Last month, Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre announced it was canceling its whole season weeks before it was going to start because of insufficient cash on hand. Then came a second blow: layoffs announced on Sept. 5 that took the company from 10 full-time employees to six.
ART is not alone. Theaters in Oregon and around the country are struggling right now to bounce back from the pandemic.
Aiyana Cunningham is the new managing director of the theater. She said the situation came as a shock to her and the whole company.
“There were multiple convergent factors that came together at once that informed that decision and a key part of that is something that ART is suffering from, that is also affecting theaters nationally, which is this crisis of returning to live performance and rebounding from the challenges of being closed during the pandemic.”
She says ticket sales are down between 20 – 50% compared to 2019 before the pandemic.
“So when people attend, they engage, they connect and then they give. So when the audience isn’t coming back, isn’t seeing the shows, then they’re not as motivated or connected to make that additional donation.”
But ticket sales are not the biggest source of revenue for ART and most other theater companies.
“The largest chunk of funding actually comes from private foundations via grants and also city and state local grants, which actually fortunately have remained pretty vibrant throughout the pandemic and have been quite helpful.”
Cunningham says ART’s current financial difficulty reflects what many theatres are experiencing around the country.
“We certainly are in a national crisis for the survival of professional nonprofit theater. The National Endowment for the Arts estimates that about two or three companies close every month right now.”
The renovations on the company’s building downtown continues, Cunningham says.
But ART’s mission is about more than just having a venue to showcase new works. Cunningham says it’s just as much about the kind of works and voices it elevates.
“ART specifically has a commitment to new works and to a diversity of artists, to BIPOC artists and Native artists.”
And Cunningham says, the space is vital to its ArtsHub, a place for individual artists and organizations to put on productions, take classes and workshops and host a variety of events, from artists talks to social events and more.
She says there’s a long road ahead to fundraise the roughly $5 million that will be needed to complete the whole project. The first phase of renovations will be done in November, in advance of producing new work and hosting events there as soon as February 2024.
Meanwhile, there’s little hope of salvaging the current season.
“We’re being so careful with our resources, not just the money, but our staff time too, that even if we had the money to produce a play, I think it very much is in question for whether or not that’s the wisest thing because we’re playing the long game to be able to get back into our renovated space,” Cunningham said.
Aiyana Cunningham spoke to “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. Click play to listen to the full conversation: