Eckart Preu, center, conducts the Portland Symphony Orchestra in a rehearsal of “Magic of Christmas” at Merrill Auditorium, which nearly 5,000 households in 35 states watched online. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Maine arts groups leapt across the digital divide in 2020. Now they have to figure out how to pay for a bridge so the crossing is not so financially perilous.

The Portland Symphony Orchestra reached almost 5,000 households in 35 states with its all-digital presentation of “Magic of Christmas” – impressive numbers that, in terms of attendance, compare favorably to the 17,000 or so people who typically attend “Magic” in person, assuming two or three people per household watched each streaming concert. But in terms of revenue, the numbers don’t come close to adding up. Each in-person ticket to “Magic” at Merrill Auditorium cost $22 to $92 in 2019. This year’s streaming concert cost a suggested donation of $10 for a single viewer or $25 for multiple viewers.

“These concerts will not break even. They will never pay for themselves,” said Carolyn Nishon, the orchestra’s executive director. “The model we are using now is a way to get us through. This is not the model for the future. We are lucky in that we are a large enough organization that we have the space to invest in the digital piece to get it off the ground. But it’s just not possible for a lot of smaller organizations.”

Arts groups have effectively redirected their resources toward online content since the onset of the pandemic, finding new ways to create and present their programs while also expanding the potential to reach new audiences and sponsors, as evidenced by the viewers in 35 states who streamed the PSO’s “Magic.” But digital content is expensive to create, especially for performing arts groups. As they become increasingly reliant on digital content to help them through the pandemic and beyond, arts presenters face the challenge of paying for it.

Early in the pandemic, many used forgivable federal payroll loans to employ staff and artists to create and adapt programs for the web and for streaming, investing in equipment, talent and expertise. Many will do the same early in 2021 as more federal money becomes available, and arts groups in Maine recently opened up new lines of communication with the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development about how the state can respond effectively to the specific needs of nonprofit arts presenters if and when additional state money becomes available.

The economic toll of the pandemic on the arts is starting to come into view. The industry analytics group TRG Arts reported that ticket sales for U.S. performing arts groups were down by 96.3 percent in November compared to the year before, and although in the first nine months of 2020, the number of donations received rose by 15 percent, the average value of those gifts fell by 14 percent, and the average size of gifts from loyal patrons fell by 38 percent. At the symphony, ticket sales were down by 60 percent in 2020, Nishon said.


The digital concerts are expensive to produce. A typical concert with 25 or fewer musicians on stage – the maximum number allowed by health regulations – costs between $12,000 and $20,000 to produce for streaming, and “Magic” was far more expensive because it involved recording multiple ensembles of musicians and singers and weeks of editing. Typically, each concert generates $3,000 to $4,000 in revenue from single-ticket sales, Nishon said.

The PSO has presented four concerts so far, and the orchestra soon will announce a small concert series for the first quarter of 2021. The orchestra offers a digital season subscription through its Passport program, at several price levels starting at $70, in addition to single streams. It has signed up about 1,200 subscriber households, and 5,600 households have purchased individual streams. In all, there have been 12,000 views of its video performances, Nishon said.


On top of rolling out new content and creative platforms, arts groups are working harder to raise funds with uncertainty about when they will be able to host audiences large enough to generate reliable revenue. Nishon hopes that with data from its initial digital presentations, the symphony will start replacing lost ticket sales with money from sponsors. “Many have been supportive, but these corporations and businesses are going through their own struggles,” she said. “We have seen a drop-off in our corporate support. But it will be helpful when we can show them the reach of our digital content.”

Portland Ovations, which presents and produces an array of performance-based art, secured a sponsorship from Great Diamond Partners, a Portland wealth-management group, to help pay for its digital initiative. The firm had a decade-long relationship with Portland Ovations and wanted to invest in Ovations’ commitment to maintaining an active arts calendar during the pandemic, said Joseph W. Powers, founding partner.

“Portland Ovations has been around 90 years, and with what everyone in the hospitality and entertainment industry is dealing with, we felt this was an important time to support them,” he said. “Many of our clients, too, are in their homes, and loneliness and boredom are really a big piece of what we see people facing. It didn’t hit us at first how powerful it could be, but the digital opportunity is really profound when you consider the reach and potential.”


He was touched and impressed when a singer from London who participated in a Portland Ovations holiday concert event thanked Great Diamond Partners for supporting the work and creating the opportunity to perform. “People from all over the world were online and a part of it, but it was also very intimate. It made the world a little bit closer,” Powers said.

Aimee Petrin, Ovations’ executive and artistic director, said the great digital experiment of 2020 will be part of the post-pandemic world. “It’s exciting having to innovate and figure something out in a way we haven’t in a long time. But it requires an incredible amount of work to build out programming in a way that Ovations is committed to, which means always having some live component to the work,” Petrin said.

That might be a Q&A with artists before or after a prerecorded performance, a conversation about the work by hosts and experts, or some component of live, interactive performance. After COVID-19, digital programming will enable Ovations to host artists before they come to town so they can introduce their work and generate interest, and also connect more efficiently with educators and audiences in Maine who cannot come to Portland, she said. “With the geography of Maine, there is so much opportunity out there,” Petrin said.

During the pandemic, Portland Ovations has partnered with the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center to present content and reached worldwide audiences. International touring, a specialty of Ovations, will be limited for several years after touring resumes, Petrin said. Becoming proficient with digital programming now “will allow us to continue to bring the artists of the world to Maine, and to present Maine artists to the world,” she said. But, as at the symphony, there is no financial reward. “The financial reward is nothing. Every one of these is resource-negative,” she said.

Real-life married couple Kathy McCafferty and David Mason, as Sally Talley and her hopeful beau, Matt Friedman in “Talley’s Folly” at Portland Stage, which was performed in-person in front of small audiences and made available for streaming. Photo by Mical Hutson

Professional theater Portland Stage has streamed two shows, “Talley’s Folly” and “A Christmas Carol,” with the latter available for streaming through Jan. 10. Portland Stage was among the first professional theaters in the country to proceed with live performances during the pandemic, and hosted both shows with small audiences. Early in each run, it recorded performances for streaming. Anita Stewart, the theater’s executive and artistic producer, said Portland Stage likely will produce the play “Or” at the end of January, with small live audiences and streaming options.

These are small shows with small casts that require a relatively small financial investment compared to typical show in a full season. Creating content for streaming adds about $3,000 to the cost of each production, including the camera crew and editing. Stewart said. “It’s a big investment that will not pay for itself. But we are trying to keep ourselves in the public eye,” she said. “It seems important to us and the community for artists and staff to maintain that presence, as opposed to just shutting down.”


Overall, Portland Stage saw an increase of 801 percent in video minutes viewed from March to December 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019. The content is longer now, with full shows, and there’s more of it. Before the pandemic, it was mostly short-form videos. The theater’s video reach across all platforms increased 455 percent from January to June 2020, compared to 2019, with most of that growth occurring in early spring “because people weren’t fatigued by video yet,” Stewart said.


With “A Christmas Carol” still available, it’s too early for Portland Stage to analyze its streaming data. But Stewart said the theater’s pandemic Christmas revenue, including both in-person and digital, was 89 less this year than the previous three-year average. Revenue from the holiday show typically accounts for 17 percent of overall season revenue, she said.

“Ticket sales are absolutely off a cliff,” she wrote in an email. “At the start of the pandemic, the board decided that our primary goal for the current environment is to continue our mission, which is first and foremost, to engage with our community, secondly to work to retain staff and employ artists and to do so in a manner that is not putting the organization at risk.”

Because the theater’s fiscal year begins July 1, it planned for extremely limited earned-income and has been building its programs and productions to match contributed and government money to hire staff and artists. “We are working to end the year in a balanced place and intend to do work that we can afford to do,” Stewart said. “The goodwill that we have felt as a result of providing productions and programs to our community is remarkable.”

Up the street, the Portland Museum of Art, which has been closed since early December, will open the juried exhibition of Maine contemporary art, “Untitled,” on Feb. 12. Whether the exhibition opens to visitors or for online viewing will depend on the community-health guidelines, said Graeme Kennedy, the museum’s communications director. The museum expects to install “Untitled” early in the new year and proceed with an in-person opening as soon as it is safe for staff and visitors.


“The show is supposed to open in February, so we will see. We are hopeful. But either way, there will be an online opening and launch of the exhibition landing page with a rich and vibrant mix of content, and there will be many things that we will roll out during the run of the show. There will be information about artists and their work from the get-go, but the deeper dive will happen as the show progresses,” he said, likening the museum to a “content-production house based around art and our mission of engaging people with art.”

As with the recently closed Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington exhibition “Mythmakers,” the museum will present a full suite of programming for “Untitled” online, including a 360-degree virtual tour that will create context for the scale of the exhibition. The museum’s virtual tour of Homer-Remington is still available online, along with talks by curators and guests and an array of other content.

This will be the norm going forward, whenever the pandemic ends, Kennedy said. People are ready for engagement and conversation, and the museum’s digital platforms provide both.

“It’s not just the election, the coronavirus or Black Lives Matter, but generally we’re seeing a public that is much more engaged across the board around change,” he said. “Post-pandemic, we are forever changed. That is something we have talked about as an institution. This is not a stopgap measure. This has fundamentally changed the museum and the museum’s approach to engaging with the public.”

Related Headlines

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. 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: