Amid the pandemic, the Sheldon Concert Hall and Art Galleries staged one of its biggest concerts ever. More than 14,000 people tuned in to stream a concert by singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz — an even more impressive number compared to the concert hall’s 700-seat capacity.
“It was very powerful,” said director of advancement Chris Peimann. “Even though we had fewer events, we had thousands of additional viewers enjoying what we were doing.”
Live-streamed performances have helped the arts nonprofit become a pandemic success story. At the beginning of 2020, with more than 350 events on the program, the Sheldon had experienced a high point before being forced to close its doors.
When COVID-19 hit, staff quickly turned to virtual programming and petitioned the board for funds to purchase the appropriate equipment. As the weeks turned into more than a year, the Sheldon continued to innovate with virtual educational programs, outdoor concerts and more.
So many businesses have failed during the pandemic. Arts organizations, labeled “non-essential” by local governments, seemed particularly vulnerable. Yet many, like the Sheldon, thrived.
Among those who did well, a pattern of actions and characteristics emerged. Agility in programming was important.
Stray Dog Theatre, like the Sheldon, quickly changed course. Artistic director Gary F. Bell came up with the idea of creating individual physical boxes in which artists could perform. They rehearsed and then released recorded performances.
The theater also produced a radio play of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe in October, a virtual party in December, and then a performance of Christmas carols using the boxes in December. He built an outdoor stage and added discounted shows.
“My instinct was just to keep going,” Bell says, “make sure you keep yourself in your followers’ eye.”
Bell also called all theater subscribers and most donated their subscription fees, which speaks to another commonality of successes: organizations with strong audience and donor relationships have done well.
Donors kept the Sheldons from having to think about layoffs. Strong public demand has allowed creative non-profit organization Perennial to innovate. The organization teaches creative skills, from bookbinding to using tools like lathes. Executive Director Katie Carpenter recalls how demand for her clothing swap pushed the organization to figure out how to deliver what had been an in-person event safely through solo dates.
“Our community decided they wanted Perennial to survive the pandemic,” she says, noting that many have retained their memberships despite lesser or delayed benefits. “[That] was not only crucial from a financial point of view, but also from a momentum point of view. I don’t think the team could have worked hard if we didn’t know people were benefiting [and] rooting for us.”
Another thing that kept Perennial from having to make tough decisions was external funds, such as those in the Paycheck Protection Program. All of the organizations in this article, and many others in St. Louis, have received PPP funds in addition to all annual grants – although some donors have reduced the resources to distribute.
Cinema St. Louis has received two PPP grants and American Rescue Act funds through the Missouri Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.
“It filled all the holes we would have had,” said then-executive director Cliff Froehlich, adding that he and other staff had been concerned about the depletion of the operating reserve of the organization.
Froehlich never had to tap into this reserve. But organizations that had reserves or endowments could imagine different scenarios.
“We tried to come up with as many different scenarios as possible to see how things would play out,” says Froehlich. “We developed what our burn rate would be if we actually had to spend in deficit to see if everything would be okay.”
Even with an increase in external funding, most organizations have seen their earned income decline during the pandemic. But almost all had also reduced their expenses.
The St. Louis Cinema did not have to rent rooms, hire drivers or book hotels, leaving its budget ratio similar to non-pandemic years. Stray Dog got crafty with their sets, replacing increasingly expensive wood with other materials.
“You want to make sure you’re not overspending,” Bell says.
The last thing these ever-thriving arts organizations have in common is St. Louis itself. The community’s appetite for the arts has remained stable throughout the pandemic.
It turns out that art, says Peimann, is essential.
“The opera, the art museum, all of our institutions are part of the culture of St. Louis. It’s part of who we are,” Peimann says. “Once we got past that first part of ‘we need food, we need shelter, we need basic services’, everyone started to realize that music and art are essentials – and something that makes life interesting.” .