The city’s arts and culture industry is experiencing a growing sense of “crisis” following the pandemic, with no clear path toward a better future, according to a first-of-its kind study released Monday.
The findings paint a picture of a cultural arts landscape plagued by: dwindling audiences and subscriptions; increased costs and shrinking budgets; decreases in private funding and sponsorships; and an uncertain future in the wake of the end of government funding, such as the Paycheck Protection Program and Shuttered Venue Operating grants for local arts organizations.
The study, commissioned in January 2023 by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) and titled “Navigating Recovery: Arts and Culture Financial and Operating Trends in Chicago,” looked at trends from 2019 through 2022 at a wide range of organizations with annual budgets of less than $150,000 to those with more than $1 million.
The analysis was put together by the Dallas, Texas-based SMU DataArts.
“The recovery — especially around theaters — has been very challenging and very difficult. And it definitely needs some focused attention in order to be able to make sure that our theater sector is strong and resilient and continues to thrive,” Erin Harkey, DCASE commissioner.
But there is hope, too, according to the report. It shows small- and medium-budget organizations saw a slight increase in average staff sizes. Black, Indigenous and People of Color organizations grew their companies with the addition of full-and part-time employees, increasing their artistic staffing by about 80% from 2019 to 2022.Â BIPOC organizations also bucked the overall trend of flat individual donations, seeing a 46 percent jump from 2019 to 2022.
Historically, members and subscribers have been key to boosting attendance, but visits among those groups dropped 26 percent from 2019-22 at performing arts venues and 29 percent at the city’s museums, according to the study. Cultural institutions were already seeing declines in those types of visitors before the pandemic — thanks in part to the “great recession” economic downturn from 2007 to 2009.
Overall, attendance in all categories of guests picked up in 2022, but it was still down 60 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
“The fact that fifteen Chicago organizations reported in-person attendance in excess of 200,000 people in 2019 whereas only one organization exceeded 200,000 attendees in 2022 underscores the pervasiveness of attendee losses,” the report states.
Overall in-person attendance drops at performing arts venues for the four-year period was far more severe — 59 percent — than at museums — 14 percent, the report found. Museums were able to open their doors earlier, have “flexible entry times” and better control the flow of visitors, according to the study.
During the pandemic, people learned new habits — getting more of their entertainment online — and those habits have been hard to break, the study found.
Faced with shrinking audiences, cultural institutions slashed their budgets — adjusted for inflation — by an average of 20 percent by 2022. Private donations on the whole were flat, failing to keep up with inflation.
The study also pointed to a report by the American Alliance of Museums in June, which notes that two-thirds of surveyed museums said attendance was still 29% below pre-pandemic levels. Locally, from 2019 to 2022, “Chicago performing arts organizations and museums in the study saw 26% and 29% further declines, respectively, in the number of subscribers and members, respectively, reflecting the national trends.”
The report comes as several local theaters have recently announced budget troubles, including Lookingglass Theatre, which said in June that it would pause operations after a 35-year run. The move included massive cuts in staffing and no further productions until late spring of 2024. In August, Steppenwolf Theatre Company announced a 10 percent cut in staffing due to dwindling revenue and attendance.
Although the study doesn’t include data from 2023, anecdotal information also doesn’t point to a major turn-around, Harkey said.
DCASE, working with Choose Chicago and the League of Chicago Theatres, is set to roll out a new marketing campaign this week.
“We’re hoping to just get people excited and excited to go out there and purchase a ticket and go see a show,” Harkey said.
Asked how she envisions the near future of arts and culture in the city, Harkey said she’s optimistic but that organizations will need to “evolve.”
“People are going to have to get nimble and re-think certain things about what they are doing, but we are going to be as supportive as we can … ,” she said. “There are a lot of people who care very much about this and they are ready to be helpful.”
Contributing: Miriam Di Nunzio