Amid Omicron Surge, SF Arts Venues Left with Little Guidance or Financial Relief

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A lit up building at Fort Mason with FOG branding on a tent.
FOG Design+Art at Fort Mason Center's Festival Pavilion, 2019. The annual event is going ahead with far-reaching health and safety measures, despite the omicron surge. (Courtesy of FOG Design+Art )

Mango is a beloved party for queer women held every month outdoors on the back patio at El Rio in San Francisco’s Mission District. But this New Year’s Eve, the 26-year-old event didn’t happen.

General manager Lynne Angel says this was the first in a slew of cancellations at the venue amid fears around the omicron surge.

The highly contagious COVID-19 variant is responsible for most of the well over 1,000 new cases infecting San Francisco residents per day, and is impacting employees across the city.

“With omicron, it didn’t seem to matter if you were inside or outside,” Angel says. “With how contagious this variant was, it just seemed like the right call to cancel the larger events that we had planned. And as I began to contact promoters and staff, there wasn’t a single person that wasn’t on the same page.”

The omicron surge is hitting San Francisco arts groups, presenters and venues of all sizes just when they were starting to get back on their feet.

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“It’s really taking a toll on our sector, which has had its resiliency put to the test for nearly two years now,” says San Francisco’s director of cultural affairs, Ralph Remington.

To cancel or not to cancel?

Many, including small venues like El Rio and major institutions like the San Francisco Symphony, have canceled or postponed some or all of their upcoming programming due to overall concerns about the spread of the pandemic or personnel testing positive for COVID-19.

Sluggish ticket sales are also a contributing factor.

“People are not buying tickets,” says Ty Mckenzie, owner of Stage Werx, a small multidisciplinary performance space in the Mission. “We’re spending a lot of time and money producing and promoting only to have shows cancel.”

Meanwhile, others are battling along amid the uncertainty.

The organizers of the upcoming FOG Design+Art Fair, which has previously raised around $1 million a year for SFMOMA, is going ahead after being canceled last year—with a slew of health and safety measures in place to try to keep patrons, staff and art dealers safe. In addition to the standard mask-wearing protocol, meal service has been reduced and the organizers are sending gala attendees COVID-19 test kits in advance of the start of the event, or having them take tests onsite when they arrive.

“There’s a huge amount of money that has gone into this,” says event founder Stanlee Gatti about the decision to go ahead with this year’s fair. “So we were trying to do everything we can to not have people lose a great deal.”

SFJAZZ is moving ahead with its scheduled programming, even though the presenter just decided to move its annual gala from later this month until early June. SFJAZZ executive artistic director and founder Randall Kline says the organization has put many health and safety protocols in place, such as not allowing patrons to take drinks to their seats. He adds the gala is not going ahead owing to concerns about eating while unmasked at the gala dinner, where the seating arrangements are tight.

“Thank God we’re in a business that embraces improvisation,” says Kline. “We’re just trying to do the best we can with the tools that we have. It feels very similar to the beginning of the pandemic to me.”

Decisions left to arts groups

The city isn’t currently placing many limitations on arts and culture businesses. The days of mandated lockdowns and reduced capacity are gone, at least for now. (That said, stronger mandates are coming for mega-events—defined as indoor events of more than 500 people and outdoor events with more than 5,000 people—starting Feb. 1. )

“We are pretty much trying to give guidelines in a broader sense so that people have as much flexibility within their own individual organizations as possible to do what they want to do,” says Remington.

As a result, health and safety requirements for attending arts events, as well as decisions around whether they should go ahead or not, are very much within the hands of the individual groups. Many of them have been caught off-guard.

“Omicron threw us the curveball,” says SFJAZZ’s Kline, who says sales for the recent concert series by star trumpeter Chris Botti were down 15–20% from what his team had predicted. “Things were really looking great until omicron, and we were projecting that by the end of our season, we’d be looking close to recouping our previous losses. With omicron, the trend slowed down.”

“A year ago, people expected to be shut down and they didn’t anticipate revenue when they did their budgets,” says executive director for Californians for the Arts and California Arts Advocates, Julie Baker. “Whereas now people had made budgets anticipating that they were going to have revenue, that they were going to start seeing back-to-business kind of income. And so now all of a sudden, it’s ‘Oh no, I’m not meeting my budget.’”

Funding woes

Baker says arts groups are also concerned about the scarcity of relief funds at this point, and asking whether the state will create new opportunities for emergency funding this year.

“If there’s not going to be any kind of relief funding like we had with shuttered venues, operators grant or at the state level, the live venues grant program, there’s real serious concern that this is actually the year where it’s going to be really, really difficult for arts organizations financially to survive,” Baker says.

More on SF Arts Funding

According to the San Francisco Arts Commission, all the COVID-related arts funds announced in 2020 and 2021 have already been dispersed, and the commission hasn’t announced any new programs for this year. Its “Resources to Support Arts Organizations and Artists During the COVID-19 Emergency” webpage hasn’t been updated since last August. And the city’s Office of Small Business is wrapping up applications for its Music & Entertainment Venue Recovery Fund. However, the Office of Employment and Workforce Development plans to launch a $2 million COVID-19 Small Business Rent Relief Pilot Program next month.

Remington, director of cultural affairs, says additional relief opportunities may open up down the line. “It depends on where things go with this virus,” he says.

As city and state officials continue to monitor the surge, arts organizations are getting increasingly anxious about the near-term viability of their businesses.

El Rio’s Angel says she’s waiting to hear back on a California venue grant to help her get through the coming months. But overall the funding landscape looks bleak. “I don’t see a lot of support right now,” she says. “It’s really hard.”

Large organizations are also feeling the pinch, such as the American Conservatory Theater (ACT). Executive director Jennifer Bielstein says San Francisco’s flagship theater company hemorrhaged 77% of its staff since the start of the pandemic.

“We suffered a huge loss in revenue and we had to shrink tremendously in order to reach the day where we could one day return to delivering all of our programing,” says Bielstein.

The company is now preparing to launch its first in-person production since the pandemic hit, with the opening of the musical Freestyle Love Supreme later this month. Bielstein says she’s grateful for the support of the community—individual donors, corporations, foundations and government bodies—over the past couple of years.

“The PPP Paycheck Protection Program, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, the Employee Retention Tax Credits and such have have been life-saving programs for many, many performing arts organizations,” she says. “But clearly, we are still in need, as the impacts of COVID-19 continue. So we are advocating for some continued or additional relief as we go forward through 2022.”

Californians for the Arts’ Baker says there could be more surges ahead—and that’s where one-time aid packages fall short. “Really, where we get transformation is when we start to see this being ongoing real investment in our sector,” Baker says. In the meantime, Baker says she’d like to see a piece of the proposed $1.4 billion emergency budget package aimed at addressing the omicron surge go to the state’s creative sector.

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“Last year, at least we knew we had relief coming. What does this year look like?” Baker says. “Once again we’re starting to say, we’re back here. We need help.”