Philly arts groups struggle to fill concert halls and theaters

In the post-pandemic era, Philadelphia’s cultural districts often look like the good old days: streets and sidewalks crosshatched with arts patrons animating the city’s parking garages, restaurants, theaters, and bars.

On other nights: crickets.

Attendance at the Franklin Institute is back to pre-pandemic levels, but staffing is still half of what it had been.

At Taller Puertorriqueño, after-school programs that drew 80 elementary and middle school students for arts activities and homework help now bring in only about 20.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Perelman annex was shuttered during the pandemic and has not reopened to the public. This past fall, the Philadelphia Orchestra capped ticket prices at $49 for some performances (a third of the usual highest ticket price) and still faced some halls about half full — though the attendance picture has brightened since then.

Just before the pandemic, artist Henry Bermudez in front of his work “The Heavens” at the opening reception for his exhibition “Wilderness in Mind” at Taller Puertorriqueño.. … Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Arts leaders are unsure what the new normal might be after attendance numbers took a hit from the pandemic. Much hinges on the answer, especially now that federal emergency COVID-19 funding for arts groups has ended and ticket income is becoming more critical.

One widely held fear is that the pandemic permanently changed what it takes to get people to leave the house.

“People are really happy with their yoga pants and Netflix,” says Amy L. Murphy, managing director of Old City’s Arden Theatre Company, where subscriptions are still at only 75% of their pre-pandemic level.

“What we’re seeing at both large and small organizations is that there has been a change in audience behavior, even with the relaxation of COVID controls and things like that,” says Patricia Wilson Aden, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance. “We think that audience behavior in particular for large, close gatherings will continue to be affected [with lower turnout].”

Patricia Wilson Aden, president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, on the Avenue of the Arts.. … Read moreAlejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer

Broadly speaking, it was a tougher fall in the performing arts, where patrons are confined to a seat, than in the visual arts, where visitors may move about freely while calculating infection risk and keeping their distance. Attendance at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in fiscal year 2022 reached 84% of fiscal year 2019. The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Matisse show, which closed Jan. 29, exceeded expectations, drawing 135,000, “which is amazing and in line with what we saw for the museum’s impressionist show in 2015,” said Jessica Sharpe, the museum’s deputy director for visitor experience.

Bigger names, better attendance

Attendance did pick up around holiday time for many groups, but the success of Matisse also highlights a significant post-pandemic change many groups are seeing: It is taking bigger names to get audiences out.

“Those [events] that are with the most popular names or products are selling out or coming close to it, while others are at 60%,” said Franklin Institute president and CEO Larry Dubinski.

In dance, there’s no bigger name than The Nutcracker, and Philadelphia Ballet’s December production of the Tchaikovsky/Balanchine work surpassed pre-pandemic numbers, filling the Academy of Music to nearly 80% of capacity and selling a solid $3 million in tickets (2019 sales totaled $2.64 million).

Lloyd Freeman of Medford with his children Beau, 3, and Ailey, 6, during the “Daddy and Me” meet-and-greet event after seeing Philadelphia Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at the Academy of Music.. … Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

Another change: Many arts patrons now appear less likely to commit to attending in advance.

“In 2018-19 we would look out a couple of weeks and predict what visitation would be based on advance ticket sales,” said R. Scott Stephenson, president and CEO of the Museum of the American Revolution. “Now people are making that decision the day of or day before.”

At the Franklin Institute, pre-pandemic membership (March 2020) was 28,000. In June of 2021, in the midst of the pandemic, it dipped to 8,000, and today it has climbed back only to 18,000.

“I still think there’s uncertainty in people’s minds,” Dubinski says.

One factor depressing attendance may be that with fewer people working downtown, there are fewer who can go directly from work to a show. “There still seems to be a tug of war about where to work, and I think leisure and entertainment is still in flux,” says Mohannad Ghawanmeh, executive director of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture in West Philadelphia.

A ghost light in an empty McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J. in 2020. Ghost lights in theaters all over stayed on as a sign of hope during the pandemic.. … Read moreMONICA HERNDON / Staff Photographer

Cutting ticket prices, long a reliable strategy for some arts groups, may no longer be as useful. The Arden has traditionally offered promotional and institutional discounts for students and certain communities.

“But people don’t seem to be as price-focused as they are behavior-focused,” says Murphy. “One of the things we are noticing is that people are more likely to go out with friends than as a couple — they talk each other into leaving the house.”

It will be months before the arts community is able to get a comprehensive snapshot of trends, attitudes, and behaviors. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance is surveying arts and culture groups now, and by late spring or early summer hopes to release a new report on how they are faring.

Teasing out the impact of the pandemic on attendance rates could include a number of factors.

By delivering performances digitally, some arts groups may have undercut potential in-person attendance and ticket earnings. But making concerts available via streaming cultivates relationships from donors who may be unable or unwilling to visit a concert hall.

Philadelphia Chamber Music Society musicians rehearse in the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall Auditorium Feb. 10, 2021, before a live-streamed concert.. … Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

In some cases, the streaming gains may be greater than the loss in ticket sales. About a year into the pandemic, a California couple viewing the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society’s streamed concerts began sending in a series of gifts. Those gifts now total $35,000. Significantly, the donors are previously unknown to PCMS and from out of town — a valuable example of a group growing the philanthropy pie beyond the usual donors.

Another variable in the slow arts recovery is the negative perception some patrons have of the city, considering the pandemic’s overlap with an increase in crime. For some, these fears and interactions with people who are homeless have made going to arts events a challenge.

Roger Hedspeth has been a Philadelphia Orchestra subscriber for eight years, but is now on the fence about whether to renew his package of orchestral concerts. He says he and his wife were on the way from a PATCO Locust Street station to one of the orchestra’s recent Yuja Wang Rachmaninoff concerts when a panhandler followed them for a block. On their way home, a group of unhoused people blocked their entrance in the PATCO station to the fare gates from the concourse until someone helped usher them through.

“It’s like, is it worth the trouble?” Hedspeth said. “I can stream the Berlin Philharmonic at home on a good TV and sound system anytime I want. You start weighing the difficulty of getting into the city to see the orchestra, which I love, and just staying home and seeing a great orchestra.”

Pianist Yuja Wang performing Rachmaninoff with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Verizon Hall. The orchestra’s cycle of Rachmaninoff piano concertos sold out, but some concerts not perceived as big events have been sparsely attended.. … Read moreChris Lee

Some arts leaders believe that a single, positive, large-scale event in the city could be a catalyst for fully rehabilitating activity in the city and its image.

An Eagles championship parade might have done it. More people having fun on the streets sending the message to others could have spurred a positive feedback loop. Now the path for arts groups to get patrons into the habit of attending again is less certain.

Says the Franklin Institute’s Dubinski:

“Once we can get somebody back in, not afraid that they’re going to get COVID, not afraid that there’s some crime that may happen to them and they enjoy it again, then boom — then they’re back in going to dinner, back in going to arts and culture.”

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