While many local businesses are closed during shelter-in-place, arts organizations face a different kind of challenge. Those that put on performances — dance school, choirs, orchestras and theater companies — cannot fully function without a crowd, the very thing that is forbidden to ensure everyone’s safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Arts groups that teach as well as perform have retooled to instruct virtually, such as the Academy of Movement and Music and Pro Musica Youth Chorus, both of which teach young people in Oak Park. For performance-based groups like the Symphony of Oak Park-River Forest and Oak Park Festival Theatre, quarantine has put a big red X across many dates on the calendar.
Governmental help has been offered on both the state and federal levels to help offset the financial impact, but accessing funding is another matter. The Arts for Illinois Relief Fund opened in early April and was paused by April 15 because of the large number of applicants, both individuals and groups. It is currently raising more funds to fill the need and is open to new applicants May 4 to 11.
Among those applicants will be the Symphony of OP/RF which missed the first round. Their concerts, Musical Visionaries on April 20 at Symphony Center and Double Vision on May 31 at Concordia University, were both postponed to next season.
According to board President David Leehey, the Symphony did not have any financial liability with Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, “because all concerts have been closed down there.” However, that is the Symphony’s largest fundraiser, held biennially, so putting it off means postponing funding raised this April.
“Naturally, in addition to taking live music out of everyone’s life, we had to refund ticket buyers for April 20 and will have to refund people who bought tickets for upcoming events unless they choose to apply [them] to a concert next year or donate the cost to us,” Leehey said.
The Symphony had a concert scheduled at Pleasant Home on May 3, one at Cheney Mansion on June 17 and an annual performance at Thursday Night Out on June 25 — now all cancelled.
“Plus, we always meet new orchestra and audience members at Day in Our Village,” said Cheryl Flinn, board treasurer, of one other loss the group is facing.
Pro Musica was up and running quickly with Zoom choir rehearsals for its four choirs featuring members from early elementary school through high school. However, their spring events were canceled. This included performing with the Symphony of OP/RF at the concert at Symphony Center and Pro Musica Café at Wire in Berwyn, which included a silent auction. According to Executive Director Karen Faust, financial losses were significant from these cancelled performances and fundraisers.
The youth chorus applied for a Payroll Protection Plan loan, set up by the federal Small Business Administration (SBA/PPP) to provide financial help during the pandemic.
“We sent in an online pre-application several weeks ago that got us in the queue to apply. Faust said. “Then we got a call from a banker [in late April] to apply over the phone. If approved, we would then send in the required documentation. During the phone application, we were told we were ‘not approved.’ This seems very strange to us since we meet all the requirements as set forth in the CARES Act.”
Pro Musica re-applied during the second round through PayPal. As of May 1, it had not received notification whether it was approved or denied. Meanwhile, the 30-year-old nonprofit is paying its five part-time staff members.
“The board voted to continue to pay them and keep all employed even though it has created some financial hardship for the organization,” Faust said.
But good news was received at the Academy of Movement and Music.
It employees a staff of nearly 50, mostly part-time, almost all women. They were being paid, and Academy families made donations if they were able, according to founder Stephanie Clemens.
On behalf of the Academy, Clemens applied for an SBA/PPP loan, an EIDL loan (Economic Injury Disaster Loan, another COVID-19 relief option, which, if successful, will not need to be repaid), and is moving forward on a mortgage deferment. A refinancing of the Academy’s mortgage on their building at 605 Lake St. may also be considered.
The first SBA/PPP loan did not go through. The second round began on a very busy Monday, April 27; reports came in of “computers crashing after two hours of non-stop applications from banks,” according to Clemens. The next day, Clemens heard the news that the Academy’s PPP loan application was successful.
“I am stunned, relieved and immeasurably grateful!” Clemens said. “It will not change the way we are teaching now; it will just ensure that we can pay our teachers to continue. It is hard to charge full tuition to teach people in their kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms.”
There is no word yet on the EIDL loan.
Oak Park Festival Theatre has announced that its only summer outdoor play The Tempest, scheduled to preview on July 11, has been postponed until 2021. They have applied for an SBA/PPP loan and for grants through Arts for Illinois and the Illinois Arts Council. They are also appealing to would-be ticketholders and others for support.
“Each artist engaged for our postponed production of The Tempest will receive an honorarium for their commitment, regardless of the success of emergency relief funds raised,” said Bryan Wakefield, managing director.
In 46 years, the theater company rooted in Shakespeare has never gone without a summer production in Oak Park’s Austin Gardens.