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Art Organizations Struggling During Pandemic

Black Hills Playhouse

Many art organizations and nonprofits depend on public events and performances to pay the bills. Anything that draws a crowd can’t happen right now. So arts organizers and artists  are searching for  loans and grants to keep their work afloat.

Art organizations spend months, sometimes years planning their seasons. Jennifer Teisinger is the Executive Director of the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. She remembers when this year’s  plans dissolved. 

“Thursday March 12th is when we really started to see things change.” 

That’s one day after the first COVID-19 cases, including one death, were confirmed in the state. 

Teisinger says initially they decided to postpone one concert. But things changed quickly as the organization reacted. 

“By Tuesday the following week we had moved out of the Washington Pavilion and were working from home. So everything kind of hit all at once there.”

Less than a week after the first cases, the orchestra canceled the rest of its 98th season that was scheduled to run through April.

“Effectively for us, it meant the cancelation or postponement of three main stage performances, a youth orchestra concert and a chamber ensemble performance. So that has an impact on-I should say a negative impact on box office revenue.” 

The orchestra’s annual budget is typically about $2.3 million, but they’re looking to make significant expense reductions to ensure that  live programs continue. Next year’s  season is scheduled to start in October. The orchestra has also canceled its educational programs. That includes one called Symphony Studies, which takes Orchestra musicians into classrooms.

Teisinger says the organization has to switch its focus. Now the orchestra pushes out virtual performances onto its  platforms, providing new and archival concerts. It’s  also working to create virtual music classes for teachers to utilize during the pandemic. Full disclosure-some of their online work is partnering with SDPB. 

“So we’re continuing to serve the community in that way. Instead of audiences coming into the concert halls, we’re coming to them through their computers.” 

Credit South Dakota Symphony Orchestra
Dakota String Quartet

The orchestra has applied for a disaster relief grant through the National Endowment for the Arts. It has  also applied for a loan with the Paychecks Protection Program through the Small Business Administration. The national loan is open to businesses and nonprofits with 500 or fewer employees. 

The money can pay workers, rent and utility costs to help businesses stay afloat. Initial funds for the program ran out on April 16th, but  Congress approved additional money last week.

The orchestra still employs  nine full time musicians and nine staff members. But there isn’t any work for the 65 musicians who  work part time for rehearsals and live concerts. Teisinger says the orchestra has been around for nearly 100  years and has survived other crises.



“We have no intention of not staying afloat. That’s not how we think-the South Dakota Symphony Orchestra. We will make changes and be flexible and creative.” 

Credit South Dakota Symphony Orchestra
Dakota Wind Quintet

Arts organizations and nonprofits across the state are competing for some of the same loans and grants. The Black Hills Playhouse puts on elaborate productions through the  summer season that take a year to plan. The playhouse has canceled this season for the first time in 75 years. Linda Anderson is the Executive Director. 

“It’s an interesting time for us because virtually every income stream we have has evaporated at the same time.”

Anderson says they spend about 600 thousand dollars on their productions.Ticket sales pay for about 75 percent and the rest comes from fundraising. 

“We’re not able to do the work that we do and we’re not able to fundraise for the work that we do. And so our budget which is a little over a million dollars, this year just to sustain our staff we have about a $300 thousand dollar budget.” 

Anderson says they’ve reduced the budget to a minimum to cover staff, utilities and rent. 

Canceling the season has cut more than $200 thousand dollars in contracts that would have gone to actors, directors, designers and  carpenters. 

“So they were in a sense furloughed because we can’t do the season. But our year-round staff continues to work and we’re just kind of working towards those next events hoping that society will open up and we’ll be able to do our work again.” 

The playhouse has also applied for the Paycheck Protection Program and is looking for other options to help sustain itself. Anderson says they’re trying to retain year-round staff so they can hit the ground running when they’re able to. 

"I don’t think people are going to bounce back immediately, that’s why it’s so important that we’re minimizing our expenses now.. I think this is probably going to be something we’ll be dealing with for a few years.” 

The pandemic also affects individual artists and performers. Art shows, gallery events and performances  are closed to stop the spread of COVID-19. Right now, many individuals are taking to the internet to try and earn an income.

Jim Speirs is the Executive Director of Arts South Dakota. He says in many metropolitan areas, artist relief funds can help. 

“They’re not project based, it’s not based on doing any type of work. It’s just a small grant to help self employed artists get through a difficult time.” 

But there isn’t an artist relief fund in South Dakota. Speirs says something like that could help individuals supplement their income right now. Speirs has volunteered Arts South Dakota to set up a fund and manage it. He’s looking for partners to provide financial resources. 

“It’s clear that such a fund would be of extreme importance right now, but even into the future. We think having such a fund for self employed artists is something our state definitely needs and we’d like to work with others to get that going.” 

South Daktoa did recently approve gig workers and individual artists to apply for Pandemic Unemployment Relief.