Survey: SF Arts Groups Expect $73 Million in Losses During Coronavirus Crisis

The Orpheum Theatre on Market Street, photographed on March 14, 2020 and run by Broadway SF, has canceled all performances of 'Hamilton' through April 30. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

San Francisco arts organizations anticipate losing up to $73 million in earned income and donations if the novel coronavirus crisis proceeds through the summer, the results of a new survey show. More than half of the 145 surveyed organizations have reduced or suspended contractor work, and 28 percent of them reported contemplating employee layoffs.

Museums and performance venues are closed for the foreseeable future during a statewide shelter-in-place order. While some organizations turn to livestreaming, many more face at least a season’s worth of canceled or postponed programming. Now the San Francisco Arts Alliance survey shows how the sudden shutdown jeopardizes thousands of jobs in the cultural sector.

“It’s an unprecedented situation,” Deborah Cullinan, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts chief executive and co-chair of the SF Arts Alliance, an informal group of local arts leaders, said in an interview. “It requires us to really reconsider what we do and how we do it and who we do it for.”

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The survey particularly impressed on Cullinan the art world’s reliance on independent contractors, and their unique vulnerability at a time of cutbacks. “We’re not alone in depending on contractors,” she said. “This is an opportunity for us to work across sectors with small businesses and other enterprises and push policy that benefits contractors at large.”

“We haven’t seen the worst,” Cullinan added. “All we can do is come out of this with new ideas.”

The San Francisco COVID-19 Arts Impact Survey results, which reflect large institutions and shoestring operations alike, as of Friday, Mar. 20 show anticipated losses of $47.8 million in earned income and $25.5 million in contributed income if the crisis proceeds until mid-September. Already, the survey respondents reported losses totaling tens of millions.

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More difficult than regaining visitors when the shelter orders lift will be recovering fundraising momentum. Individual and institutional donors tend to prioritize food, housing and other safety net services over arts and culture nonprofits, and arts fundraisers worry the declining stock market and likely economic recession will diminish the endowments of private foundations.

The San Francisco Arts Alliance surveyed arts organizations about the novel coronavirus' impact on revenue.
The San Francisco Arts Alliance surveyed arts organizations about the novel coronavirus' impact on revenue. (San Francisco Arts Alliance)

The immediate effects on arts workers have been unevenly distributed. Some major institutions, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, are currently paying regular wages to employees working remotely as well as most frontline staff, such as ticket takers, who cannot report to work. Yet even the San Francisco Symphony reported that it is considering hiring freezes and layoffs.

Contractors, though, such as audio-visual technicians and other event workers, have been the first to miss expected paychecks. The survey results show the 145 organizations employ 4,129 of these gig workers, twice the number of full-time staff, and because they lack benefits such as paid sick leave and healthcare, they’re especially threatened by the sudden loss of income.

Gabriel Nunez de Arco, 26, is a lighting designer and sound engineer who made some $2,000 a month working gigs at small theaters such as Joe Goode Annex and Counterpulse. Now his projected income is zero. He can pay his rent in April. After that, he’ll sell music gear. Otherwise he’s relying on community mutual aid efforts: “Passing around the same $20,” as he put it.

De Arco was disappointed that the Arts Relief Program announced by San Francisco Mayor London Breed on Monday didn’t appear to benefit freelance arts workers such as himself, and feels neglected by the organizations that once offered steady if low-paid gigs. “When shit hits the fan we’re disposable,” he said. “It’s very much parallel with all other kinds of gig workers.”

Davies Symphony Hall
The San Francisco Symphony is considering hiring freezes and layoffs. Pictured is Davies Symphony Hall. (Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony)

At SOMArts Cultural Center, technical event staff are furloughed, and a temporary worker was laid off, according to operations director Jena McRae Schwirtz. The organization is funneling cancellation fees to event staff. SOMArts is so far losing $20,000 due to cancellations, and expects the number to grow to $100,000, or 30% of projected annual rental revenue. Its annual spring fundraiser event, which last year brought in more than $20,000, is also cancelled.

In notoriously costly San Francisco, many arts workers lack savings. Renae Moua, 28, was contracted with SOMArts as an interim community engagement and impact manager through May, but they were let go after the fundraiser cancellation. “I don’t know what to do,” Moua said. “Housing and basic necessities like food are at the forefront of my worries.” (A SOMArts spokesperson said Moua’s healthcare coverage has been extended for two additional months.)

Most performing arts organizations are encouraging ticket holders to donate the ticket cost, while many others have launched online fundraisers. Gray Area, which restored and operates the Mission District's Grand Theater, derives 75% of its revenue from rentals and tickets, and stands to lose $350,000. The lapse in programming, executive director Barry Threw said in a letter soliciting contributions to its $300,000 crowdfunding campaign, is an existential threat to the organization.

Many write-in comments on the survey describe pivots to digital programming and pledges to pay employees during the closures. Others are more grim. One large museum wrote: “Looking for funds to keep the organization going.” A performing arts group explained: “Without programming we have no income revenue to pay our teaching artists and facility staff. They are currently NOT being paid.”

And an indie musician wrote one word in an other personnel decisions column: “Cry.”