Utah arts groups are losing millions because of the coronavirus outbreak

(Alex Gallivan | Tribune file photo) Art on display at the Guerrilla Girls exhibit at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, seen on Wednesday, Feb 5, 2020. Arts and cultural groups across the state say hundreds of canceled events due the COVID-19 outbreak have hit their budgets hard and forced layoffs. They're begging for help.

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Arts and cultural groups in Utah have bled at least $29.1 million in financial losses so far from event closures, postponements and other effects of the coronavirus outbreak, a new survey indicates.

With nearly 768 events and counting canceled by COVID-19-related health measures and social distancing, these groups are not only getting slammed by lost ticket revenues and similar costs. As the U.S. stock market continues to drop, they’re also starting to see charitable gifts from wealthy patrons decline dramatically.

While nearly $11.9 million of the sector’s losses have come from canceled admissions revenue, another $17.2 million stem from other factors, including reduced giving.

“It’s getting worse by the second,” said Crystal Young-Otterstrom with the Utah Cultural Alliance, a consortium of nonprofits and government agencies devoted to arts and culture.

“As long as the economy struggles, nonprofits struggle because we are so reliant on philanthropic donations,” Young-Otterstrom said. “And the longer this goes on, the harder it will be for these groups to rebound."

The Utah Cultural Alliance, which conducted the survey online beginning March 16, released the results Friday, in part to inform the public and policy makers on the magnitude of the crisis.

Young-Otterstrom and other leaders in Utah’s arts community are also gathering petition signatures in hopes of pressing federal, state and local officials to include them in emerging plans for economic recovery. Among other relief, they are seeking grants to both nonprofits and artists, cash for employee sick leave and healthcare costs and jobless benefits for gig and contract workers.

Nearly 642 arts and culture-related jobs have already been lost, poll results indicate — with 4,045 more in jeopardy.

Hale Center Theatre in Sandy typically puts on 787 sold-out performances annually and last year had nearly 577,000 show attendees, according to Quinn Dietlein, executive director. Those performances have temporarily gone dark as of last Thursday.

“When we cancel production, we cancel a lot of shows,” Dietlein said. Nearly 80% of Hale’s budget is drawn from ticket sales, he said, “and we now have zero revenue coming in.”

Seven full-time staffers and all of the theatre’s 200 or so part-time employees have been laid off, Dietlein said. “And I wish there was something we could do for everybody as they’re leaving, but we’re not structured that way.”

He noted that many of those part-time workers commonly hold other jobs in the restaurant industry, which has also been largely shut down.

“Everybody is hurting,” Dietlein added. “But we’re planning to fill these positions just as soon as we can perform again.”

Fully 88% of the nearly 534 groups who responded to the online poll said they have canceled or delayed events — and another 72% expected to cancel or postpone at least five events or more in the next one to three months.

The crisis has spawned an unprecedented shift to online arts events, with more than a third of arts groups saying they’d expanded their online presences as a result of the crisis.

But half of the groups surveyed said live event closures had decreased their income, with about a quarter describing the financial impacts as “extremely severe.” Those that do have cash reserves, the survey found, are likely to run out sometime within 75 days to five months.

But not all groups have that kind of a cushion — or any at all, especially smaller ones in rural areas.

Epicenter is a nonprofit community design center in Green River, employing a handful of architects and designers. Its executive director said Monday the center is already canceling some of its plans to host artists in residence, out of concern over both travel bans and a looming lack of funds.

“We do not have a ton of cash reserves,” Maria Sykes said Monday. “It’s really, really uncommon for small nonprofits to have any sort of reserves. It’s almost always a bare-bones budget.”

Young-Otterstrom said the survey captured only a fraction of actual losses in Utah’s cultural community. Among those missing from its numbers are a host of independent artists, who often live even more hand to mouth.

Adam Hoffman of Salt Lake City is one who is struggling under widespread COVID-19-related bans in several states on conferences, festivals and other large gatherings. That is where he sells most of his creative work over the spring and summer months.

A Michigan transplant to Utah, he produces stunning fine art fractal images in a variety of formats. Hoffman said he’s worked hard in recent years to establish his name and secure spots in some of the nation’s top-tier art shows.

“I really thought this was going to be the year,” Hoffman said, but instead, shows and festivals he’d scheduled are now canceled through Memorial Day.

“Most of my income for the whole year comes from these shows,” he said. “I’m scared.”