The emails started coming in on Wednesday, March 11; events canceled and venues closed. There were more emails on Thursday, and by Friday it was an onslaught — Boulder County seemed to grind to a halt.
Of course it wasn’t just Boulder. The nation — the world, really — was attempting to slow the spread of COVID-19 by limiting person-to-person contact, with the Centers for Disease Control first encouraging postponement of gatherings of 250 or more people across the United States. As of this writing, the CDC recommends no gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. (President Trump, in a long-overdue expression of concern, suggested we limit that number to 10 or less.)
For artists and art organizations of all stripes, who often depend on income from live performances or exhibitions, it’s been a bitter pill to swallow as they cut their losses for canceled performances and hunker down in the face of months of social distancing that will make traditional forms of performance virtually impossible.
Organizations around the county quickly accepted federal recommendations to cancel events and shutter venues, but it was a tough decision for those at the top. Many, like Dairy Arts Center executive director Melissa Fathman, are taking drastic measures to protect their employees.
“I started looking at what other cities are doing and decided it’s probably only going to be a matter of time before we’re probably going to have a full countywide lockdown,” Fathman says. “So I looked at the numbers — if we continue to operate with full staff, also cutting expenses significantly — no food and beverage or anything associated with live events — if we continued with that we would have a $250,000 deficit by June 1. The Dairy would cease to exist.”
Fathman is audibly emotional.
“We have such a great team, a dedicated staff,” she says. So she did the only thing she could think of: Fathman will forgo a salary “until it is safe to open the Dairy again to the public,” but continue her work as executive director. Nearly the entire staff — roughly 50 employees, full-time, part-time, temporary and contract — have been placed on furlough.
“If we furlough people, it’s like pushing the pause button,” Fathman says. “They can collect benefits and get health care. They can apply for unemployment.”
The Dairy, for the time being, has a staff of two.
“Someone to pay the bills and someone to watch the building and pick up the mail,” Fathman says.
More than 100 organizations rent space at the Dairy for artistic performances, including Local Theater Company, which was forced to cancel its annual Local Lab. The three-day festival of new American plays employed 28 local professional artists and nine who came to Boulder from New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Atlanta.
“We’re still assessing the loss,” Pesha Rudnick, Local’s founding artistic director, said via email. “It’s significant; upward of $20,000. We made good on paying everyone involved in Lab, but the programmatic and educational loss is immeasurable at this point.”
The LocalWRITES program gave a group of emerging-bilingual and English-speaking students at Casey Middle School the chance to produce an original piece of theater, set to premiere at Local Lab.
“For our LocalWRITES program, Lab was the culmination of our student writers’ work,” Rudick says. “We’re determined to find a way to present and share their stories.”
Just one mile west of the Dairy, Nick Forster, co-founder of eTown, is also crunching numbers and reconsidering business as usual. The nationally syndicated radio show/multimedia/events production company has a staff of about 10 people, according to Forster.
“About half of our staff will be business as usual in that they’re engineers and videographers and people who are connected to the recording, editing and distribution of the show,” Forster says. “We have to fill the pipeline with shows that are already in the can, that we’ve recorded over the last few months. I think the other half of the crew is going to be looking into opportunities. We’ll need to create some new products from archival material or remote interviews with artists.”
Forster’s bigger concern are the independent contractors at eTown Hall.
“When we shut down for a month that means house managers, bartenders, lighting designers, security, sound engineers, all of those folks don’t have a gig,” he says. “And we were never busy enough that that was the only thing someone did, but it was a significant enough part of people’s income. I’m concerned for them. If you count up our house band and production crew and engineers, that’s probably 20 people.”
Boulder’s Z2 Entertainment, which employs several dozen people at Boulder and Fox theaters, set up a fund last week to provide financial support for event-driven staff — security, productions, bartenders, box office crew — according to CEO Cheryl Ligouri.
“The impact on the venues will be significant since all overhead still needs to be covered when the business is not generating revenue but refunding tickets to canceled shows,” Ligouri said in an email. “I think most people outside the industry don’t understand how expensive it is to operate, maintain and update concert venues. The overhead is tremendous.”
So the news around town isn’t great, but it’s not all bad.
Forster says eTown will consider streaming options to help bring the community together, and he’s working on drumming up small grants for musicians through his philanthropic organization Create Boulder.
Boulder County Alliance for the Arts has also established a musicians relief fund (bouldercountyarts.org/musicians-relief-fund). Executive director Charlotte LaSasso says that Boulder Arts Week, the annual celebration of all things artistic in Boulder County, is offering workshops, classes and even exhibitions online (boulderartsweek.org/calendar).
The Dairy is planning an online fundraiser, “a Jerry Lewis-telethon-type thing,” with board member and “gender illusionist” Mrs. Eda Bagel, aka Jeffrey Kash.
“The good side of it is that we’re all still artists and we care about the Dairy and the community, so we’re going to be providing online content in the future,” Fathman says.
If you’ve purchased a ticket to a Dairy event that was canceled, you can donate the cost of your ticket to the Dairy Arts Center or to the presenting artistic organization, like Local Theater Company.
“The community can give to our Local relief fund (on our website), donate to the Denver Actors Fund and/or commit to subscribing to our next season,” Rudnick says. “We’ll be announcing soon and plan to have an exciting line up — with contingency plans — for next year.”
“Maybe this is a good publicity opportunity for theatergoers to understand the cost of the ticket is really important because it doesn’t cover the cost of the venue,” LaSasso says. “Generosity is a virtue that produces peace. People need to relax a little bit and look out for each other. It makes sense to ask for a refund, but realizing now that asking for a refund is going to have a negative impact on that company you love, that you rely on to keep your spirits up or educate you or whatever your point of connection is. We need to support artists.”