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How Arts Groups Decide Whether To Go Dark Over COVID-19

Bill O'Driscoll
90.5 WESA
The Benedum Center, seen here during in January 2019 during the run of "Hamilton," is among the theaters going dark thanks to COVID-19.

One of the first arts groups in Pittsburgh to cancel events because of the COVID-19 pandemic was Bricolage Production Company. About 2 p.m. Thursday, the theater troupe announced it had canceled this weekend’s installment of its long-running storytelling series WordPlay.

Bricolage co-artistic director Tami Dixon says that the decision wasn’t a hard one. It was precipitated largely by the NBA’s announcement this week that it was suspending its season to help stem the spread of the virus. Compared to that, taking its own small Downtown theater space dark for two nights didn’t seem such a big deal.

“We just thought, ‘Why are we taking this risk?’ We don’t know enough about the spread of the disease to put our art before health, honestly,” said Dixon.

Bricolage’s experience is just one on a spectrum of how the pandemic has affected arts programming here. And the decision-making hasn’t been quite as simple for everyone as it was for Bricolage.

For instance, the region’s largest nonprofit presenter of performing arts, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, continued to host shows as planned through Thursday, including the current touring Broadway production of the musical “The Band’s Visit,” at the 2,800-seat Benedum Theater.

In a statement released Wednesday, Trust president and CEO Kevin McMahon wrote that the group’s venues, which also include the Byham Theater, would remain open and subject to enhanced cleaning procedures and other precautions. “This is a fluid situation and transmission risk in the United States remains low,” wrote McMahon.

On Thursday, the group declined a WESA interview request on its policies. But by Friday afternoon, the Trust, citing the safety of “our guests, staff and artists,” abruptly announced the cancelation of all “performances, exhibitions, films and events” through April 6.

Bricolage’s cancelation, coincidentally, came on the same day Broadway announced it was going dark for a full month. For Pittsburgh groups, it seemed like a tipping point: Within 24 hours, many of the city’s most prominent performing-arts groups followed suit by postponing or canceling performances, including Pittsburgh Public Theater, City Theatre, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theatre, and Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Late Friday morning, the PSO announced it was going dark until April. It was a quick reversal of course that illustrated how swiftly the landscape is changing. Less than 24 hours earlier, the PSO had announced that this weekend’s program would be going on, but with a new conductor: The original maestro, Jakub Hrůša, had gone home to the Czech Republic to be with his family during the pandemic. His replacement was to have been Daniel Meyer, who was available only because his original gig this weekend, with the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, had been canceled … due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This past Monday, hundreds visited Carnegie Lecture Hall, in Oakland, for a Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures talk by novelist Esi Edugyan; as a precaution, the group didn’t hold its usual post-talk author “signing line” for patrons. Later in the week, the group canceled next week’s talk by Irish author Anne Enright because of travel restrictions. 

“We went from ‘let’s not have a signing line’ to ‘People can’t get here’ to ‘We want to be responsible and not be gathering people if that’s not appropriate at this time,’” said executive director Stephanie Flom. She said she welcomed Thursday's announcement by Gov. Tom Wolf that large gatherings should be limited to 250 people or less for the next two weeks.

“It was good to see it in black-and-white,” she said. The group’s next planned gathering of that size is a March 30 visit from humorist Mo Rocca. Flom said that if the guidance is extended past two weeks, the event with Rocca will be canceled.

There are many factors to consider in a shutdown. The health and safety of performers, staff and patrons comes first, said Mitch Swain, executive director of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, an advocacy group. Money also figures in. Cancellations mean reduced opportunities to recoup the funds invested in productions. The PSO's cancelations and postponements, for instance, "will have a significant financial impact on the Orchestra," according to today's statement from the group.

And performers, crew and other personnel who work on a project basis might find themselves short of cash.

GPAC has been in touch with its sister advocacy groups around the country, and has been sharing information with local arts organizations, Swain said. He said Thursday that GPAC was not advising groups whether to remain open or not. However, in a phone interview, Swain acknowledged the near-certainty of a COVID-19 outbreak in the region. Asked whether closing venues might avoid a longer, more painful closure later, he said, “That argument makes sense to me.”

Of course, not all arts venues are alike, relative to COVID-19 risks. Theaters, for instance, host hundreds of people or more over a short period of time, all sitting in close proximity. Museums are a bit different. That’s one reason the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh have chosen to remain open, at least as of today.

“People are being discouraged from going to events where large groups are going together, but our institutions are able to provide a kind of outlet, I think an important resource for people during this time,” says Stephen Knapp, president of the Carnegie Museums, which includes the museums of art and natural history, The Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Science Center.

Knapp said that this past Wednesday, he convened a meeting in Oakland with representatives of local arts and culture groups, county health officials, and locally based academic experts. While there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases in Western Pennsylvania, “Everybody believes it’s inevitable that cases will arrive here at some point,” he said in a phone interview Friday.

He said the Carnegie museums were sticking with their policy of enhanced cleaning, encouraging social distancing, and canceling large gatherings at their facilities, including a recent science fair at the Science Center.

Museum galleries present somewhat different risk profiles for COVID-19 than do theaters, he said.

“Exhibition halls tend to be large. People can spread out when they’re in those situations. We’re able to clean the surfaces they might be in contact with. They’re not seated in close proximity.”

Knapp said attendance since the outbreak is down, but “it hasn’t dramatically tapered off at this point.”

He also acknowledged that the museums are likely to need to close at some point, and that the decision could come at any time, regardless of when COVID-19 cases are confirmed here. “What I’m saying to you today might be completely different tomorrow,” he said Friday morning.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: