Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue in Portland is one of the few art venues that has decided to remain open. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The Portland arts community had been experiencing a surge in activity when the coronavirus ground it to a halt. Now, artists and arts organizations that depend on audiences for income are trying to figure out how to survive long-term while staying connected with audiences.

Staying connected has been relatively easy – and fun, under the circumstances. Plotting survival strategies may prove more vexing.

“We will get through this, but we won’t look the same,” Aimee Petrin, executive director of Portland Ovations, said of the Portland arts community.

On Monday, Creative Portland announced the creation of the Portland Artist Relief Fund, with a goal of raising $50,000 to help 100 gig-economy artists and creatives in Portland with $500 stipends, and the Portland Symphony Orchestra established the PSO Musicians Relief Fund to help its musicians who are losing work and income because the coronavirus. In addition to asking for donations, the orchestra offered to pay its musicians its principal service rate – or $187.52, the amount of money a principal member of the orchestra receives for a concert or rehearsal – when they contribute a video of a performance from home for a new online series.

“Our musicians are part of the Portland Symphony, but many are a part of many other regional orchestras as well, or they teach or they might be playing in chamber groups. Very quickly, all at once, a lot the things that our musicians depend on in their lives as freelancers were canceled,” said Carolyn Nishon, the orchestra’s executive director. “It’s very challenging in a gig economy when your gig goes away. We want to make sure we are providing as much support as we can for our musicians during a very challenging time.”

Dinah Minot, executive director of Creative Portland, said the Portland Artist Relief Fund is meant to be an emergency fund for artists, with money that comes in going directly to artists in need. Creative Portland began circulating news of the fund’s creation over the weekend and announced it widely on Monday. It’s an emergency fund, but it won’t be a quick fix. As of Monday afternoon, it had raised $2,300 toward its $50,000 goal.

Minot hopes to raise the money as soon as possible and begin taking applications next week.

She said economic harm to Portland’s creative workforce caused by the coronavirus threatens the city’s character and vitality, and most directly the visual and performing artists who give the city its street-level vibe. “All of that is in jeopardy right now,” she said. “Artists and musicians are filling the social gaps by streaming things, but without live performance and without income coming in for artists, it’s devastating. I have had several calls and emails from artists who said they have no grocery money for next week.”

The devastation is growing apparent across Portland, where the streets are deserted and cultural gathering spots shuttered. In a city known for its vitality, the silence is shocking. While a handful of art galleries remain open, including Speedwell Projects on Forest Avenue, nearly all arts organizations and arts presenters have canceled performances, exhibitions and events through at least mid-April and many are looking far beyond that and wondering if and how they will survive.

Portland Stage is among 10 cultural institutions that sent a joint statement to their members Monday urging them to contact leaders in Augusta and Washington to lobby for the inclusion of arts organizations in state and federal economic relief and stimulus packages. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“We’re in the fog. We can’t see the stars to chart our position or plan our course,” Minot said. “Nobody knows where we will end up. We keep talking about the flattening of the curve, yet all we see is a roller-coaster ride. This could go on for a year.”

Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits, said the mood among nonprofits in general and among arts groups specifically is sober but determined. “I don’t sense panic. I sense an incredibly serious commitment to the people who work in these organizations and to the long-term survival of these institutions, so that when we are allowed to go back to them, they exist,” she said.

As a general rule, Hutchins advises organizations to have three months of reserve funds on hand. She wouldn’t predict how many arts organizations across the state have those funds in reserve, but guessed many smaller organizations do not. In Maine, the vast majority of nonprofits operate with annual budgets of less than $500,000 and most operate at less than $100,000, she said. Small groups will be most vulnerable.

Hutchins suggested the leaders of those organizations should begin having “frank conversations” with funders, landlords and others “to ask what kind of flexibility can there be with us over the next few months. This whole challenge is calling on all of us to understand that everyone is in uncharted territory.”

The business of arts and culture contributed more than 16,000 jobs and $764.9 million in worker income to the Maine economy in 2014, according to 2017 statistics, the most recent data available from the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The arts are especially vibrant in Portland, where nonprofit arts and culture organizations had an economic impact of $75.6 million in 2015, according to Americans for the Arts, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit. Three of every four adults in the metro area attends a play, concert or some other performing arts event at least once a year, one of the highest rates of arts engagement in the country, according to recent figures of the National Endowment for the Arts.

That same NEA report, released in January, also said nearly 85 percent of adults in Portland access the arts through electronic devices, a much higher percentage than the national average of 74 percent. That means Portland arts groups might have an easier time staying connected with their audiences and supporters during the shutdown than arts organizations in other parts of the country, Minot said.

Organizations’ online offerings increased dramatically. In addition to the PSO and its new Notes from Home performance series, Portland Stage, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art in Rockland and many others began offering newly created content online in direct response to the coronavirus shutdown.

CMCA began making digital virtual tours of its latest exhibition, “Skirting the Line,” available Monday. Maine Writers and Publishers will host a virtual book launch at 7 p.m. Tuesday with Jessica Anthony, who teaches at Bates College. Her book, “Enter the Aardvark,” is her first novel with a major press and received a lot of prepublication notice. Much of her book tour was scrubbed, so Maine Writers and Publishers arranged a Q&A between Anthony and Portland writer Richard Russo, and the bookstore Print will sell and ship signed copies. Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, executive director of the alliance, called it an example of “trying to make lemons into lemonade during this unprecedented time.”

In Portland, the Grant Wahlquist Gallery has closed temporarily but will host a live-streamed screening of Katie Vida’s movie “Shelly” at 2 p.m. Saturday, with a live Q&A with the artist afterward. “We’re thinking through ways to bring people together during this time,” Wahlquist said. “How do we gather in a way that feels more substantial and real?”

While the online content cannot replace lost revenue, it does help keep an organization connected with its audience, said Anita Stewart, executive and artistic director of Portland Stage.

Portland Stage has put its show “Native Gardens” online. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

After Portland Stage shuttered its production of the play “Native Gardens,” which was scheduled to run through this coming Sunday, the theater company scrambled to secure the necessary rights and permissions to run the show with a small audience of employees and friends, and record it with multiple cameras and show-quality audio. Portland Stage is offering a link to an edited video of the performance to ticket-holders whose shows were canceled, and will use the experience to experiment with engaging audiences in different ways. “Can we provide videos of performances we have done in the past, with archival material? Can we bring our education program online? Can we do workshops through Zoom and other media?” Stewart said.

“All these things are moving full-throttle ahead while we are also dealing with the fact that we have zero cash flow at the moment. We are trying to figure out how we can do these things with no resources coming in” and while employees are working remotely, Stewart said. “Everything is complicated.”

If the shutdown extends deep into spring, Portland Stage could lose as much as $325,000 in revenue, including ticket sales, memberships and canceled school trips and vacation camps, Stewart said. The theater generates slightly more than half, or 54 percent, of its budget from ticket sales. The impact of the shutdown will be devastating, she said.

“Like everybody else, we’re in a holding pattern,” Stewart said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen, and when we do reopen, we assume it will be with some sort of social distancing format, where we sell only 50 percent of our seats. We’re thinking about all of that and assuming it will be the new norm, at least for the short-term.”

Stewart is also thinking about staffing. The theater employs 24 full- and part-time people through the year. Including the cast and creative team of “Native Gardens,” the shutdown will affect an additional 34 artists involved in spring productions, she said. Layoffs are almost certainly coming, she added. “We’re not there yet, but in the next week or two it will move into some of that,” she said.

In Falmouth, Footlights Theatre has started a crowd-funding campaign to pay the rent until the theater can reopen. Michael Tobin, the theater’s executive and artistic director, said he depends on ticket revenue for rent. Without income, he can’t pay rent and could lose the theater, now in its seventh season. As of Monday, he raised $2,560 toward his $8,000 goal.

Rep. Chellie Pingree, D-1st District, has urged House leadership to prioritize the needs of the arts and cultural sector during negotiations for the COVID-19 economic relief package. She and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Oregon, wrote a letter to House leaders last week noting the economic impact of the arts nationally and asking for $4 billion in emergency funding for the arts community; relief to entertainment workers ineligible under current paid leave and unemployment programs; and enhanced deductions for charitable support of nonprofits, arts or otherwise.

“Obviously, all arts activity shut down overnight – concert tours canceled, plays canceled, galleries closed. It’s a nightmare for anyone in the performance industry. This is expected to be a huge financial loss,” Pingree said in a phone interview from her home on North Haven. The travel, tourism and hospitality industries are most immediately affected, but “arts workers are right up there. They are already feeling it and feeling an extreme loss of income and do see what is going to help them in the future.”

Late Monday afternoon, the leaders of 10 cultural institutions in Portland sent a joint statement to their members urging them to contact leaders in Augusta and Washington to lobby for the inclusion of arts organizations in state and federal economic relief and stimulus packages. Signing the letter were leaders of the Children’s Museum and Theatre of Maine, Indigo Arts Alliance, Maine Association of Nonprofits, Maine Historical Society, Portland Museum of Art, Portland Public Library, Portland Stage Company, Portland Symphony Orchestra, Portland Ovations, and the Telling Room.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which became law Wednesday, provides two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of family and medical leave for eligible workers, Pingree said, but many workers in the entertainment industry are freelancers or independent contractors who are employed gig to gig and ineligible for benefits.

That’s why Creative Portland created a relief fund for gig-economy workers. A lot of funders are concerned about organizations, and many will step up and help those organizations restructure when the time is right, Minot said. She wants to try to help individual artists who have no recovery plan, and asked Portlanders to donate. “Our fund will be powered by the people, Bernie-style,” she said, invoking the small-donation ethic of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

As a gallery owner, Wahlquist is thinking long-term about the impact of the shutdown on himself and his community. He opened the gallery three years ago, investing his life savings with a goal of turning a profit in three to five years. Until the coronavirus, he was on track. “We’ve had great momentum, and sales tripled last year. This was the year it was all going to come together and this would be sustainable,” he said.

Now, who knows? If the shutdown lasts three months? “I probably won’t reopen. I hope so, but probably not,” he said.

If not, the closing of the gallery would not be just his loss. He represents 11 artists, and “if I don’t reopen it’s a group of 11 people who have families of their own.”

A lot of artists have side gigs, he said. Some teach. Others work in restaurants.

Wahlquist has a side gig, too. A licensed attorney who practiced corporate law before opening the gallery, Wahlquist does legal work on the side, picking up $100 here and there when he can. Last week, when the reality of the shutdown hit home, three artists contacted him asking him to draft their wills, he said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: