
So what happens when the performances pause, seasons are suspended, and stages go dark? We look at the toll the shutdown is taking through data (jobs vanished, revenues gone), visuals (picturing the season that isn’t) and personal stories (22 arts workers who should have been working this weekend, and what they’re doing instead). One weekend, lost, but also, so much more.
22 PEOPLE WHO SHOULD BE CLOCKING INTO WORK RIGHT NOW • Matt Doyle, a 33-year-old actor, expected to be on Broadway in a gender-bending revival of “Company.” Instead, “it’s hustle in any way imaginable”: singing on Cameo, teaching on Zoom, gaming on Twitch, writing comics on Webtoon, even renting out his car via Turo. Said Doyle, “The world fell out underneath us.” • Jesse Malin, 53, a rock singer and co-owner of clubs like Bowery Electric and Niagara, would have been touring across the Northeast in anticipation of a new album in October. Lockdown meant more than 100 lost shows, losing the musician up to 75 percent of his income. “$1,000 now is like $10,000 pre-Covid” for musicians who live week-to-week, tour-to-tour, he said. • Sutton Foster, 45, was slated to be starring opposite Hugh Jackman in a Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” Instead she has been holed up with “a wonderful variety of sweatpants,” and is leading dance cardio workouts for charity on Instagram Live. She and Jackman are planning a two-week choreography rehearsal, after which she will film the seventh season of “Younger.” “I’m excited to work,” she said, “but I know it’s going to be a completely different environment.”
• Lindsey Jones, 30, a freelance dancer who performs with John Heginbotham and Pam Tanowitz, expected her September to be full of rehearsals. She has no plans to stop performing, but in June she started an herbal medicine program and landed a job in garden design. “I have the body awareness that it requires because we’re doing so much heavy lifting,” she said. “Dance prepared me to do this job.” • Nick Catchdubs, 39, a DJ and co-founder of Fool’s Gold Records, would have been preparing for his independent label’s annual festival. About a quarter of his own income has evaporated, and the label shuttered its downtown location. “It’s phantom-limb syndrome,” he said of not being able to DJ. “And I don’t think anybody wants to go to a nightclub with ten people in circles.” • Frank Huang, 42, is the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. He lost a large part of his income when the Philharmonic’s musicians all agreed to accept the same reduced pay (about $2,000 a week). He has put off purchasing a car and some items for his daughter, born in May, and has been more frugal at the grocery store — “things I would never have thought twice about in the past” — while playing lawn concerts for his Scarsdale neighbors.
In many ways, the city’s pulsing cultural scene, big and small, rich and struggling, scrappy and refined, makes New York what it is. It’s why we live here, or why we visit. The arts entertain us, provoke us, inform us, inspire us.
They’re also an engine that drives the city’s economy.
Before the pandemic, New York state’s arts and cultural sector contributed $120 billion to New York’s economy, or 7.5 percent of the state’s economic output, and employed nearly half a million people, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
“The arts are essential to the city’s identity, economy and quality of life,” said Kate D. Levin, a former city cultural affairs commissioner who now heads the arts program at Bloomberg Philanthropies.
When the pandemic hit, those cultural engines abruptly stopped. Across the city, concerts were postponed and museums locked their doors. On Broadway, the lights went out.
Without ticket-buying audiences, incomes of cultural organizations have plummeted, creating the worst crisis that New York’s arts community has experienced in living memory, worse than what followed 9/11 or the Great Recession. The losses are staggering.
In just four months following the shutdown, about $27.9 billion in sales “just disappeared,” according to Michael Seman, an assistant professor of arts management at Colorado State University.
The city feels this not just in its heart, but in its wallet. Taxable revenue from performing arts companies fell 85 percent this spring compared to 2019, dropping from $25.2 million to just $3.8 million. That’s among the steepest drops of any New York industry, according to the Center for an Urban Future.
Another measure: Playbill normally prints 1.75 million programs each month for distribution in New York. Today, that number is zero.
For many New York cultural organizations, there are now existential challenges. Ten percent are not sure they will survive, according to a survey by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit advocacy organization for the arts and arts education.
A Brookings Institution report, written by Seman and Richard Florida, estimates nationwide losses for the creative industries to be $150 billion, on everything from tickets and concert merchandise to paintings and music lessons, with New York the hardest-hit metropolitan area.
The economic benefits of arts and culture extend far beyond ticket sales and taxes. Tourists, drawn here for Broadway or dance or gallery-hopping, also stay in hotels, take cabs and shop. There are the restaurants and bars that depend on Broadway audiences; the food carts outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the parking lots near Lincoln Center.
“Without the arts, New York City is not sustainable,” said Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation. “Without the arts, New York City is not as attractive a place to live. And without the arts, there’s very little reason to visit.”
And then there’s the halo effect. “It’s not just the hotel visits, it’s ‘I went to a part of the city I wouldn’t have otherwise come to,’” said Levin. “It’s the kids attracted to come here for college, even if they’re studying neuroscience, because there’s a jazz club down the street. That’s all real.”
And all of that, right now, is at stake.
As other industries in peril, like restaurants, reopen and struggle toward some kind of recovery, theaters, clubs and concert halls have yet to find a path forward. The large, indoor gatherings they rely on are likely to be among the last forms of activity to resume when the pandemic eases.
“The road to recovery will likely be longer for the performing arts, in particular, than any other part of the city’s economy,” said Eli Dvorkin, editorial and policy director of the Center for an Urban Future. “For most New York industries, quarantine resulted in a long pause. But for the performing arts, it’s become a deep freeze with no thaw in sight.”
• Andy Jean, a costume designer who goes by “Qween Jean,” expected to be in previews with Tori Sampson’s “This Land Was Made” at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater. As the shutdown began, Jean read — James Baldwin, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou. Then Jean became a Black Lives Matter organizer. “I kept waiting for someone to honor and uplift trans lives,” Jean said. “I felt obligated to speak out.” • Omar Vélez Meléndez, a 27-year-old playwright, was getting ready for his first New York production: an absurdist two-character drag show called “Notes on Killing Seven Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Board Members” at Soho Rep. Now he is living on unemployment and grants, and revising his play in the anticipation that some day Soho Rep will stage it. • Val Menz, 43, has been a stagehand with “Wicked” for 17 years. An electrician and a follow spot operator, she worked all eight shows each week. But Menz also had a second life: on a farm in New Jersey. “I’ve tried to tighten the belt — luckily I don’t eat much,” she said. “I have eggs, I have a garden, and I’m not commuting, which was a huge expense.”
• Maggie Wrigley, 61, spent her nights working in what she calls the “happy mayhem” of the Mercury Lounge, the Lower East Side club where she served as a doorwoman for more than two decades. “For New York to not have live music — it’s like the ground has gone out from underneath us,” she said. • Quentin Earl Darrington, 42, expected to be featured in the Michael Jackson musical “MJ,” playing both the singer’s father and his tour director. “It’s been very hard financially,” he said. “I went from what would have been a pretty substantial income this year to absolutely zero.” Now what? “There’s unemployment. I’m coaching acting and voice over Zoom — that’s enough to buy groceries. I’m making a strategic push to TV and film. And I’m leaning more toward prayer and God.” • Yannick Nézet-Séguin, 45, would have been opening his first official season as music director of the Metropolitan Opera. Now he’s had to imagine different ways of making music — virtually, socially distanced, recorded, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Orchestre Metropolitain and, he hopes, members of the Met Orchestra. Personally, playing piano has helped get him through: “My only salvation during these stressful times.”
New York has long been a magnet for aspiring artists, some of whom make it big, and many of whom struggle.
Before the pandemic, the city boasted 280,000 jobs in the fine and performing arts — a number that encompassed actors and musicians, but also costume designers and lighting technicians. Between April and July, 153,000 of those jobs disappeared, according to the Brookings report.
The true impact is even worse, though, because many artists make ends meet with side jobs — art handler, fitness instructor, waiter — in industries that are also suffering.
“What’s really horrible about this is that one person can have several creative jobs,” said Seman, one of the authors of the Brookings report. “You have someone who is a musician in a touring band, and they lost their tour. At the same time, maybe she’s working as a bartender in a music venue; well she lost that job, too. She may also do sound editing for film, and now that film that would have been shot during the summer has been pushed off indefinitely, so that’s another job. It’s crisis level for creative occupations within the city because it’s all so intertwined.”
Americans for the Arts estimated that nationally the unemployment rate for creative workers is 63 percent. But it’s hitting some more than others.
“Black, Indigenous, and artists of color have higher rates of unemployment than white artists due to the pandemic,” a report by the organization said. “They also expect to lose a larger percentage of their income.”
Broadway, the beating heart of New York culture, and the place where theater artists are most likely to make a good living, is already six months into the longest shutdown in its history. The loss is palpable in the empty streets around Times Square. The industry employed roughly 10,000 people directly, and claims to support a total of 97,000 jobs across the city; overall it contributed $14.7 billion annually to the city economy — almost all of that now gone.
The most visibly affected are performers. Actors’ Equity, the union representing theater actors and stage managers, had 1,100 members working on Broadway, on minimum weekly salaries of $2,200, when the crisis hit and the industry shut down. Off Broadway, it had members working on about another 50 shows, where they earned minimum salaries ranging from $650 to $1,600.
Without these jobs, its members have been tossed into a tenuous new life, seeking work elsewhere, if they can find it, as health insurance slips away and a crucial lifeline provided by a $600-a-week federal supplement to unemployment benefits has expired.
“There is only so long that people can live without income,” Mary McColl, the executive director of Actors’ Equity, said. “I think it’s possible that the industry will lose really talented people out of necessity because they need to support their families.”
Shortly after the crisis struck, Actors’ Equity gave $750,000 to the Actors Fund, for unemployed actors and stage managers to draw on for claims of $1,000 each. The fund was emptied within three weeks.
Freelance workers have been hit especially hard. Theresa Buchheister, who runs a theater company in Brooklyn called Title:Point, had to permanently close the company’s home venue because they could no longer afford the rent. Buchheister, who also manages the Brick, has helped artists whose shows were canceled turn to the streaming platform Twitch to perform and raise money.
“A lot of people are going through a deep existential crisis,” said Buchheister, who cites the $100 a week some can now earn for an online show as a lifeline, especially for those who have side jobs in the hospitality industry.
Initially, many organizations were able to retain employees with support from the Paycheck Protection Program or grants from groups like the National Endowment for the Arts. Smaller groups, however, struggled to access the PPP program, and when the grants ran out, the bleeding continued.
Even dancers at New York City Ballet, who have among the most sought after jobs in the global dance world, are struggling. Separate from the institution, the dancers created a website asking for donations to help with “housing and other basic necessities.”
• Dean Jeudy, 47, has a day job as a receiving clerk at Lenox Hill Hospital, but he spent most nights at the Joyce Theater, where he has been a lobby attendant off and on since 1993. “You know how much fun I had this year working at a health care facility,” he said. “It’s a complete 360.” • Peri Mauer, 67, a cellist and composer, was scheduled to premiere her latest piece — a duet with a recording of the water dripping from her defrosting refrigerator — at Drom. Her annual royalties check from Ascap, the music publisher, and an unexpected grant from the organization Composers Now have provided a cushion, as has conducting lessons. • Georgina Pazcoguin, 35, would have been dancing as a soloist with New York City Ballet, and readying a Gwen Verdon tribute for City Center’s Fall for Dance Festival. Instead, she has been cast in the new Justin Peck ballet for City Ballet’s digital season, for which she got to rehearse in a studio. “I have been relegated to taking class in my tiny studio apartment,” she said. “To have a 40 foot ceiling again — I don’t think I’ll ever take it for granted.”
• Jessica Rush, 39, was in the cast of “Tina.” When Broadway shut down, her husband, the actor Eric Anderson, was in San Diego doing a musical called “Fly.” The La Jolla Playhouse offered to let Anderson stay in his housing, so Rush and their 6-year-old daughter flew out, and they’ve been there since. “We’re living on unemployment and savings, which will run out,” Rush said. Now she and her daughter are selling beaded bracelets online. “Our industry has been decimated — overnight it just evaporated.” • The Baryshnikov Arts Center should have been launching its 15th anniversary season, now happening digitally. Its founder and artistic director, Mikhail Baryshnikov, 72, slated to be in Tokyo rehearsing a new project, will instead take part in a virtual chat with Cynthia Harvey of American Ballet Theater’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School and her students. “They don’t have a space where they can safely train,” Baryshnikov said, “so she thought a group Zoom with me might cheer them up a little.” • Michelle Whitaker, 51, the head treasurer at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater, knew where she would be: selling tickets and reconciling receipts in the “Hadestown” box office. Instead, she’s home in the Bronx, grateful that her husband is still employed as a construction worker. “Anybody in this business knows you save your money for a rainy day,” she said, “but we didn’t know it was going to rain this long.”
Picture the performing arts in New York, and you might think of big names: Broadway, Radio City Music Hall and Lincoln Center.
But there are hundreds of other arts organizations throughout the five boroughs, a fertile creative ecosystem from which great art bubbles up.
A 2017 University of Pennsylvania study identified about 4,700 nonprofit cultural programs in New York, and there are some 1,400 nonprofits that apply for funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs each year.
The theater landscape is particularly rich: In a 2019 study, the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment found 748 small theater venues and organizations operating Off and Off Off Broadway created $1.3 billion in economic output and more than 8,400 full-time jobs.
Forced to shut their doors, organizations at every level have suffered.
“I fear that this is more than a pause button,” said Dvorkin, of the Center for an Urban Future. “There is a radical reshaping in New York, and some of the impact is on the arts.”
Midsize organizations are thought to be particularly vulnerable. “I’m not optimistic,” Steven A. Wolff, the founding principal of AMS Planning & Research, said of the performing arts. “The middle will suffer the biggest contraction, but I think overall we’re going to see a reduction in the scale of every single institution.”
For example: The American Ballet Theater projects about $20 million in lost revenue as a result of canceling six tours and two full seasons. Martha Graham Dance Company saw its annual budget shrink from about $6 million to about $3.5 million. The Secret Theater, a small venue in Long Island City, has closed for good.
Arts administrators have had to redraw their business strategies, drastically recalculating how much of their revenue comes from so-called “earned” sources, like ticket sales or classes, versus donor contributions. At Mark Morris Dance Group, those proportions have flipped: Before the pandemic, nearly two-thirds of the company’s revenue was “earned.” Now, nearly two-thirds is expected to come from philanthropy and government grants, while the overall operating budget has fallen from $9.7 million two years ago to $6.8 million this year.
Among the largest, name-brand institutions, the losses are enormous, but those places also tend to have cushions smaller groups lack, like endowments and wealthy board members who can help prop them up.
The Metropolitan Opera, which will not be reopening until September 2021, says it will lose $155 million in revenue from cancellations of shows that would have been lighting up the city’s cultural stage, like “Aida” and “La Traviata.” It has furloughed roughly 1,000 members of its staff. But gifts from donors have helped it weather the crisis, as have online programs like “Met Stars Live in Concert” that have brought in money and audiences even as its physical doors remain closed to the public.
Even Broadway is worried. About one-fifth of its audience comes from abroad, and it is likely to take some time before tourists from around the country and the world will once again feel comfortable visiting New York.
“We know we are going to lose at least 20 percent of our business because international will take some time to come back,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League.
As with so much in New York, the challenges here can come down to real estate. For arts organizations with rent or a mortgage to pay, the disappearance of revenue has been devastating.
The Barrow Group, a nonprofit theater organization in Manhattan, first furloughed and then laid off staff. Despite $250,000 in PPP funds, a one-off $325,000 donation, and some continuing revenue from online performance classes, it recently decided to give up its 12,000-square-foot space.
“It’s been epic,” said Robert Serrell, executive director, of the struggle to keep going.
Manhattan’s Chain Theater has also been unable to pay rent, utility bills, or its three full-time and seven part-time staff members. The nonprofit is among about 250 seeking rent relief with the help of the League of Independent Theater. If they don’t get it, at least 60 percent of the league’s members believe they will close, said Christina Perry, an actor and the director of development at the Chain. (Perry herself is now surviving on unemployment benefits.)
“We were really rocking and rolling until Covid hit,” she said. “We have taken a huge hit.”
Some groups are hoping for a one small bit of relief: that a drop in real estate prices will mean they can eventually replace the spaces they had to give up with cheaper digs.
“The pre-Covid New York was a city that was increasingly out of reach to the average artist,” said Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation. “Now, maybe that will change.”
There are signs of life emerging, at least while the weather holds. The New York Philharmonic has hosted pop-up concerts around the city out of the back of a pickup truck, which it’s calling the NY Phil Bandwagon. Small theater groups like The Team have held socially distant outdoor performances, handing out quinceañera-themed masks at a performance of “Quince” in Bushwick. Lincoln Center hopes it might be able to open a 400-seat socially distant outdoor venue for events like dance and music next year, if the city and state safety guidelines allow for such large gatherings.
Performances streamed online or small ones staged outdoors may keep audiences engaged or even attract new fans, and they can serve as a creative bridge for artists who have spent their lives performing. What they don’t generally do, however, is bring in much money.
“How to monetize physical performances that are socially distanced outdoors, that’s a thing that hasn’t been figured out at all,” said Tom Finkelpearl, a former commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. “That’s the problem with performing arts. They’re highly dependent on earned income, and they can’t earn any income.”
• Miguel Gutierrez, 49, is a choreographer-in-residence at Princeton University where he’s teaching and creating work, while logging time at Brown to finally finish his undergraduate degree — all virtually. “I don’t know yet what I want from performance again,” he said. “I’m trying not to just shove out a bunch of content for the sake of making it.” • Petrina Bromley, 49, not only portrays a Newfoundlander in “Come From Away,” but is one, and when Broadway closed, she grabbed her two terriers and fled to St. John’s. She is not collecting unemployment in either country, but she does have publicly funded health care; she is teaching, working on a TV show and dipping into her retirement savings. • Yacine Boulares, 39, a French-Tunisian saxophonist and composer, had spent months planning the inaugural year of an Arabic music festival at Joe’s Pub. Instead, Boulares will make his first international trip since the pandemic to Tunisia in October to perform the commission he has been working on during the slow pandemic months. • Anya Sapozhnikova, 34, the co-owner and creative director of House of Yes, a club in Bushwick, Brooklyn, always looked forward to the venue’s busiest month. The club’s payroll last September was $450,000; this year it will be under $30,000. She’s been learning to edit video and interning at a furniture studio while trying to keep House of Yes alive.
So when will life return to New York’s stages? A few Broadway shows have announced March dates. “The Music Man,” which has just optimistically installed a giant billboard over its new marquee, is aiming for a May opening. But the Metropolitan Opera is delaying performances until next fall. And David Byrne, whose acclaimed “American Utopia” was scheduled to return to Broadway this month, said, “Realistically, I think it’s going to be about a year.”
Workers in the arts, desperate to ply their craft and earn an income, are ever yearning when asked what next fall could look like. “I sure hope I’ll be working,” said Maggie Wrigley, a door person at Mercury Lounge, “and putting on my earplugs in anticipation of a beautiful noise.”
But most striking is how uncertain they are. “In a perfect world, there will be a vaccine that will effectively work, and people will have the good sense to take it, and we can get back to something that resembles what we had,” said Petrina Bromley, a member of the cast of “Come From Away” on Broadway. “But we can never go back to before.”
Many artists are modulating their expectations, sensing that their welfare is simply not a priority. “It’s hard not to feel abandoned by American society as an arts worker,” said Georgina Pazcoguin, a City Ballet soloist.
Some will never return to New York. Some will never return to the performing arts. But many are vowing to hang on, determined to propel this city’s cultural rebound. “I just want to be a part of the group that ushers this world back in, because right now it’s not even on life support,” said Matt Doyle, of the “Company” cast. “It’s dead, and we need to revive it.”
THE PHOTOGRAPHERS • Dina Litovsky, whose recent work explores urban spaces after dark, was tasked with capturing what New York City nights look like without the life. • Daniel Arnold, who has chronicled Times Square for over 15 years, walked the streets of the theater district at the usual matinee and evening show times to photograph Broadway’s new look. • Victor Llorente had planned to follow the making of “Aida” over the last seven months. Instead, he visited the Metropolitan Opera in September and documented the storied opera house frozen in time.
Joshua Barone, Joe Coscarelli, Julia Jacobs, Gia Kourlas and Zachary Woolfe contributed reporting. Produced by Meeta Agrawal, Marysa Greenawalt, Jolie Ruben, Matt Ruby, Josephine Sedgwick and Jessie Wender.