Coronavirus Closures Endanger Oregon's Most Prominent Arts Organizations

By Steven Tonthat (OPB) and Eric Slade (OPB)
March 20, 2020 1 p.m.

Two weeks ago, the Portland Center Stage 2020 season was in full swing, with productions of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and "9 Parts of Desire" drawing big crowds. Now those theaters sit empty.

The rapid spread of COVID-19, or the coronavirus, forced PCS and all of Oregon’s largest arts organizations to close their doors.


“We have had to cancel eight weeks of shows,” said PCS artistic director Marissa Wolf, “based on not only the ban on gatherings from Governor Brown in Oregon, but also the CDC recommendation of eight weeks of no gatherings over 50 people.”

Portland Art Museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, plus many community events.

Portland Art Museum attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, plus many community events.

John Rosman / OPB

On March 11, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced a statewide ban on public gatherings of more than 250 people for four weeks in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The ban is a serious blow to all of Oregon’s biggest arts organizations, which rely largely on public support to fund their operations.

“Sixty percent of our revenue comes from ticket sales and concessions,” Wolf said. “And being told that we won't have that revenue for eight weeks, it's a huge challenge and something that we've never faced before alongside so many performing arts organizations in our own community and nationally.

Portland Center Stage had to furlough 78 people, keeping a skeleton crew on hand. While the staff furloughed are not laid off, they’re only paid for the days they work.

The Portland Art Museum is closed at least until the end of the month, with museum staff currently working from home. Portland Art Museum director Brian Ferriso told OPB “we're paying all of our staff at this point and continuing to evaluate the situation”

Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the nation’s largest repertory theater company, canceled all performances from March 12 to April 8, with the possibility of more shows being affected. OSF has an annual budget of $44 million and employs around 500 people year round. That number grows to over 800 staff members in peak months.

“I think that what you're finding across the theater landscape, but most certainly at OSF, is a lot of heartfelt communication,” said CJ Martinez, press officer at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. “A lot of sleepless nights, a lot of people demonstrating a lot of concern and care for the organization but most importantly the individuals.”

Oregon Shakespeare Festival may be the best prepared for this disruption: wildfires in the past several years have forced the company to cancel many shows. They’ve found help from the State of Oregon to get them through these past closures, and will likely ask for state assistance again. They’ve also cultivated a supportive and understanding audience through past crises.

“If there is any silver lining from the history of the wildfires,” Martinez said, “is that we have amazing patrons and supporters. ... And we have been able to communicate with them in recent seasons about what it means to take a voucher or to do an exchange or to continue to support the organization and stay engaged until something like a natural event passes and we can start working again.”

Perhaps the hardest hit organization is the Oregon Symphony, which laid off more than 100 of their staff, according to president and CEO Scott Showalter.


“We have a budget of about $22 million,” Showalter said. “If we can't put on performances, we don't earn revenue and we can't afford to pay our musicians and our staff. That's why today we took the unprecedented step of laying off … the entire orchestra and much of the administrative team.”

The closures have also had an impact on businesses that rely on the arts. People travel from all over the world to Ashland to experience the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which sells more than 450,000 tickets each year.

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“If we do not figure out ways to move forward and to stay consistent in that community we're well aware of how that affects all the businesses and the population around us,”  Martinez said.

The sudden disappearance of live music and theater and public art carries more than just an economic cost. There’s a cost to a public deprived of art. “This is a difficult time for arts at large,” Showalter said. “It's a difficult time for our entire world and for all businesses. I think the arts are particularly grieved in that what we do, our core product, is gathering mass numbers of people together frequently in a confined space. That is precisely what we are banned from doing.”

“I think it's devastating,” Ferriso said. “Art is our hope. Art is our shared humanity. Art is our creative life expressed throughout time.”

The museum has begun experimenting with opening virtual doors as a way to keep the arts accessible.

“Our curators recently opened two wonderful exhibitions and gave lectures. We have all of that on video. We'll be sharing that on our YouTube channel,” he said.

A new five-minute video from the museum offers a virtual tour of the current exhibit, "Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art."

The rapid closures have also brought a feeling of uneasiness as to how the organizations will take care of those who have been let go. The Oregon Symphony has enough cash flow to cover healthcare for all of its employees until the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

Portland Center Stage is also collaborating with other artist groups to raise funds to continue to pay health insurance and make sure those that have been furloughed will have the resources required if they need to apply for unemployment.

But there’s uncertainty as to how long this can be sustained. Currently, it costs the Portland Art Museum $1 million a month to operate even when they are closed. Organizations like the museum can look at tapping into their endowment or seeking additional donor support, but both of those options are tightly tied to the health of the stock market, which has seen better days.

In many ways, the coronavirus has merely underscored the financial instability that all Oregon’s major arts groups have been struggling with for decades. “The margins are very thin” for arts organizations, Ferriso said.

And while the virus presents challenges for the big groups, for smaller theaters and museums, the impact could be dire.

“This type of thing can really cause irreparable damage to the arts industry,” Martinez said. “There's no question that many smaller theaters and organizations are going to not survive this, are not going to be able to reopen.”

At some point, a point none of us can see right now, the pandemic will pass. Ferriso believes arts organizations will be an important part of the rebuilding that follows. “You need social services, you need healthcare, you need education, you need the arts,” he said. “Our artists and our cultural offerings are not a nice thing to have. They're essential.”