The Journal Gazette
Friday, March 20, 2020 1:00 am

Arts groups tap creativity, community support

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

Where there were expected to be hundreds of attendees watching Fort Wayne Ballet and Fort Wayne Philharmonic's collaboration on “A Midsummer Night's Dream” or Arena Dinner Theatre's “Noel Coward's Brief Encounter” this weekend, there will instead be empty seats as COVID-19 fears have prompted government mandates against large gatherings.

Dozens of other performances scheduled for the coming weeks have been canceled or postponed during a time local arts organizations couldn't have imagined. Many groups also have shut down classes, school programs and other outreach efforts.

In an uncertain time many are describing as “fluid,” arts organizations are tapping into creativity and community support to see themselves through.

Donation options

Fort Wayne Philharmonic was among the first major arts organizations to alter plans when it canceled last weekend's performance of “Carmina Burana” at Embassy Theatre. The venue holds more than 2,400 people. At the time of the cancellation, Gov. Eric Holcomb was limiting gatherings to no more than 250. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are now recommending gatherings not exceed 50 people.

When the Philharmonic announced its cancellation of the event on March 12, it urged ticket holders for arts performances to consider not requesting a refund, a sentiment that was being echoed by the local creative community. Instead, it suggested that patrons consider the price of their ticket a donation to the organization.

Emily Shannon, director of marketing and public relations, says Philharmonic patrons donating their tickets will get a tax receipt. If not making a donation, there's also the option of exchanging the ticket for another show later in the season or taking a credit on the patron's account.

Organizations rely on ticket sales for at least some of their revenue. For example, single tickets and subscriptions contribute to the Philharmonic's earned income, along with concert and education fees and advertising. Earned income accounted for 23% of the organization's total income in the 2018-19 season, according to its annual report.

Whether it is the price of a ticket or an individual gift, donations of any kind are especially appreciated at a time like this, leaders of local organizations tell The Journal Gazette.

Todd Espeland, executive and artistic director of Fort Wayne Youtheatre, has seen people gladly donate the cost of their tickets for other organizations with canceled shows. Not only does that give a financial boost, but support from the community is also a shot in the arm for moral.

“That's really heartening,” he says. “It means the community is really recognizing this is going to be difficult for folks and we're all in it together.”

All For One Productions Executive Director Stacey Kuster thinks it's a brilliant idea for ticket holders to donate the cost of their ticket or take a credit for a future show. She says theatergoers understand these are unusual times. As of Tuesday, she hadn't had a single call from people concerned about tickets to future shows.

In addition to considering a donation to their organizations of choice, Kuster recommends staying connected with those groups by following them on social media for updates.

This is also the time to buy subscriptions and seasons tickets, says Susan Mendenhall, president of Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne. That will give groups some reassurance about next season.

Some more-established organizations have reserve funds to draw on and are financially prepared to weather this storm, she says. But not asking for a ticket refund is a simple act that can keep a smaller arts organization in business.

“For many of them, especially the smaller organizations, this is going to be a significant financial challenge,” she says, even though many activities can be rescheduled. “Probably as much or more so than most businesses. Just because of the nature of what we are and what we do.”

A donation to Arts United will also help the local arts community, Mendenhall says. It aids dozens of area organizations a year through grants, twice-yearly AmplifyArt crowdfunding efforts, leadership support and other programs. Fourteen organizations receive significant funding from Arts United, Mendenhall says.

Getting creative

Though some local organizations have experience with cancellations, it's unlikely any were prepared for anything on this level. But while this is new territory, Mendenhall says local arts organizations are staffed by creative people for whom thinking outside the box comes naturally.

Many are turning to technology to keep arts and culture alive.

Fort Wayne Youtheatre is planning a series of free Facebook Live and pre-recorded video workshops that anyone can access if they have liked the organization's Facebook page. Called Youtheatre Thursdays, they will be posted at noon weekly. First up will be a lesson on shadow puppets.

“This idea of doing a once-a-week workshop (is) not a bad idea anyway, even under normal circumstances,” Espeland says. “But we're usually so busy we haven't been able to do that.”

Part of Fort Wayne Dance Collective's mission is to help community members stay healthy in body, mind and spirit. While in-person classes are suspended with a tentative restart date of April 13, the organization will be taking that mission online.

Mandie Kolkman, artistic director of Fort Wayne Dance Collective, says the group will provide free content on its social media channels to help people stay as healthy as possible from their homes. Programs are being recorded this week.

These free opportunities are a perfect time to check out what Dance Collective has to offer, Kolkman says. The online classes could bring in new people that continue with Dance Collective after restrictions on meeting sizes are lifted.

The costs

Updates on cancellations and postponements have been filling up social media and email inboxes.

In the past week, the Philharmonic has seen several upcoming performances postponed or canceled including the March 28 and 29 performances of “A Cole Porter Celebration” with Fort Wayne Civic Theatre, which are not being rescheduled.

This year's Choreographer's Lab from Dance Collective has the most-ever participants and last weekend's performances had fewer than 20 tickets left per show when the decision was made March 13 to postpone. Dance Collective's touring company and Taiko drum program have also had cancellations.

All For One Productions has postponed its production of “Texas in Paris,” which had been scheduled to open April 17. Finding a new date depends on venue availability and the willingness of the rights-holder, Kuster says.

Though auditions had been held and roles cast, All For One's Young Playwright's Festival, scheduled for May 8 and 9, has been canceled for now. All For One is searching for a new date and venue where the plays can be performed as dramatic readings and the playwrights can still be honored.

Other performance groups will be facing similar concerns with finding times to reschedule. If a cancellation is necessary, the organization would be out the money that has already been spent on rights and royalties. Other upfront costs for performances include sets, props, costumes, talent fees and refreshments.

For All For One, ticket sales cover the cost of a show but not other projects such as after-school programs. Kuster says fundraising efforts are what is being affected most for her.

Now is the time of year when face-to-face meetings are scheduled, and people are canceling appointments. But All For One is adapting its methods to offer phone conversations or other ways of connecting with potential donors.

With so many technological resources at hand, it's not a problem that can't be overcome, Kuster says.

Hope ahead

Things might not be as grim as they seem at first glance, and organizations are looking ahead.

Espeland says the current situation came at a relatively good time for Youtheatre.

Youtheatre canceled a student showcase set for this week as well as its spring break day camp. But the group's next stage production isn't slated until May 15 – eight weeks away, which might leave it in the clear. The theater group is still planning to have auditions for the show April 6 and 7, but with plenty of time scheduled between small groups of children so areas where the kids and guardians gather can be cleaned.

This is the time for groups looking for ways to make it through, Mendenhall says. There is reason for hope because the time will come when the current struggles will be in the past.

“As we come out of this, the community is still going to need arts, culture and quality of life,” she says. “We are going to be more hungry than ever to reengage with festivals and programs and go out to eat and enjoy time with our families outside the walls of our homes.”

Kolkman says it has been good to see support, openness and empathy among arts organizations. She was a high school senior in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, so this isn't the first time she's seen people facing uncertainty about when they'll be back up and running.

She believes keeping a positive outlook is crucial as arts organizations move ahead.

“I think that positivity and working together is the thing that is going to take us through the tunnel and to see the light at the other end,” Kolkman says.

Other artists

It isn't just organizations that need support right now. Local artists and musicians join many workers in arts and culture groups as part of the gig economy – they don't get paid unless there is work.

A statewide study released in 2017 by the Indiana Arts Commission and Arts United showed more than 18,800 jobs in northeast Indiana's creative economy. That was 4.5% of all jobs in the region.

Some local galleries are closing, and festivals where art is sold might be affected if calls for social distancing and small gathering sizes continue into the late spring and summer.

Susan Mendenhall, president of Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne, suggests members of the community consider doing some online shopping to help out local artists, many of whom also use websites to sell their goods.

With Indiana bars and restaurants closed through at least the end of March, there are also few jobs left for independent musicians. Local musician Alicia Pyle has started a fundraising effort for local freelance musicians through her Facebook page. It has a goal of raising $5,000 and can be accessed at

Some local musicians have websites where albums, singles and merchandise can be purchased.

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