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Kurt Bestor will never forget the moment the curtain opened during a May 2021 symphony performance at Eccles Theater.
Bestor, an EMMY-winning Utah composer, said he had “never experienced that feeling on stage” as the curtain opened while he was playing a piano solo to open the nine-day performance of music from Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The audience was “electric,” he said, and it was clear musicians who hadn’t performed live in a year and audience members alike were happy to be back.
He added while it seems people missed the community aspect of arts, they were “a little slow to get back to hanging out with a bunch of people breathing on them for a while.”
Data from a recent reports reflects his impressions, showing that while Utah’s cultural industry continues to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic, some sectors — including performing arts — have recovered slower than others.
The report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute shows jobs in Salt Lake County’s cultural industry grew by nearly 9% in 2021.
Some of that growth is because there “was so much lost that we’re trying to get things back to where they were,” said Ernesto Balderas, deputy director of the Utah Cultural Alliance.
Data “clearly shows that the overall number of jobs available and being filled are almost back to pre-pandemic levels,” he said.
The Gardner report shows some sectors, such as motion picture and sound recording, exceeded 2019 job levels in 2021, while museums, performing arts and other sectors were still below pre-pandemic employment numbers.
That matches what Matt Castillo, the arts and culture division director for Salt Lake County, has seen in the past few years. Salt Lake County oversees the major downtown Salt Lake City performing arts venues, as well as the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville.
Recovery from the blow the pandemic made to the cultural industry has been “a little bit quicker than we expected, but it has been uneven,” Castillo said.
The pandemic hit several industries hard, but the cultural industry and leisure and hospitality took the worst of it, losing 9.5% and 12.6% of jobs, respectively, between 2019 and 2020, according to data from another report on the state of Utah’s overall cultural industry.
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Revenues dried up as venues closed amid emergency orders, and some stayed closed to the public even after restrictions eased.
Balderas pointed to smaller museums with tight spaces that made implementing COVID-19 protocols unrealistic.
Castillo recalled a symphony performance where 600 people sat spaced out in a theater that normally can hold 2,800.
Even venues with enough space weren’t consistently open. A spike in cases in late 2020 led Salt Lake County Arts and Culture to close its venues again and reopen them with limited capacity in early 2021.
Salt Lake County has seen jobs return, with the amount of available positions in the cultural industry growing 8.9% in 2021, according to the Gardner report.
That growth hasn’t been evenly spread, with a few sectors seeing growth compared to 2019 and others lagging behind.
For example, while motion picture and sound recording jobs in Salt Lake County increased 11.1% between 2019 and 2021, jobs in museums and parks saw a 20.9% drop, publishing saw an 18.3% drop and performing arts jobs decreased by 10.7%.
Poetry and performing arts were among the hardest hit statewide as well, Balderas said, and are still recovering.
The county’s performance venues could operate at full capacity throughout much of 2021, but many organizations that previously rented the space weren’t coming back, Castillo said.
Organizations and patrons started returning toward the end of 2021 and into 2022, he said.
Last year, he said, audiences started coming back faster than anticipated and most venues were at or close to pre-pandemic levels for bookings and audience size.
Bestor’s annual Christmas show rebounded, he said, and a population boom has resulted in younger audiences going back to concerts. But recovery has been slower than he expected in the “higher arts” like opera and symphony, which typically attract older audiences.
The pandemic disrupted habits like “getting all dolled up and going downtown,” Bestor said, but people have started to get back into some of their old routines.
Though some groups are still struggling, there are “lots of positive signs,” Castillo said. That includes new organizations applying for grants through Zoo, Arts and Parks tax revenues and record numbers of applications, he said.
Lots of things are bouncing back that don’t show in the data, Balderas said, but there is “a significant need and an urgency to support” sectors of the cultural industry still facing hardship.
Balderas encouraged people to get to know their local cultural businesses and support them.
“There are so many throughout the state of Utah that people just don’t know about,” he said.
The organization maintains a map of cultural assets across the state at nowplayingutah.com/cultural-asset-map/ as a starting point for finding businesses and organizations to support.
Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions.