The Empire Arts Center marquee that lights up DeMers Avenue in downtown Grand Forks has gone dark.
It may be a metaphor for what’s happened to the arts community since the coronavirus pandemic extinguished many of the offerings that add excitement and vibrancy to the community’s quality of life.
Switching off the marquee is a cost-saving measure, said Debra Pflughoeft-Hassett, executive director.
“We’ve streamlined everything. We turned off the marquee, just to save money," she said.
The towering electrified sign had been lit every night, even when a performance or event wasn’t being held, she said.
“It’s a little sad. The marquee is kind of an icon downtown," she said.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the Empire Arts Center and many other arts organizations have been forced to become frugal with finances as the events upon which they rely for income were canceled or postponed. Arts calendars were swept clear at the start of spring, just when performances and other entertainment events are usually ramping up.
At the North Dakota Museum of Art on the UND campus, director Laurel Reuter estimates the facility has lost at least $300,000 in income because of cancellations, including the Spring Benefit Dinner and Silent Auction.
Other major events, such as the Dover Quartet performance – part of the Myra Presents: Winter Concert Series, in April – and the Autumn Art Auction have been postponed or canceled. The Museum Cafe is closed and Museum Shop is closed except by personal arrangements, according to Reuter.
A series of exhibitions planned for the fall and early winter have been canceled as well, she said.
"Someone taught me when I was a child that adults don't necessarily do what one wants them to do, but they do the best they can. Our goal at the museum is to keep each other and our visitors and participants safe, and, as best we can, continue to enrich people's everyday lives with aesthetic and humanistic experiences," said Reuter, reflecting on the impact of the pandemic.
"One cannot predict or understand what is to come, only move through it as peacefully as possible."
The Empire Arts Center canceled or postponed more than a dozen performances scheduled from March through the end of June, including the popular “Dancing for Special Stars," the Empire Theatre Company’s productions of “Puffs” and “Assassins,” North Dakota Ballet Company performances, and several screenings in its nascent Flashback Film Series.
The CDC directive to cancel or postpone events with 50 or more attendees resulted in the “painful decision” to ax events that generate sorely needed revenue to cover the Empire’s operational expenses, Pflughoeft-Hassett said.
The loss is estimated to be $7,000 for in-house programming and $9,500 for rental events, for a total of $16,500, Pflughoeft-Hassett said.
The public health emergency also caused postponement or delay of the 1919 Lounge events, which, with top-drawer vocalists, simulates the atmosphere of an intimate New York City night club; the Backstage Project; and numerous other events, such as pageant, business and student recognition gatherings and private parties.
The Backstage Project events, which feature small bands, had to be postponed almost indefinitely, Pflughoeft-Hassett said. Because they are presented in such a small space, “it’s not wise to put something in there.”
The demand for renting the Empire for tribute acts or graduation or wedding parties has all but dried up, she said.
“There are very few groups that want to have their event here," she said.
To reignite interest, the Empire is offering a special rate, for a limited time, for groups of 20 or fewer for a graduation party or special event.
The Grand Forks Chorales organization canceled its annual Masterworks concert, “Anton Bruckner’s Mass No. 2,” scheduled for early May. The concert is typically the organization’s largest fundraising event, according to Susan Caraher, executive director.
“We estimate that between ticket sales, donations and sponsorships, we lost approximately $5,500,” she said.
The Grand Forks Chorales has received some emergency arts funding and applied for a small Paycheck Protection Program, loan through the CARES Act. It also has conducted a fundraising campaign that helped offset the lost revenue from the Masterworks concert, Caraher said.
No employees have been laid off or had their work hours reduced, Valerie Jensen, president of the Grand Forks Chorales board, said.
In the wake of the financial damage caused by the pandemic, the Empire Arts Center, along with many other nonprofit arts organizations that depend on private donations, is turning to its donors and patrons – actual and prospective – for support.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have a broad and generous donor base,” said Pflughoeft-Hassett.
Government, foundation or other agency funding is a means to bridge the financial gaps caused by the pandemic.
“We’ve applied for several grants to help get through this rough patch,” Pflughoeft-Hassett said.
The Empire Arts Center has received PPP loans under the federal CARES Act, which was passed by Congress to help businesses weather the difficult financial stressors wrought by COVID-19.
The organization also has received emergency funding from the Community Foundation of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Region and the North Dakota Council on the Arts.
Neither of the Empire’s two full-time employees has been let go or had their hours reduced, Pflughoeft-Hassett said.
At Frost First Theatre, near Walhalla, N.D., leaders have launched a campaign to raise $70,000 to help cover revenue losses incurred by the cancellation of its traditional summer performances.
Funds generated by “The Show Must Go On” campaign will be used to keep the theater afloat during a season when in-person congregate audiences are not advised. Monies also will be used to pay for new seats, stage flooring, carpeting and improvements in bathrooms and walkways, said David Paukert, theater manager.
“Frost Fire has always relied on summer theater to get us through the year,” Paukert said.
But this year, he and other company leaders decided “if our audience can’t come to Frost Fire, then we’ll bring Frost Fire to our audience.”
So they developed the “Just 4 You” Virtual Entertainment Series. In place of a staged production, Frost Fire is presenting four 40-minute, original music comedy shows, each running on YouTube from Saturday through Aug. 21. “Grand Ole Country” closed Friday, July 31; other shows are “Swing Time,” Aug. 1-17; “Fabulous Fifties,” Aug. 8-14; and “Alumni Concert,” Aug. 15-21.
The shows, which can be viewed by going to www.frostfirepark.org, include an appeal for the fundraising campaign.
Affecting school-age students, the Grand Forks Public Schools’ Summer Arts Program, or SPA, was canceled, leaving its leaders feeling somber about dashed plans.
“This is a very strange summer indeed,” said Dean Opp, director. In July, the SPA team would have been finishing “Cinderella” and “Aida,” he said.
“Pre-K and elementary sessions would be finishing up and we would be looking forward to MySPA performances," he said.
Typically, SPA enrolls about 1,400 students of all ages.
The pandemic’s impact has been hard on students in the arts, according to Opp.
“It has been hard on all students. It has also been hard on SPA teachers. Typically, SPA has 50 to 60 staff members that did not have a job this summer," he said.
“This has been brutal," Brad Sherwood, SPA’s program director, said. "After spending decades of summers working with kids every day, it has brought heartache.”
State arts council support
The North Dakota Council on the Arts has played an important role in supporting arts organizations and individual artists throughout the state during the pandemic.
The council has distributed nearly $500,000 in funds from the National Endowment for the Arts CARES Act and private sources, said Kim Konikow, NDCA executive director. CARES stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security.
Eligibility for funding “was not based on artistic quality,” but was limited to costs related to COVID-19, including expenses such as artistic fees, rent, utilities and event cancellations, Konikow said.
The NDCA received NEA funding, which was funneled through Arts Midwest specifically for organizations, as well as $55,000 from The Bush Foundation, which is being distributed to individual artists, she said.
“I feel we responded quickly and worked quickly to get funds into the hands of individuals and arts organizations,” Konikow said. “We did spread the funds across the state – so that was great.”
Because funding came directly to the NDCA, rather than through the state, “it allowed us to be more specific and to help earlier,” she said.
One result of the pandemic is a recognition that “the arts were a huge part of holding people together,” Konikow said. “Even though everyone got hurt, people pivoted instantly to bring the arts to their communities. We saw more people getting involved with the arts (virtually) than were doing it live.”
A glimmer of hope is evident as arts organizations take careful steps to reopen or restart programming for the public, while limiting capacity and implementing stringent safety protocols – such as social distancing and thorough cleaning practices – to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
At a recent performance of “Peter Pan," by the North Dakota Ballet Company at the Empire, the audience was limited to 150, or 35% of the facility’s capacity, Pflughoeft-Hassett said.
“People were very accommodating, but it still felt like too many people,” she said, noting that people milling about in the lobby and art gallery is problematic.
“The Great American Trailer Park: The Musical” will be presented in the alley behind the Empire. The first production of the Empire Theatre Company’s ninth season opened Tuesday, Aug. 4, for a three-week run. Audience members, limited to about 50 to 75, are asked to wear masks and bring their own seating.
“It will be kind of fun,” Pflughoeft said. “The show lends itself to being outdoors. The audience will feel like they’re part of these (characters’) lives.”
The ETC is planning other performances this season, including “Sound of Music,” opening for a two-week run Nov. 27, and “Heroes of the Fourth Turning” in the winter.