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Pittsburgh arts groups have returned to indoor shows, but not all patrons have followed

Three months after indoor performing arts returned to Pittsburgh, most groups are finding attendance significantly down from pre-pandemic levels. But they expected the drop, and hope to continue luring back audiences.

After months of virtual and outdoor shows, City Theatre was the first nonprofit performance group to venture back to the great indoors, with a limited-capacity co-presentation Downtown with Point Park University. That was in September. Attendance at the group’s first show back in its South Side headquarters, in October, was somewhat light, said managing director James McNeel. But sales for the second show, Matt Schatz's world-premiere satirical musical comedy “An Untitled Play by Justin Timberlake,” have been brisk.

Patrons are “starting to come out, and that’s a really good sign, I think,” he said, days after the show's first preview performance drew 200.

City Theatre budgeted for its first season back in person to see about 20 percent fewer tickets sold than normal, in large part because of COVID-19 fears, he said.

Other arts groups and presenters have seen comparable declines. The first touring Broadway show at the Benedum Center this year – “The Band’s Visit,” which was coincidentally also the show whose run there was cut short when the pandemic struck in March 2020 – filled about 60 percent of the 2,900-seat Benedum Center over multiple performances, said Kevin McMahon, president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Such productions typically fill 80 percent of the seats or more, he said.

The Trust is the region’s largest performing-arts presenter. McMahon said he confers regularly with a group of large North American performing-arts centers. “Everyone is reporting similar results, that we’re in general about 25 percent below pre-pandemic ticket levels,” he said.

That also roughly describes the situation at Heinz Hall. Since returning to its stage in September, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra has been filling a little more than half its 2,700 seats, down from a typical figure of 72 percent, says director of sales and marketing Aleta King.

But the PSO expected as much, she said: “We’re kind of exactly where we had budgeted.”

Indeed, Pittsburgh’s nonprofit arts groups have so far weathered the pandemic pretty well. One big reason is that unlike, say, for-profit concert halls, which rely exclusively on ticket sales and other earned income, most nonprofit groups generate well over half their revenue from donations and grants. So a temporary halt to ticketed live productions was survivable. Moreover, two sources of revenue during the pandemic actually increased. One was donations from individuals. An even larger source was government pandemic relief: Federal programs including the Paycheck Protection Program (forgivable loans) and Shuttered Venue Operators Grant supplied millions of dollars in aid to arts makers, presenters, and theaters in Pittsburgh alone. City Theatre, for instance, received more than $1 million from those two programs, said McNeel.

However, McNeel said, government help has now mostly run out, and “It’s a big number to figure out how to try to replace.”

That’s especially true for the Cultural Trust, which unlike most arts nonprofits relies on earned income for 80 percent or more of its revenue. During the pandemic, the Trust lost not just ticket sales, but also income from its rental properties and parking garages Downtown.

“We are finally operational, but financially we are definitely not back,” said McMahon. He said that for the first time in its 35-year history, the Trust ran an operating deficit last year, and expects to be down about $500,000 in 2022.

“We’re gonna make it … we’re a big organization, we have a lot of support [in the form of donations],” he said. “But we are certainly not out of the woods yet.”

What’s behind the drop-off at live performances?

The most obvious culprit is audience fears of COVID-19. Local museums, where attendance has bounced back in part because it’s easy for visitors to spread out, patrons of live shows must sit close by others for a couple hours at a time. But most of the city’s major arts venues are requiring proof of vaccination and face masks for all visitors, and nonprofit groups report that cooperation by patrons is high.

“I think audiences are feeling very comfortable with what we’ve done. I think they’re feeling safe,” said the PSO’s King.

Another possible reason: After not functioning in-person and indoors at all for so long, all the city’s big arts groups resumed full slates of programming within a handful of weeks this fall. “I don’t think people are up for the quantity they used to do, right now,” says Rene Conrad, executive director of the North Side’s New Hazlett Theater.

What’s more, when staying home has become a habit for many people, bringing audiences back requires more than overcoming COVID fears.

“It took us a while to hunker down and become couch potatoes if you will, working at home, Netflixing, streaming,” said McMahon. “We did get used to it, and now I think likewise, it’s gonna take some of us a little longer to get up off the couch and say, ‘Let’s go out!’”

There are definitely promising signs of life. McMahon said “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” which ran in Pittsburgh in November, was selling closer to pre-pandemic levels. A Nov. 13 performance by visiting dance troupe A.I.M. by Kyle Abraham nearly sold out the 1,300-seat Byham Theater, likely due heavily to the fact that choreographer Abraham is a Pittsburgh native.

But everyone agrees it’s going to be a long road back. McNeel compared the pandemic to the 2008 recession: The stock market crash decimated arts giving and nonprofit budgets, and City Theatre’s budget took more than a decade to recover, he said. Hence City’s decision to come back for 2021-22 with a full season, rather than shrink down and have to claw back up to size yet again.

But even McNeel said there’s much work ahead, especially as regards regrowing audiences to early-2020 levels. “I think the long-term impact of the pandemic is going to go years,” he said. “It’s going to be a multi-year recovery that we’re under.”

Moreover, adds Joseph Hall, executive director of the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, even after the coronavirus pandemic becomes an endemic, the ground rules of staging live performance have changed, perhaps permanently.

“I think that’s going to be the reality of COVID or any other pandemic that may happen, is that we have to find a way that we can live and be amongst each other in a very safe way,” he said.

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: