For Beth Hoover, general manager of the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, the beginning of COVID was terrifying.
But the symphony, founded in 1931, managed to stay afloat. A series of online performances produced in partnership with the Park District of Oak Park salvaged 2020. By 2021, the orchestra was again playing indoor concerts.
“We got through World War II, and we got through this,” Hoover said.
Attendance at symphony performances has not returned to pre-pandemic levels though, according to Hoover.
The Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest is not alone in that regard among local music, theater and arts groups. For some organizations in the area, attendance at events or membership numbers have yet to reach levels seen before the pandemic. Other groups however have seen growth since 2020.
Forest Park Theatre, for its part, grew out of ideas born during the pandemic, said Richard Corley, producing artistic director.
Corley said he perceived a need for people to come together to see live theater and feel safe doing so. The theater’s first major production was Shakespeare’s “As You Like It,” performed outdoors for free during the summer of 2021. It “really came from the idea of getting people back in front of performed work,” Corley said. Free outdoor Shakespeare shows have been performed every summer since.
“We’ve been growing quite a lot, and this past summer, we had by far our biggest audiences,” Corley said.
Oak Park Festival Theatre, meanwhile, has rebuilt attendance at performances, though they too have not seen pre-2020 numbers, according to managing director Tom Arvetis. The organization endured not only the pandemic but a fire that destroyed the theater’s office in November 2021.
“We’re just not seeing audiences return at the level that they were at 2019,” Arvetis said. “We’re still a far cry from that.”
Nevertheless, this past summer’s outdoor production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” led to a “banner year” for the theater, said Arvetis.
Programming for Oak Park Festival Theatre moreover has been shaped by the changing desires of audiences, which generally now have less appetite for risk, Arvetis said.
The theater has thus honed in on outdoor summer performances as its flagship experience.
“That’s the thing that we want to promote for our audience and to enhance that experience as much as we possibly can,” Arvetis said.
The Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest is also turning toward different programming as it builds back attendance – like an upcoming holiday concert and in 2024, a William Grant Still symphony and Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland – hoping to “get more people to start coming to concerts because you have to start appealing to new people,” Hoover said.
“You always want a packed house, but I want it uncomfortably packed,” Hoover said.
Two arts organizations, Forest Park Arts Alliance and Oak Park Art League, have emerged from the pandemic on strong footing.
Forest Park Arts Alliance president Karen Rozmus said membership in the organization, incorporated in 2017, has grown from around 30 members to more than 100 in the last year and a half.
“Every year we grow a little bit,” Rozmus said.
Forest Park Arts Alliance organizes “Stoop Sessions,” concerts in which musicians perform on front porches and attendees enjoy the music from the lawn. And after COVID hit, the organization worked with the Forest Park Chamber of Commerce to display art in storefront windows. More recently, the group decorated Constitution Court in fiber art, as part of its “Fiber Flash” event.
“We just want to do fun stuff,” Rozmus said. “We don’t need to make a lot of money.”
The arts group also underwent a recent rebrand in an effort to be thought of as a viable professional organization, according to Rozmus.
“I think we’re stronger than ever,” she said.
For Oak Park Art League, weathering the pandemic meant getting past the hesitancy to congregate in physical spaces, something fundamental to the organization and which COVID understandably disrupted. Now, attendance numbers at events offered by the organization have reached back to pre-COVID levels, according to executive director Brad Nugent.
“Because everyone has come out on the other side, really wanting the physical contact with folks again, we are definitely experiencing a resurgence of in-person participation,” Nugent said.
By the second half of 2022, there was a sense that Oak Park Art League found “solid ground again,” being financially solvent and able to maintain programming like classes and exhibitions, according to Nugent.
Membership in the organization has dipped, though some of it can be attributed to standard attrition.
“We’re just ebbing and flowing at just a little under pre-pandemic numbers, but we’re close to where we were,” Nugent said.
While local arts organizations have experienced challenges in rebuilding attendance at events, performances and programs, that the groups persisted through the pandemic – or even were born out of it as in the case of Forest Park Theatre – surely is significant in itself.
To Corley, for the arts to survive necessitates partnership with the community and a recognition of the importance of the arts.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t hopeful,” he said. “But it is certainly challenging, and I think it all depends upon partnerships. And nobody can do this alone.”