The pandemic has spurred all four nonprofit organizations to develop new ways of reaching their audiences.

The lights may be dim and the microphones disconnected, but leading local cultural organizations are working hard to provide art, music and education to their followers and the general public.

The COVID-19 pandemic and Michigan’s “stay-at-home” order meant that concerts were canceled by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO), Michigan Opera Theater (MOT) and the Chamber Music Society of Detroit (CMSD), among other local performing arts organizations. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) closed its building and collections to visitors and canceled its educational and other programs.

However, the pandemic has spurred all four nonprofit organizations to develop new ways of reaching their audiences. At the same time, they are being challenged to maintain financial stability despite drastically reduced revenues. The DIA, DSO and MOT all received loans through the Paycheck Protection Program — part of the Federal CARES Act.

Let the Music Play

When the pandemic hit Michigan, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra had a crisis plan in place and had reviewed its protocols through a risk management study a few years earlier, according to Anne Parsons, DSO president and CEO.

DSO Chairman Mark Davidoff, incoming Music Director Jader Bignamini and President and CEO Anne Parsons
DSO Chairman Mark Davidoff, incoming Music Director Jader Bignamini and President and CEO Anne Parsons Sarah Smarch

“We preempted the governor’s declaration and made changes in stages as things unfolded,” she said. “The immediate impact was disappointment, because sold-out performances of Carmina Burana were canceled for the weekend of March 13. Decision-making was in place with a focus on health and safety.”

Subsequently all concerts were canceled through Aug. 31.

DSO board chair Mark Davidoff says the organization benefited from a unique governance model in which the board usually operates collectively to make decisions, rather than relying on its executive committee. “We’ve all rallied to the moment — across the landscape,” he says, referring to Metro Detroit. Davidoff cites increased involvement of DSO board members with almost 100 percent participation on conference calls. He is CEO of the Fisher Group and formerly served as executive director of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit.

DSO staff quickly started to project the organization’s financial status without concert revenue. Fortunately, the DSO’s balance sheet was solid, the debt on its building was settled in 2012 and an adjacent office building owned by the DSO had been sold.

However, the DSO’s June fundraising gala was canceled, and DSO leaders recognized the potential limitations for donations since many individuals’ investment portfolios had declined due to the pandemic and there was great financial need throughout the community. DSO staff, musicians and stagehands all took pay cuts, but there have been no layoffs for full-time staff.

DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons and Chairman Mark Davidoff
DSO President and CEO Anne Parsons and Chairman Mark Davidoff. Donald Dietz

A plan for a “Resilience Fund” was developed with active involvement by the board and musicians. An immediate goal of $1 million was quickly met with 100 percent board participation. The fundraising effort will go public soon with a goal of raising another $1 million.

The DSO has been streaming concerts online since 2011, so it was able to quickly expand its offerings, including a live chatroom on Facebook with comments from some musicians. The DSO also has an Innovation Committee with significant musician involvement and is regularly adding new programs, which Parsons says are creating “a deep connective tissue between musicians and audiences.” She anticipates that they will continue even when live concerts return.

Taking Art Online

The Detroit Institute of Arts closed to the public on March 13 and, since then, only essential staff remain on site to safeguard the building and its collection. According to Salvador Salort-Pons, director, president and CEO, the DIA has instituted a hiring and salary freeze and significantly cut expenses, including a 20 percent salary reduction for those at the vice president level and above.

The DIA has established a Sustainability Fund to help compensate for revenues lost from being closed. “Our volunteers and donors continue to be incredibly supportive of the museum and our efforts,” Salort-Pons says.

DIA CEO Salvador Salort-Pons. DIA

“When we shifted our programming online in March, we committed to continuing to serve the residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties with the benefits they receive from the DIA — free access to our world-class collection, field trips from home, activities for seniors and highlighting our community partners. In many cases, our online engagement is higher than what we experience for in-person programs, and I foresee offering both options to our community in the future,” Salort-Pons says.

Recognizing that not everyone has internet access, the DIA has distributed printed art-making project instructions in Forgotten Harvest’s food distribution boxes, which reach 18,000 residents of the tri-county area weekly.

Opera at Home

Michigan Opera Theatre reports that like many other theaters, it is facing the financial challenges of lost ticket revenue, including ticket refunds for canceled performances. MOT had to cancel most of its spring season, which included three operas as well as dance performances by the Dance Theatre of Harlem and American Ballet Theatre, both of which were expected to sell out.

MOT CEO Wayne Brown MOT Facebook

As a substitute for its planned live operas, dance and other musical concerts, MOT is offering MOT at Home — an extensive array of performances, interviews and educational programs for children and adults using Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Preview performance talks are offered before nightly livestreamed operas. “We hope that the digital performances and informative contact of ‘MOT at Home’ may be a source of inspiration, comfort and hope,” states Wayne Brown, MOT’s CEO, on its website.

Audience Support

Unlike the DIA, DSO and MOT, the Chamber Music Society of Detroit (CMSD) does not own a building, nor does it maintain an orchestra or large staff. As a chamber music presenter, it rents space for concerts at the Seligman Performing Arts Center, part of the Country Day School Campus in Beverly Hills, which closed in March.

The Chamber Music Society was established in 1944 by Dr. Karl Haas, a pianist and radio music educator whose family left Germany in 1936. Many CMSD subscribers and donors are members of the local Jewish community.

Audience support was quickly evident when CMSD’s concert series was canceled due to COVID-19; 60 percent of its subscribers donated the value of their tickets back to the organization. After the cancellations, a series of original online concerts was developed to connect with its audience and help musicians, explains Willa Walker, CMSD vice president. CMSD then recruited collaborating presenters at various levels of support for the live webcasts. Each participating musician receives an honorarium.

According to CMSD, the streamed series of seven concerts has attracted almost 40,000 views with an average concert audience of 5,700. Viewer contributions for the musicians, as of May 18, total $5,790.

CMSD Vice President Willa Walker Courtesy of Willa Walker

While the CMSD doesn’t have the overhead of larger cultural institutions, the pandemic resulted in lost revenue and uncertainty about the future.

“To sustain our mission, we have applied for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Community Fund for Southeast Michigan. We are looking at different scenarios for 2020-21,” Walker says.

The future holds many unknowns for these cultural institutions, as it does for other components of society during this pandemic.

“There is a great deal of uncertainty about what the future holds, and preparing for that wide range of possible scenarios, both from a financial standpoint and a staff and visitor health standpoint, is challenging,” Salort-Pons says.

The DIA has engaged NSF International (a nonprofit public health and safety organization based in Ann Arbor) to develop policies and operating procedures for staff and visitors when the museum can reopen and is coordinating its efforts with neighboring cultural institutions in Midtown.

DIA staff expects that when the museum is able to safely reopen, some elements may need to be changed, such as its interactive features that require personal touch. Also, the number of visitors at any one time will be limited.

The DSO hasn’t decided yet about its fall season. “There needs to be a feeling of security. A packed house seems unlikely,” Parsons says. “Uncertainties are something we will all have to get comfortable with — there are so many variables,” she adds.

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