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Survey of 91 performing arts organizations in Chicago reveals 44% still uncertain about return to in-person performances

Despite overall industry comeback, smaller organizations still struggling to reopen

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[in header, clockwise from left: The Space Movement Project, Remy Bumppo, Red Twist]

CHICAGO [October 25, 2021]—The Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation (the Foundation)—an organization that offers unrestricted grants to 175 small arts organizations in Chicago with budgets under $1 million—recently surveyed 91 of its performing arts grantees to garner insights on the obstacles preventing organizations to return to live performances this fall cultural season. While 56% of organizations surveyed will return to producing in-person seasons this fall, 27% are unable to welcome audiences in-person, and 16% remain uncertain about returning to the stage this fall due to ongoing uncertainties caused by COVID-19.

“It has been a year and a half since Chicago enforced it’s stay at home order, and yet, there is still much uncertainty surrounding when our community will be able to fully engage with all our neighborhood cultural treasures once again,” said David Farren, Executive Director of the Foundation. “While we are thrilled to see the gradual resurgence of Chicago’s performing arts scene, many of our city’s neighborhood arts organizations are still in the same difficult positions they were back in 2020, reminding us that we all must do more to support those unable to return to in-person this fall.”

Of the 40 organizations that reported being unable or uncertain about the return to in person performances this fall:

  • 64% cited that it is because they wish to further monitor the COVID-19 health crisis before returning
  • When asked about anticipated return, 30% foresee returning to in-person performances in the spring of 2022, 20% anticipated returning to the stage in the winter of 2022, and 5% anticipated that they wouldn’t return to the stage until summer of 2022
  • 20% shared that returning to in-person this fall was too risky of a financial decision to make, and many cited lack of funding to hire the staff necessary as an obstacle in bringing audiences back this fall
  • 13% said that they do not have enough space in their theatre to accommodate social distancing
  • 10% mentioned they do not own their performance venues and thus, have no choice but to abide by the rules of their venues

Leaders from theatre, music, and dance organizations provided a wealth of insight regarding their organizations’ decisions to either postpone or move forward with in-person programming. Several organizations shared that committing to in-person programming this fall felt like too much of a gamble.

“During a recent board meeting, we agreed that the risk of bringing together audiences for in-person performances feels unpredictable,” said Anne Kasdorf, Managing Director of The Space Movement Project, an all-female contemporary dance collective that has been ineligible or denied relief funds based on its budget size. “Putting financial resources towards an event that may need to be canceled or postponed feels like an impractical use of funds at a time when our capacity for bringing in contributed revenue has been limited.”

“Throughout the pandemic, we lacked the infrastructure and the physical space to meet the safety standards that Actors Equity Association required for in-person production processes,” said Margaret McCloskey, Executive Director of the ensemble-driven Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, which will launch its in-person season in early 2022. “Another significant hurdle was the financial necessity of having a robust subscription campaign, which typically takes five to six months to plan and execute. It is a particularly big lift because we have a very small staff and no dedicated box office since we lease our performance space. Subscribers generally make up about 40% of our attendance, so selling subscriptions before we had confidence that we could get Equity approval was a non-starter.”

Redtwist Theatre—an immersive little black box theatre that seeks to listen, learn, and facilitate empathy on and off stage—received a generous partial rent abatement during the height of the pandemic, but that has ended this month. The theatre must produce performances or risk losing the space. Their season began with Stephen Karam’s The Humans (October 10 – November 14) a show about a family with haunting secrets, bound in one place together by an outside societal force.

 In the survey, organizations returning in-person this fall were asked to share safety measures that would be enforced. Of the 52 organizations:

  • 75% shared that they would be requiring that their audience is fully vaccinated
  • 33% mentioned that they plan to move forward with a hybrid fall season
  • 30% said that they would need to limit audience numbers, and they would not be at full capacity
  • 15% revealed that their performances would be outdoor only this fall

Despite the decrease of Chicago temperatures this time of year, many small performing arts companies also shared that they will resume or launch in-person performances outdoors only. Comfort Station, a multidisciplinary art space, utilized the lawn space adjacent to its building in Logan Square to present Everyone Remain Calm on September 25, in partnership with Eighth Blackbird Performing Arts Association, an organization that expands the boundaries of performance through collaborations, productions, and curation.

“Our in-person programming this Fall will all be taking place outdoors in partnership with Chicago Park District and Night Out In the Parks,” said Christina El Gamal, Managing Director at Jackalope Theatre Company, an organization that expands the definition of American identity by celebrating diverse perspectives. “This seemed like a safe way for Jackalope to make a return to in-person programming for the Fall portion of our season, while still prioritizing safety and giving us time to ensure our indoor facilities are compliant with all necessary COVID safety measures before welcoming our audiences back to our theatre.”

The recent survey also revealed that many organizations are choosing to team with other small performing arts partners to present in-person fall performances in an effort to make the most of joint resources. For example, Shattered Globe Theatre is presenting the Chicago premiere of Chloe Moss’s This Wide Night (October 8–November 13) in association with Interrobang Theatre Project. Also, on November 19-20, Kalapriya Center for Indian Performing Arts, will partner with Chicago Children’s Choir to present the premiere of Good Trouble in person at the Kehrein Center in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. Good Trouble tells the story of civil rights champion John Lewis and teaches a history that is seldom celebrated to inspire audiences to get into “good trouble” and change the world.

Several organizations are also moving forward with a hybrid model for their fall season to allow audiences the choice of attending in person or virtually. Each of Red Tape Theatre’s productions, for example, will be available in-person and via online livestream, including MY NAME IS INANNA (October 23 – December 11), a world premiere play about the contemporary struggles of Iranian political refugees told through multimedia storytelling.

Whether or not theatres are able to return to in-person events and productions this fall, audiences have made it clear to their neighborhood theatres that they are anxious to return to in-person performances.

“Our customers had been very clear with us that they were looking forward to returning to in-person performances,” David Rice, Executive Artistic Director of the west suburban First Folio Theatre, which marks its 25th anniversary this season. “Following the guidelines established by a consortium of theaters through the League of Chicago Theaters and Actors Equity Association, we are thrilled to return this fall with the world premiere of THE JIGSAW BRIDE: A Frankenstein Story, by our Artistic Associate Joseph Zettelmaier, running October 16 – November 14, 2021.”

Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation performance company grantees surveyed:

2nd Story About Face Theatre Access Contemporary Music
The African American Arts Alliance of Chicago American Blues Theater The Artistic Home
Asian Improv aRts Midwest Ayodele Drum and Dance Babes With Blades Theatre Company
BoHo Theatre Broken Nose Theatre Cerqua Rivera Dance Theatre
Chicago a cappella Chicago Dance Crash Chicago Danztheatre Ensemble
Chicago Filmmakers Chicago Human Rhythm Project Chicago Jazz Philharmonic
Chicago Moving Company Chicago Public Art Group Chicago Tap Theatre
Clinard Dance Comfort Station Congo Square Theatre Company
Deeply Rooted Dance Theater Eighth Blackbird Performing Arts Association Elastic Arts Foundation
Ensemble Dal Niente eta CreativeArts Foundation The Factory Theater
Fifth House Ensemble First Floor Theater First Folio Theatre
Free Street Theater Full Spectrum Features Griffin Theatre Company
Guild Literary Complex Haymarket Opera Company Hedwig Dances
Hell in a Handbag Productions High Concept Labs HotHouse
International Chamber Artists International Latino Cultural Center of Chicago Interrobang Theatre Project
Jackalope Theatre Company Kalapriya Foundation, Center for Indian Performing Arts Korean Performing Arts Institute of Chicago
The Lakeside Singers LATITUDE Inc. NFP Lifeline Theatre
Mandala South Asian Performing Arts Inc. MOMENTA Dance Company MPAACT
NAJWA Dance Corps Natya Dance Theatre The Neo-Futurists
The Newberry Consort Nothing Without a Company Oak Park Festival Theatre
Piven Theatre Workshop The Plagiarists PrideArts
Red Tape Theatre Redtwist Theatre Remy Bumppo Theatre Company
Rivendell Theatre Ensemble Riverside Arts Center Roman Susan Art Foundation
Same Planet Performance Project Shattered Globe Theatre Sideshow Theatre Company
Silk Road Rising Sones de Mexico Ensemble South Chicago Dance Theatre
South Side Community Art Center The Space Movement Project St. Charles Singers
Steep Theatre The Stillwell Institute for Contemporary Black Art Synapse Arts
Theater Wit Theatre Y Third Eye Theatre Ensemble
Trap Door Theatre TUTA Visceral Dance Chicago
Winifred Haun & Dancers Yin He Dance Zephyr Dance

Emergency Funding During COVID-19 Pandemic

Acknowledging the cataclysmic financial situation which hundreds of beloved regional small arts faced in response to COVID-19 related shutdowns, the Board of the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation met in March 2020 and unanimously voted to immediately put in place a series of funding mechanisms, including expediting a total of $2 million in general operating funds to its roster of 175 arts grantees in the Chicago region and 40 in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

In addition to expediting individual grants to existing Foundation grantees, the Foundation contributed $200,000 to the Arts for Illinois Relief Fund providing unrestricted grants from $6,000 to $30,000 for groups to be administered by the Arts Work Fund; created an initial $100,000 Lowcountry Arts Emergency Fund to be administered by the Foundation; and seeded a $200,000 relief fund for small collecting organizations in both regions that provide public access to regionally-focused collections.  And looking ahead to grantees’ future financial needs, the Foundation will continue its ongoing Cash Reserve Challenge offering arts organizations in both regions the opportunity to receive up to $25,000 in matching funds to assist with maintaining a cash reserve.


About Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation

The Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation supports land conservation, artistic vitality, and regional collections for the people of the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina. GDDF awards $1.7 million annually to 175 creatively accomplished small arts organizations in the Chicago metro area. For more information visit www.gddf.org.

The Foundation supports its grantees with multi-year general operating grants ranging from $2,500 to $13,500 annually, plus an array of additional organizational development opportunities including one-on-one feedback from staff, anti-racism and accessibility workshops, technical assistance trainings, and a cash reserve program.

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Press contact:

Amanda Berrios/Elizabeth Neukirch
The Silverman Group, Inc.
312-932-9950 / amanda@silvermangroupchicago.com

1 Comment
  • Today In The Culture, October 27, 2021: Many Performing Organizations Still Not Live | Music Box Brings Christmas Back |CSO-TV Update | Newcity
    Posted at 08:30h, 27 October

    […] The Chicago-based Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation—an organization that offers unrestricted grants to 175 small arts organizations in Chicago with budgets under $1 million—surveyed ninety-one of its performing arts grantees to get insights on obstacles that may prevent organizations from returning to live performances. “While 56% of organizations surveyed will return to producing in-person seasons this fall, 27% are unable to welcome audiences in-person, and 16% remain uncertain about returning to the stage this fall due to ongoing uncertainties.” David Farren, executive director of the Foundation says in a release, “It has been a year-and-a-half since Chicago enforced its stay-at-home order, and yet, there is still much uncertainty surrounding when our community will be able to fully engage with our neighborhood cultural treasures once again. While we are thrilled to see the gradual resurgence of Chicago’s performing arts scene, many of our city’s neighborhood arts organizations are still in the same difficult positions they were back in 2020, reminding us that we all must do more to support those unable to return to in-person this fall.” Much more here. […]