An ‘Existential Threat’: Report Details Challenges for State Arts and Cultural Organizations

During any other year, Door County’s theaters, live-music venues, museums and art galleries would be propping open their doors to usher in thousands of patrons to the final exhibits and performances of the peninsula’s high season.

There would be the triumph of making it through the frenetic pace of summertime and the anticipation of the quiet season ahead to plan next year’s performances, programs and exhibitions.

During a year unlike any other, however, the peninsula’s arts and cultural organizations have done little of that. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced them to wipe clean at least a half-year’s worth of programs and the associated revenue, and to reinvent their programming in a world constrained by social-distancing guidelines.

Performances and programs were put on hold, delayed, then canceled, with entire seasons shifted to 2021. Tickets, playbill ads and employment contracts were purchased and then refunded out of bank accounts that must continue to pay bills. Executive directors have become pros in the art of sending letters about the pain of losing a year (and likely more) of in-person programming, and of writing and rewriting budgets.

State estimates show that approximately one-third of those employed in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector in Wisconsin filed for unemployment between March 15 and July 5 – the third highest among all sectors.

Most businesses have similar stories to tell, but few have taken a harder hit than a sector that has faced a decline in employment and state support for nearly two decades – and whose very existence relies on bringing people together in intimate spaces.

That hit will have a domino effect beyond the stages and exhibits, according to a report that the Wisconsin Policy Forum – a nonpartisan, independent, statewide policy-research organization – released in August. The report details the economic damage that the pandemic – on the heels of pre-pandemic conditions such as dismal financial support from the state – has inflicted on Wisconsin’s arts and cultural organizations, and those who rely on them to make a living.

The Wisconsin Policy Forum compiled its report using information from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis’ (BEA) Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account, which highlights the impact of arts and culture on national and state economies.

According to the most recent BEA data available from 2017:

• Arts and cultural activities added a value of $10.1 billion to Wisconsin’s economy: a 44 percent increase from $7 billion in 2001.

• Arts and cultural activities accounted for approximately 3.1 percent of the state’s overall gross domestic product: the total monetary value of all finished goods and services, which was higher than accommodation and food services, hospitals, and transportation and warehousing.

• There were 96,651 people employed full time or part time in arts and cultural production in Wisconsin (3.2 percent of total employment).

Despite these strong numbers, Wisconsin ranks last in the nation for per capita support of arts and cultural activities. According to the report, in 2020, the state appropriated $770,000 in general-fund support to the Wisconsin Arts Board, the state agency dedicated to supporting Wisconsin’s arts and cultural activities. This comes out to 13 cents per capita – a far cry from the $7.37 per capita spent by neighboring Minnesota, the number-one-ranked state for arts and cultural support.

Add in a pandemic that made arts and cultural organizations among the first to close and very likely the last to normalize, and it’s no wonder the Wisconsin Policy Forum subtitled its report, “An existential threat.”

Door County

A snapshot of three local arts and cultural organizations highlights the effect of COVID-19 on a sector that is a critical component of not just the Door County visitor experience but also the quality of life for seasonal and year-round residents.

It also highlights how, despite shared circumstances in pre-pandemic and pandemic times, each organization has its own individual experiences, audiences, challenges and financial situation to respond to.

Andy Rubin of UW-Madison and Tandem Press demonstrates screen printing at the Peninsula School of Art Family Art Day in Fish Creek. Photo by Len Villano.

Peninsula School of Art

This year was already going to be a significant one for the Peninsula School of Art (PSA) because it had planned to carry out the first phase of construction on its $6.4 million Door to Creativity campaign. This fundraising effort, of which more than $3.6 million has been raised, began in 2018 and will support major facility upgrades and expansions.

Despite the loss of half a million dollars in earned revenue because of canceled programming this year, the school intends to move forward with the campaign. As PSA Executive Director Cathy Hoke explained, the expansion is what will help the art school play catch-up on lost revenue in the safest manner possible.

Phase One includes a new adult studio, 2D studio and children’s studios, as well as other indoor and site upgrades. The studio additions will allow multiple workshops to run simultaneously and keep students – 65 percent of whom come from outside the county – operating as cohorts in the same space for the entire week.

It’s a silver lining during a year that has seen PSA strategically furlough staff and cancel the in-person elements of its most popular revenue-generating events, including the Door County Plein Air Festival. Federal COVID-19 programs and additional unemployment benefits helped the school to keep its staff financially whole through the furlough, and now that it’s back to pre-pandemic staffing levels, it’s able to continue making art accessible to the community.

That finally happened in person Aug. 15, when PSA opened its gallery to the public for the first time since March. The ensuing time saw the school create free virtual offerings in an effort to support artists and art lovers through mentorships, critique groups, Family Art Days and conversations about creativity. The plein air festival was conducted almost entirely online, with the exception of a curbside, small-works sale that generated some revenue for the school and artists.

Hoke notes the difficulty that artists are facing across the country. In-person opportunities to gain exposure and sales were largely canceled, forcing artists to turn to an overly saturated online market. Artists who supplement their sales through teaching have seen their classes canceled, or, if they do still have teaching opportunities, they must weigh the risks versus rewards of exposing themselves to in-person class gatherings.

Requiring masks and social distancing and maintaining sanitary conditions won’t be the most difficult part of regaining a sense of normalcy at PSA or any other cultural organization in Door County. The challenge will be relying on the comfort level of the students, teachers and audiences that these organizations rely on to function.

During a year that “feels very reactive” to Hoke, her staff and the greater creative community in Door County, proactive steps are being taken. PSA, for instance, is planning for smaller, one-day workshops from November to April, and it’s revamping Family Art Days to include a demonstration in the gallery and take-home art kits.

The real highlight remains the Door to Creativity campaign, which continues to accept donations and will prove critical in helping PSA to move into the uncertain months ahead.

“I know people want to get back in the studio,” Hoke said. “They miss the camaraderie. Watching a demonstration online is not the same thing as being in the studio, and looking at someone else’s palette, and watching someone else work, and being able to ask live questions.”

Always … Patsy Cline at Peninsula Players Theatre. Photo by Len Villano.

Peninsula Players Theatre

Peninsula Players Theatre in Fish Creek canceled its 18-week, 108-show season in two parts. Summertime shows were axed in April, but the optimism that permeated most of the country at that point kept the theater company’s fall season alive until June 29, when the spread of COVID-19 showed no signs of slowing, and more states began enacting mask mandates.

Peninsula Players must contend with a number of circumstances that affect its operations and response to the pandemic. For one, the theater company is beholden to the Actors’ Equity Association – the labor union that represents more than 51,000 theater performers and stage managers – releasing contracts. 

In April, Actors’ Equity barred its members from in-person auditions, rehearsals and performances, and the organization hired an epidemiologist to help develop a list of conditions that must exist for its members to return to work. Those conditions have kept the curtains down on all but a few U.S. stages this year.

Although Peninsula Players watched and waited for updates from Actors’ Equity and other theaters, its managing director, Brian Kelsey, also took note of how universities, schools and summer camps responded. That’s because Peninsula Players’ lakefront theater doubles as a campus, housing and feeding the 60-plus actors, interns, carpenters, costume designers and creative teams who travel from across the country to work there each year.

Despite the loss of its 85th season, Kelsey remains grateful for Actors’ Equity’s persistence in protecting its members. The stigma of creating a superspreading event is one a theater can ill afford.

“Had Equity released contracts and we were preparing to perform, we would have been this case study of what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “So I’m thankful that we get to sit and watch how these other theaters reopen.”

Peninsula Players was able to maintain its five full-time and one part-time staff member at pre-pandemic levels thanks to the Payroll Protection Plan and CARES Act, but the loss of employment for the other 60-plus individuals highlights another oft-referenced component of the pandemic: health insurance.

Union actors earn health insurance one week at a time. In order to qualify, actors must have at least 11 weeks of covered employment during a 12-month period to qualify for six months’ worth of coverage. If they work at least 19 weeks during a 12-month period, they qualify for 12 months of coverage.

If there is no work, as is the case right now, Equity actors lose their health insurance. Quarterly premiums have already tripled, from $100 to $300, and the Equity League Health Fund’s trustees are scrambling to find solutions. Actors’ Equity has called on the federal government to provide health insurance subsidies to help arts and entertainment workers who have lost coverage because of COVID-19.

Door County resident and actress Cassie Bissell had nearly a year’s worth of work lined up in March when the pandemic shuttered theaters across the nation. Along with anticipating the loss of health insurance, she has seen firsthand the challenges faced by those in her industry, such as losing secondary sources of income from restaurants and bars. She hints at what may come when theaters reopen under tighter financial circumstances and the already stiff competition for roles increases.

“There’s already not enough work to go around, even independent of something like this happening, but I think when we come back, a lot of theaters are going to have to be making big cuts to make up for the losses, so it just means there’s going to be less work,” Bissell said. “I have been having conversations with my actor friends. I think there are a lot of us who are wondering whether this is the end of our theater careers.”

Peninsula Players’ artistic director, Greg Vinkler, understands that sentiment. As both an actor and artistic director, he has watched the domino effect that the pandemic has had on his industry: actors losing work and health insurance, stage-lighting companies suffering from the loss of business, and playwrights not getting work produced. So, as any good Shakespearean performer would, Vinkler looks 400 years into the past to gather hope for the future.

“I was reading recently that Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, because of the black plague, [closed down], and when it reopened, there were huge ticket sales because people were so anxious to get back to that,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s what happens with theater, but I think that along the way, we may lose some practitioners to other things because they just can’t survive without doing something else.”

In the meantime, Peninsula Players Theatre has kept itself as close to the spotlight as possible with Peninsula Players Presents, a weekly video series of recorded conversations between Vinkler and Peninsula Players alumni who share personal experiences and memories about their time with the theater. The theater company also conducted a play reading with Chicago Radio Theatre and is working on a video production highlighting the history of Peninsula Players.

All of these off-the-cuff projects have allowed staff members to gain new skills and insights into audience engagement during a time when an actual audience is all they really want and need.

“Our profession depends on audiences,” Vinkler said. “Large groups of people gathered together who share that evening’s experience with what’s happening onstage, and it’s very hard for all the theater people I know because what we love to do, we cannot do.”

Door Community Auditorium

The Door Community Auditorium (DCA) has largely sat dark since the middle of March, when sweeping stay-at-home orders shuttered performances at live-music venues across the country. But on Sept. 1, it lit up for the first time in nearly half a year to call attention to a crisis and congressional bills that, if enacted quickly, may help to save the struggling live-music industry.

With its lobby bathed in a fiery burst of red light visible from Highway 42, DCA joined thousands of venues across the country for the Red Alert Campaign, calling on Congress to pass the RESTART Act and other financial-relief initiatives to support the industry.

It’s the biggest call to action that DCA has been able to make physically in its venue since the COVID-19 pandemic wiped its 2020 calendar year clear of community and school events.

DCA pivoted quickly at the onset of the Safer at Home emergency order in March, launching a series of virtual and livestreamed programs called Door County Spring Training that were led by DCA, local artists, musicians, writers, ministers and community members.

Staff members quickly began working on the logistical pieces for a July season start, and then a September start. Their administrative work tripled as they rescheduled and recontracted shows two or three times; sold, then refunded or exchanged tickets; and drafted eight rounds of contingency budgets.

In the meantime, they watched as virtual offerings seeking to re-create in-person events and capture the attention of audiences and donors dominated the online landscape. Whether it was Door County’s other flagship offering – nature – that inspired it, or what’s become known as “Zoom fatigue,” Executive Director Cari Lewis and her staff decided to go in the opposite direction.

“We felt that the medicine our community and visitors needed most would be found in the great outdoors, taking a break from screen time rather than watching more online content,” Lewis said.

Since going through a four-week furlough in July, DCA’s three full-time and two part-time employees have focused their efforts on what they hope will be a return to the stage in 2021. DCA has rescheduled nearly all of the 19 touring shows that were originally slated for the 2020 season, with acts such as Tanya Tucker and Keb’ Mo’ scheduled to take the stage during the summer of 2021.

Lewis echoes the sentiments of the entire arts and cultural sector when she describes the organization’s most formidable hurdle during this pandemic.

“The biggest challenge is navigating the rapidly changing data and the financial hardships of losing an entire season of revenue, all the while feeling a strong pull to serve our community and deliver on the promises set forth in our mission in this time of cultural crisis,” she said.

Even as it faces its own challenges, DCA is keeping its finger on the pulse of the community’s needs. It has planned two free community nights at the local drive-in movie theater Sept. 28 and Oct. 12. Double features will play each night, and although admission is free, attendees are asked to donate nonperishable or toiletry items for local food pantries.

Moving into the end of 2020 and the start of a new year, Door County’s arts and cultural organizations must rely – more heavily now than ever before – on the generosity of donors and the actions of federal and state governments to stay alive. Patrons, sponsors and donors have stepped up in big ways, donating to capital campaigns and general funds, and converting their ticket and advertising purchases into donations.

Uncertainty remains as strong for these organizations as it does for the general population, but for a sector in Wisconsin that has repeatedly faced financial cuts and uncertainty for the better part of two decades, the coming months will prove just how much state and local governments, and communities, value their contributions to the quality of life in the state.

You can read the full Wisconsin Policy Forum report at

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