Two years after COVID hit, D-FW arts groups are still struggling to rebuild audiences. Why?
Editor's note: This story is part of an ongoing series for Arts Access examining the health and well-being of our North Texas arts economy.
It’s the big ugly truth that performing arts groups must confront to survive.
Audience numbers are down. A lot. Even as the worst of the pandemic seems to have abated, the days when theaters and concert halls were shuttered nationwide.
Performing arts groups in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are feeling the pain as much as their brethren in the rest of the country. A late-August headline in The New York Times said it all: “Live Performance Is Back. But Audiences Have Been Slow to Return.”
In North Texas, it is forcing at least one area company to close.
The problem extends beyond the arts. Sure, the National Football League has seen its audience restored. Butthe same isn’t true for Major League Baseball, or movie theaters, with several chains declaring bankruptcy.
So, why are audiences dragging their feet in returning to performances? The reasons are many and worrying.
Audiences are being more selective, according to researchers and arts leaders across the region. Some are scared to gather in crowded indoor venues. Others have lost the habit of attending. Still others are avoiding the hassle of driving and parking, instead staying at home and watching Netflix, Hulu or a host of other streaming options.
Even more concerning? None of the problems are easy to fix.
“There’s not a single kind of smoking gun for why the numbers are down,” said Zannie Voss, a professor of arts management and entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University.
Voss has tracked how 47 D-FW arts groups have been doing during the pandemic through a project called SMU DataArts. Locally, in-person attendance was 58% lower in 2021 than in 2019, the project found. Nationally, that was 69%.
“There are some early signs in 2022 that organizations are building back, but that’s going to be a slow process. It doesn’t happen overnight,” Voss said.
That’s something that area groups know all too well.
Compared to the last full year before the pandemic, the Dallas Theater Center’s most recent season saw a dip of 47% in attendance. In other words, close to half its audience disappeared.
In its last full season before the pandemic, the Dallas Symphony Orchestra reported $9.4 million in ticket sales. That figure plummeted to $2.1 million during the 2020-21 season, when the DSO was among the few U.S. orchestras to continue performing for a live, albeit reduced audience.
Sales rebounded somewhat last season, climbing to $6.5 million, with audience capacity fluctuating between 50% and 85%.
Last season was as unpredictable as Dallas weather in October. Periods of relative calm were interrupted by waves of infection.
“We had a series of constant disruptions,” said Jeffrey Woodward, managing director of the DTC.
Groups are trying to rebuild their audiences this season in two ways. First, by bringing back subscribers. Both the Dallas Theater Center and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, for example, have reported significant drops in subscribers since the beginning of the pandemic.
Many of the lapsed subscribers at the DSO are still buying concert tickets, but not the equivalent of what they used to, said Kim Noltemy, the DSO’s president and CEO. Other U.S. orchestras are having the same problem, she said. “I had a call with the top 20 U.S. orchestras two weeks ago, and everyone was saying the same thing.”
Perhaps more importantly, groups are trying to reach new — as in younger and more diverse — audience members.
“We have to develop new audiences,” saidWarren Tranquada, the president and CEO of the AT&T Performing Arts Center. “Because if people are more selective, we won’t meet our sales goals if we turn routinely to people who were loyal subscribers before.”
What he envisions is a bold new strategy, one involving “interactions with artists, a fine dining experience, zeroing in on new meaning in the art that you’re seeing. If we can get the details right, we won’t have to compete with Netflix. We’ll be offering something different that makes it worth the hassle.”
The DSO is trying to convince new audiences why they should attend performances by focusing on the “experience of coming to the Meyerson [Symphony Center], the grandness and beauty of the building, but also the welcoming nature of the fellow audience members and the people who work here,” Noltemy said.
“Our goal is to have as many people watching concerts as possible, not just for financial reasons, but also because, what is better than a house full of people enjoying the same thing, the energy, the excitement? And it’s wonderful for the musicians to feel that love.”
Groups are taking on these challenges just as a critical resource for them dries up: relief money.
An assortment of federal money — from the Paycheck Protection Program, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency — allowed many nonprofit arts companies to stay afloat. Other groups, particularly smaller ones, were forced to fold.
At the height of its success in 2018, Dallas’ Cry Havoc Theater won a national children’s theater award presented at the Kennedy Center and its 2018 production Babel was featured in a five-part KERA-NPR podcast. But after the ups and downs of the pandemic, the youth theater is shutting down next year.
“If people aren’t coming to the theater, I don’t know [what to do],” said Mara Richards Bim, Cry Havoc Theater’s founder. “At a certain point, do we keep it alive just to keep it alive? I was of the opinion that we don’t.”
The theater’s total audience last season dropped to a third of what it was in the last full season before the pandemic. Summer productions showed an even starker contrast. The largest audience of Cry Havoc’s 2022 summer productions was just a tenth of its largest summer audience in 2019.
A significant factor in the closure is Richards Bim’s decision to leave the company. Other features of Cry Havoc make it difficult to sustain, like its reliance on teen actors who are mostly available during the summer.
“We were sort of already in an unsustainable position before the pandemic,” Richards Bim said. “I’ve never been paid full time and so we were only operating because we had a lot of unpaid labor.”
‘What do our communities need?’
Faced with challenges lingering far longer than most foresaw, many arts groups are going as far as to reimagine what they do — and why they do it.
Amphibian Stage in Fort Worth, for example, has experimented with programs like an augmented reality art walk and a video series called This Is My Story, which featured Black men sharing stories from their lives.
Kathleen Culebro, Amphibian Stage’s founding artistic director, said the pandemic was an important time for the theater to “examine who we are and how things are working.”
“We also got to ask ourselves on a very fundamental level, what is theater? What do our patrons need? What do our communities need? And how can we serve those needs?”
Still, Amphibian Stage is also seeing fewer audience members than before the pandemic. The theater expects to end the year with roughly 20-25% fewer sales than the $300,000 it made in 2019.
Amphibian’s core audience is buying memberships, Culebro said, but many of them are not showing up to performances.
“So you’ll have a sold-out house with a lot of empty seats — you know those member patron nights. I think it’s going to be a slow return,” she said.
She said single ticket buyers have been even harder to reach — a trend that’s also showing up in SMU DataArts’ research. From 2019 to 2021, individual contributions to D-FW arts organizations decreased over 60%, a significantly bigger drop than the 13% decline in trustee contributions.
“So individuals who had a regular arts-going habit lost that habit somewhat during the pandemic,” Voss said. “Their philanthropic support has also perhaps been redirected elsewhere.”
The only groups that have achieved wild success are those presenting blockbusters. Thanks to Wicked and Hamilton,Broadway Dallas has done better than anybody.
Since the company reopened with Wicked in August 2021 — the first Broadway show to reopen in the U.S. — it has sold 455,039 tickets for its Broadway presentations, said company executive Mike Richman. “Makes this our second most attended season ever.”
During its five-week run of Wicked alone, the company drewmore than 120,000 paying customers to Fair Park’s Music Hall.
Those are numbers the Dallas Cowboys are more accustomed to seeing. In fact, 120,000 exceeds the capacity of AT&T Stadium and the neighboring Cotton Bowl, which typically lures a sellout crowd of 92,100 to Fair Park for the Texas-Oklahoma game.
Presenting a Pulitzer Prize winner can also help.
It centers on a Black upper-middle-class family preparing a birthday party for their grandmother. The family is watched and commented on by a set of white characters — before things get even stranger.
Ticket sales for the production are about 50% higher than usual, saidTeresa Coleman Wash, Bishop Arts Theatre Center’s founder and executive artistic director.
Audience members, particularly millennials, are returning more quickly to theatrical events at the center, she said. It may have something to do with the theater’s commitment to edgier programs and social justice efforts.
“I’m excited that young people are engaging with our theater more,” Coleman Wash said. “I do think the content is a huge attraction.”
For the theater’s previous show, Curse of the Puerto Ricans, more than 50% of the audience had never been to the center before, Coleman Wash said. And audiences have been coming from places as far-flung as Houston, Louisiana and Oklahoma City.
“We are casting a wider net,” Coleman Wash said. “We saw during the pandemic that people from surrounding communities were willing to drive to our venue.”
Still, the center’s jazz series, which sold out months in advance in pre-pandemic times, is seeing a slower audience recovery. At the most recent jazz concert, Coleman Wash said, there were audience members who hadn’t attended in two and a half years. “I feel like as time progresses, those folks will come back more quickly,” she adds.
While many organizations are eager to welcome more diverse audience members in person, research shows that online offerings may be a better way to reach them. In fact, studies show people of color are as likely or more likely to engage with digital arts and culture programs compared to the general population.
“If someone hasn’t felt welcome going into a space, it’s not necessarily that they haven’t attended because they aren’t attracted to the offerings,” Voss said. “So it’s a question of how arts and cultural organizations are continuing to engage people within a digital space.”
Compared to pre-pandemic times, ticket sales for performing arts groups in the D-FW area are projected to be down 20-25% for at least the next 12-18 months, according to SMU DataArts modeling.
As arts groups look for a path forward, research by Voss and her colleagues at SMU DataArts and the Wallace Foundation shows two common strategies for groups that have found financial stability: a community-oriented approach and quality programming.
Those, Voss said, “are really the cornerstones of how organizations are able to get through difficult times.”
As Cry Havoc prepares to close its final season, Richards Bim is worried that several small and medium-sized performing arts groups in the area may shut down.
“I think you would see the experimentation go away,” she said. “Organizations, whether they’re dance or theater, they would go with the tried and true. They wouldn’t be willing to take a risk on younger artists. They would go with what they knew could sell tickets — and that would not be good for Dallas.”
But if groups figure out how to reel in audiences, there may be cause for hope.
“Netflix is a wonderful thing,” said Woodward, DTC’s managing director, with a chuckle. “But when you can walk in and share something with a live actor and a couple of hundred other people around you — there’s nothing like it.”
And that, he said, is why DTC and other companies continue to feel guardedly optimistic.
“We’re going to need time to make it back to where we were before. What we don’t know is how long it’s going to take. But I believe we’ll get there. It could be a year, maybe two years. Who knows?”
Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.
This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.