The winter of arts’ discontent

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Hamstrung by the pandemic, Ouray County’s performing arts venues are going dark for the next couple of months as they pursue donors to make up for lagging revenue

  • Ashley King-Grambley, executive director of the Sherbino Theater and Weehawken Creative Arts, says theater revenue is down more than $100,000 compared to 2019. The red lighting on the stage symbolizes a national campaign to support aid for independent music venues.
    Ashley King-Grambley, executive director of the Sherbino Theater and Weehawken Creative Arts, says theater revenue is down more than $100,000 compared to 2019. The red lighting on the stage symbolizes a national campaign to support aid for independent music venues.
  • Wright Opera House Executive Director Alyssa Preston said the historic venues bills are covered despite a revenue shortfall this year.
    Wright Opera House Executive Director Alyssa Preston said the historic venues bills are covered despite a revenue shortfall this year.
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The tiny ballerinas, dressed in their wings and halos, should be in the midst of rehearsals in Ridgway for The Nutcracker, the popular annual holiday production that always packs the Montrose Pavilion. It should be a time for gingerbread house workshops and office Christmas party rentals.

In Ouray, volunteers should be preparing for a host of events intended to warm hearts and tummies — Yule Night festivities, a chili dinner and a New Year’s Eve bash dubbed “The Year of the Masque.”

Instead, the Sherbino Theater, Weehawken Dance studios and the Wright Opera House sit dark. In-person programming has been canceled through at least mid-January at the Sherbino, through at least the end of January at the Wright.

The time off will afford a much-needed break for overtaxed staff and volunteers, many of whom worked exponentially harder this summer than any in the past fora fraction of the revenue. But by and large, the cancelations are the product of necessity. A surge in COVID-19 cases in Ouray County — 65 of the county’s 112 confirmed or probable infections have occurred this month alone has put the clamps on indoor gatherings, with capacity limited to just 25 percent. Attendance at the few indoor events put on this year has sometimes been sparse.

And so the nonprofit operators of these Ouray County performing arts venues will take a breath, ramp up for the all-important end-of-year fundraising efforts and prepare for 2021 — which could end up looking an awful lot like this year.

The challenge of 2020

In an industry that encourages creativity and outside-the-box thinking, perhaps no one has been forced to live up to that creed more in this pandemic than the performing arts.

Nonprofit arts and cultural organizations in the U.S. have lost an estimated $14.5 billion so far due to the pandemic, according to a study from the nonprofit Americans for the Arts.

To be clear, neither the Wright nor the Sherbino is in immediate danger of closing its doors for good. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t taken a financial hit.

The Sherbino this year will pull in more than sioo,000 less in revenue than last year, according to Ashley King-Grambley, the executive director of the Sherbino and its sister nonprofit, Weehawken Creative Arts. That’s a significant hit to a $400,000 budget.

For Weehawken, every major event it counts on to generate revenue was nixed, including the Sneffels Fiber Art Festival and the Ridgway Rendezvous, the latter of which has been held every August for the past 36 years.

“I don’t think in our wildest dreams we ever thought that we’d lose all of our fundraising events,” King-Grambley said.

Unable to host the big-ticket events, Weehawken and Sherbino staff and volunteers tried to make up for it with volume. The Sherbino put on a total of 171 programs this year, exceeding last year’s 160 programs. More than half were held at the newly opened Courtyard at 61o, an intimate outdoor space that played host to everything from concerts to poetry readings.

Sherbino staff had planned to open the courtyard this year, but they had no idea how important the space would become given the limitations imposed by COVID-16. Organizers had originally planned 10 events for the courtyard, instead of the 61 that were ultimately held.

The Sherbino also benefited from the donation of the lot next to the old firehouse at the east end of Clinton Street for the summer.

“It simply made theater possible,” King-Grambley said.

With Weehawken, student participation in classes was half of what it normally is and revenue losses ran into the “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to King-Grambley. Fortunately, a Paycheck Protection Program loan covered payroll expenses. Without that, “We would be crying pretty heavily and loud,” she said.

In the meantime, Weehawken pressed ahead with programming. The organization ran 361 clases this year, which was right in line with 2019’s offerings. Dance classes moved online.

“It was a wonderful, great community service. It also did not pay any bills,” King-Grambley said.

With revenue nowhere near approaching original projections, the Sherbino and Weehawken worked feverishly to cut expenses. King-Grambley and Programs Director Trisha Oakland wore multiple hats to save money on event staffing.

“Trish and I worked every single event. We were the bartenders, we were the office workers,” King-Grambley said.

Musicians were asked to bring their own sound equipment. Budgets for costumes and rights’ fees for movies and theatrical productions were stripped. High-profile shows and nationally touring performers were set aside for lesser-known productions and artists.

The end result, according to King-Grambley, is that the Sherbino’s year-end net loss will be less than in 2019.

At the Wright, Executive Director Alyssa Preston knows the zozo budget will look nothing like it was supposed to. But she’s comforted by the knowledge that the historic venue’s bills are covered.

“Right now we’re in a holding pattern. We’re not growing in this moment, but that’s OK. We’re steady,” she said.

Like the Sherbino and Weehawken, the Wright wasn’t able to put on its biggest fundraiser of the year — an annual melodrama. Gone, too, was the consistent revenue concerts bring in, with the last concert held in February. The inaugural Ouray International Film Festival was postponed twice before debuting— mostly online — in September.

The Wright pressed ahead with some in-person events, including two theatrical productions this fall, weekly movies and monthly Tavern Tastings where patrons enjoyed a multi-course dinner with limited seatings in the new Tavern at the Wright. Like the Sherbino and Weehawken, it also moved events online and outside.

The Wright offered a weekly radio program, “The Shadow,” performed in the style of a sitcom and streamed on the internet. Preston said the show was well-received but generated little revenue.

Preston also launched the Wright Summer Faire, a weekly Saturday market held in the lot behind the opera house where artisans could sell their wares.

What’s next?

With the frenzy of summer in the rear-view mirror and no in-person events planned for several weeks, the nonprofits have shifted their focus to year-end giving, a task that takes on additional significance this year with program revenue trickling in at a fraction of projections

King-Grambley often mentions this before shows, but she says it bears repeating: Events put programs in the theater and fannies in seats, but the revenue they bring in covers half or less of the costs involved in putting them on. That’s where donors come in — and why programming strategically makes the best use of their generosity.

“Being open for the sake of being open is very expensive,” King-Grambley said. “We should be open when it makes sense to be open. That’s what serves our donors best.

“We’ve proved to our audiences and our donors that when we can make hay, we’re going to make it, we’re going to make it good. And I think they’ll endorse that.”

She said donations so far this year “are fairly in line” with where they were last year.

Moving forward in 2021, the plan is to continue torely heavily on the Courtyard at 6io for concerts, saving the Sherbino for large national tours and local theater. The current plan is to offer one concert a month at the Sherbino in February, March and April.

Weehawken expects to continue to offer adult classes online and double the number of in-person, limited-capacity art classes to twice a month starting in February. It’s also planning on holding children’s productions outside at Hartwell Park.

“We’re not going to make the assumption that we’re going to go back to normal,” King-Grambley said.

At the Wright, Preston is boosting her grant-writing efforts to try to offset the reduction in programming revenue. Like the Sherbino and Weehawken, she’s also focused on crafting an end-of-year message to volunteers, patrons and benefactors thanking them for their efforts this year and seeking their continued support. Individual donor contributions account for roughly 70 percent of the Wright’s budget.

The Wright next year intends to continue a radio program that will be streamed online, build on the Summer Faire and increase Tavern Tastings to twice a month. It will also expand WrightEd, an online continuing education program it’s offered in the fall each of the last five years through the generosity of Ouray resident and University of Denver professor Larry Meckel. Next year, three different DU professors will offer online classes in January, February and March.

Preston is counting on the Ouray International Film Festival to return for a second year, with an online component no matter what — a direction many film festivals are expected to take.

She and others are also trying to figure out how to utilize the lot behind the opera house for live theater, just as the Sherbino took advantage of the lot adjacent to the old firehouse. There have been preliminary discussions about creating a stage on the lot, but no decision havehas been made.

“It’s a really good idea,” Preston said of the Sherbino’s use of the firehouse lot. “What can we do about that up here (in Ouray)?”