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Layoffs, Lost Gigs: How The Pandemic Hit Charlotte's Arts Community

Schroeder.jpg
Nick de la Canal`
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WFAE
Charlotte musician Arsena Schroeder played a live set at the Pauline Apothecary Tea Bar Friday night. She says before the pandemic, she might book two or three gigs a week. Now, it's closer to two or three a month.

Local performers and arts organizations in Charlotte are in a tough spot. Ticket sales have ground to a halt and performances have been canceled, and many local artists and the organizations that support them say they're barely hanging on.

At The Pauline Apothecary Tea Bar on Friday night, people were sipping tea and tapping their toes on the cement floor as a vocalist and a piano player finished up their set.

The vocalist, Arsena Schroeder, is a full-time musician who couldn't help smiling even as she described how deeply the pandemic has cut into her work.

"I would say pre-pandemic, a normal week, maybe two to three gigs," Schroeder said, "and now, two to three a month is like, killing it."

This was actually her first time in front of a live, sit-down audience since mid-March. Her options are limited since most music venues are closed and gatherings are restricted. She has been hosting some pay-what-you-can virtual concerts. 

"Some people will pay a high dollar amount just to attend," she said. "Some will pay as little as they can get by with just to attend."

But virtual concerts don't make nearly as much money as live performances do.

Schroeder still has income from her coaching business for aspiring musicians and she secured some grants, but like so many other performers and local arts organizations, she's in a tough spot.

'Unprecedented' Losses

Even the city's most prestigious arts organizations have been forced to make cuts after enduring nearly six months without ticket sales. Most arts organizations have never faced a situation like this before.

"It's certainly an unprecedented time," said Arts and Science Council President Jeep Bryant. "If you think back to the impact of the financial crisis in 2008-2009, even though the impact then was significant, earned revenue did not collapse as we've seen it collapse due to the public health restrictions now."

Most arts organizations with salaried employees got PPP loans, but when that money ran out, layoffs and furloughs followed.

Blumenthal Performing Arts cut 30 full-time staff members at the beginning of September on top of 165 part-timers who were laid off in July. Charlotte Ballet said it had laid off or furloughed 85 employees since March, and at Children's Theatre of Charlotte, 25 employees were temporarily furloughed from June until July and one was laid off.

Representatives for Opera Carolina and the Charlotte Symphony said their organizations had not made any layoffs or furloughs as of Sept. 4.

Some smaller organizations have had mixed success generating extra revenue through fundraisers or virtual ticketed events.

Theatre Charlotte mounted a virtual webathon in May with local actors and personalities that raised over $12,000. The theater has also been staging a series of outdoor ticketed concerts with attendance capped at 25 people. Executive Director Ron Law says the revenue doesn't compare with what a mainstage show would make.

"Well, 25 people times $10 is $250 compared to the $30,000 we hoped to take in for 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' or $40,000 for 'Dreamgirls,'" he said.

In total, he says Theatre Charlotte lost about $150,000 during the last six months, and the staff has taken pay cuts.

Appeals For Assistance

Several venues are seeking help from city and state government. Last week, a coalition of 13 music venues in Charlotte began circulating a petition calling on the city to help them with federal CARES act money.

Joe Kuhlmann of the Evening Muse says all of the coalition venues, including his, applied for city grants back in June, but still haven't heard back — even as the situation grows increasingly dire.

"There are places that are week to week, not even month to month right now," Kuhlmann said. "We're using the term life support, and we're not using (that) lightly."

The city told the Charlotte Observer that it's working to distribute the funds and that it is trying to support small business owners.

But without immediate assistance, Kuhlmann says, some venues will not survive, and their loss will be more than just an economic one. It will mean the loss of more cultural touchstones that enrich the city and nourish its people and individual artists.

"If these venues aren't able to survive to the other side," he said, "we're just going to be that much more behind the eight ball."

He hopes the city won't let that happen.

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