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How do we return?

This inevitable question is on the minds of many performing arts organizations. Since the city fully reopened this past summer, concerns around safety and financial risk have presented new challenges when returning to the stage. With audiences growing more anxious to attend in-person performances, some organizations in Chicago have already taken the necessary steps to bring back live performances this fall or winter. However, a recent survey conducted by the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation reveals that many organizations are still very hesitant to fully reopen and are facing critical obstacles to do so.

Out of 91 local Chicago performing arts organizations Donnelley surveyed in fall 2021, statistics show that 44% of those organizations were still uncertain about returning to in-person performances in the fall. The survey also brought to light new revelations about factors that may be causing these uncertainties. Factors include lack of funding to hire adequate staff to sustain a reopening, high financial risk surrounding the unpredictability caused by the pandemic, lack of physical space to provide social distancing, and venue rental limitations.

Some organizations, optimistically, have relaunched outdoor performances in efforts to reconnect with their core demographics or adapted to hybrid models to give audiences an opportunity to attend in-person or virtually.

The Driehaus Foundation reached out to its grantee Kalapriya Center for Indian Performing Arts, who also participated in the survey, to provide an insight on the hurdles they may be facing about returning to the stage.

“I am concerned that the transactional model needs serious revision for the future. The last few years have been a challenge, but also the government has given us the support for survival. This may have relieved us of the need to address fundamental changes, but regarding the earned income model, many arts organizations were able to put it aside for 2020 and 2021 and not charge for much,” said Kalapriya Board President Mridu D. Sekhar, Ph.D. “We can't go back to this transactional model where we look at ticket sales or ‘earned income’ for evaluating the ‘value’ of the performing arts. Without recognizing that a society needs enriched arts consumption to be healthy, we are headed for a society that languishes.”

The main takeaways from the survey give us a deeper understanding of how philanthropy and community can both play a role in supporting performing arts organizations. In her interview with WGN-TV, Donnelley Foundation Program Director Ellen Placey Wadey encourages foundations to provide expedited funding. She also encourages people to support local small organizations, “Please go out and see shows if you are comfortable and know there are good measures in place, make a donation, or buy a subscription.”

Watch Wadey’s full interview here.

Read the full survey report here.

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