COVID-19 is taking a ‘frightening’ toll on Miami-Dade’s arts and culture groups

For the Frost Museum of Science, the first of Miami-Dade’s major cultural institutions to reopen in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, a salvaged summer season was supposed to be something of a grace note in a lost year. It didn’t quite work out that way.

When the museum opened in June, administrators were hoping to recapture enough summer traffic, usually the highest of the year, to steady its capsizing finances. But a resurgence of infections in July and August, strict capacity limits and many families’ continued reluctance to risk exposure — even with well-publicized safety protocols — kept ticket sales at just a quarter of the level of the summer before, CEO Frank Steslow said.

Now, if Congress fails to approve a second hefty federal bailout along the lines of the multi-billion aid program that helped the Frost ride out three months of total closure, Steslow said, the museum may soon confront an existential crisis.

“We’re hanging in there, is the best way to describe it,” Steslow said. “The good news is, people are interested in coming and they feel safe. But that’s a far cry from what we need to continue to pay the bills.”

Six months into a pandemic that forced the closure of every museum, theater and performing arts space in the county, Miami-Dade’s vital cultural institutions remain in a perilous holding pattern, bleeding millions of dollars in lost revenue while facing a deeply uncertain future.

Visitors practice social distancing under the Oculus at the Frost Museum of Science, which reopened in June after a three-month shutdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Visitors practice social distancing under the Oculus at the Frost Museum of Science, which reopened in June after a three-month shutdown prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even as some take tentative reopening steps, most remain shut with no reactivation date yet set. And even after thousands of layoffs and furloughs, and cuts in salaries and benefits, the county’s largest cultural organizations still have no firm handle on how bad the losses will eventually be — or in what kind of shape they will emerge once the epidemic recedes.

To Miami-Dade cultural affairs director Michael Spring, one overriding answer is clear: Most groups will be smaller. Budgets will be slashed and jobs lost, many for good. Some groups may not survive.

The numbers in the latest monthly county survey of local cultural groups are “frightening,” Spring said: The total financial hit from lost ticket sales and canceled fundraisers has escalated to more than $99 million, with nearly 16,000 jobs lost, since March.

“The survey demonstrates there is a relentless impact of the pandemic on the arts sector,” Spring said.

For some, the situation is already dire. County-owned but independently run Vizcaya Museum and Gardens has turned to the public for help, pleading for donations to keep the doors open to the lavish historic palace, which has high maintenance costs. Last week, the organizers of Art Basel Miami Beach and several leading satellite fairs announced the cancellation of December’s editions, a massive blow to Miami-Dade’s cultural scene, especially museums and local galleries that enjoy amplified attendance during that week.

Miami, Florida, August 12, 2020- Joel Hoffman, executive director of Vizcaya. The museum is struggling during the pandemic and Hoffman is coping with the changes.
Miami, Florida, August 12, 2020- Joel Hoffman, executive director of Vizcaya. The museum is struggling during the pandemic and Hoffman is coping with the changes.

Not all the news is grim.

The Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, reopened Sept. 2 with timed tickets and high demand in spite of sharply limited capacity. All available time slots for the first two weeks were promptly filled, a spokesman said.

The privately run and funded ICA, the first art museum in the county to reopen, is a rare exception because it doesn’t depend on ticket sales or public subsidies for its operation. It has retained all its 29 full time staffers, thanks in part to a $527,000 federal PPP check. Still, it is reducing its annual budget by more than $1 million from a pre-COVID-19 $6.58 million, to $5.48M for the coming fiscal year.

“We have an extensive donor base that’s allowed us to hold steady and face these challenges,” ICA artistic director Alex Gartenfeld said. “We re-projected our budget, and we continue to be really blessed.”

A sign reminds visitors to practice social distancing as Vincent Electra, 23, left, (that is name she provided), and Doug Giraldo, 25, right, cruise through Tomas Esson’s exhibition “The GOAT” while wearing masks on members opening day on Wednesday, September 2, 2020 in Miami’s Design District.
A sign reminds visitors to practice social distancing as Vincent Electra, 23, left, (that is name she provided), and Doug Giraldo, 25, right, cruise through Tomas Esson’s exhibition “The GOAT” while wearing masks on members opening day on Wednesday, September 2, 2020 in Miami’s Design District.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, meanwhile, has pledged to fund the cultural recipients of operational grants and support at the same levels this coming fiscal year, Spring said. The county’s cultural affairs department and direct operating subsidies to large institutions such as the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and Vizcaya top $73 million.

And the county commission unanimously voted to allocate $10 million of its CARES aid from the federal government to arts groups, a move sponsored by Commissioner and mayoral candidate Daniella Levine Cava. Spring called the fund “a lifeline” for the county’s cultural sector, which was flourishing before the pandemic hit in March.

The fund will assist groups already receiving operating support from the county as well as those that don’t. The latter will be eligible for grants of $5,000 to $15,000, Spring said.

Response to the third portion of the program, designed to aid individual artists, suggests how deeply the pandemic’s impact has reached, Spring said: 840 artists applied for assistance with living expenses.

“It is just heartbreaking to hear on some of those applications about what is happening with artists,” he said.

Leaders of cultural groups say the county emergency fund could spell survival for many.

“We’re insanely fortunate the county has had the vision to do that,” said Florida Grand Opera director Susan Danis. “It will make a difference in the continuation of the arts in Miami-Dade.”

But the Frost’s experience this summer underscores the risk of reopening and burning through money to support full operations while not bringing in enough revenue to keep it up for long.

The question facing museums and performing arts groups, Danis said, is not when they will be allowed to reopen, but when ticket buyers will feel secure enough to come out. Gimenez’s closure order does not yet permit live performances inside auditoriums.

Museums are free to once again receive visitors, and some have announced they will follow the ICA’s lead. The city-owned, privately run Bass museum in Miami Beach will open Sept. 16 with an extension until January of its pre-Covid exhibition by art star Mickalene Thomas, “Better Nights.,” among several new shows. (Admission comes with a free, reusable fabric face mask designed by artist Carlos Amorales).

The Frost Museum of Art at FIU and the NSU Museum of Art Museum Fort Lauderdale are also reopening this month.

But others, including the Pérez Art Museum Miami, have yet to settle on an a reopening date as officials keep a close watch on the pandemic’s course.

“What we’re all dealing with is, when is the audience willing to come back? The uncertainty is just insane. You think you can plan something, and then something else happens,“ Danis said.

Like most groups, the opera company is taking steps to prepare for an eventual return to the stage, planning some small-ensemble performances to be streamed online, Danis said. But no one thinks it will be easy or quick, and most that live to reopen will continue to have lots of work online. Don’t expect the swing to virtual performances and exhibits that most institutions have undertaken will wane significantly, Danis and others say, though certainly nothing beats visiting or watching in person.

Some of that online capacity has also come at a cost, as cultural groups develop new ways to present work online — and perhaps bring in revenue — as they work to stay limber and better positioned for a future most expect will combine the in-person and the virtual.

To highlight those ongoing endeavors, some 60 groups, including the New World Symphony, Frost Science and the Miami City Ballet have banded together in an online platform dubbed MiamiArtStrong.

“Our arts organizations are doing some smart things, reinventing themselves in ways to stay connected to donors and audiences,” Spring noted.

Here is how some of the county’s principal cultural institutions are faring amid the pandemic:

ARSHT CENTER

The Arsht Center for the Performing Arts — home to Miami City Ballet, New World Symphony and Florida Grand Opera’s performance seasons — remains under an emergency closure order and does not anticipate any live artistic performances until January at the earliest, president and CEO Johann Zietsman says. That has forced deep budget reductions that include layoffs, furloughs, reduced hours and salary cuts for all full-time employees.

The publicly subsidized Arsht had been able to stave off large cuts thanks to a $2.1 million forgivable PPP loan from the federal government. Given the cancellation of more than 160 shows, a revenue loss of $11 million and continued uncertainty over reopening, Zietsman and Arsht administrators say they had no choice but to slash the center’s $42 million budget by half and its payroll by 58 percent once the PPP ran out.

Although Miami-Dade provides the center $11.65 million annually for upkeep, educational and other community programs, the Arsht relies heavily on ticket sales, venue rentals and other earned revenue to support operations.

Arsht administrators say they’re looking into hosting live performances on the center’s three stages, without audiences, for later broadcast or online distribution. he center is still set to host the Oct. 15 Presidential debate, though with sharply reduced capacity.

FLORIDA GRAND OPERA

“We are the most intense of the art forms — singers sing into the air,” opera director Danis said, suggesting that chances of unwittingly spreading coronavirus during an opera or rehearsal could be too high to risk anytime soon.

That explains why Danis doesn’t expect full operatic performances to resume until next year at the earliest, and why the company, never flush to begin with, will be out easily $2 million this year out of a total original budget of $7 million. The company canceled its last two productions of the 2019-2020 season this spring and its fall performances, losing $1.5 million in ticket sales, she said.

The fiscal plight at the opera has been somewhat relieved because the company last year sold its Doral headquarters and rehearsal space to a private company for $7 million; it now rents space and shares the building with its landlord, Danis said. The proceeds of the sale went to cover old debt and to establish a cash reserve, which has helped ameliorate the impact of the coronavirus closure.

But the company still faces “steep” fixed costs, including rent and storage expenses for costumes and scenery, with no ticket sales and donations drying up, she said. Its administrative staff, which rises to 20 people at the height of its season, is now at nine people, all of whom have seen pay cuts, Danis said.

“I had the sense this was going to last a long time, so we took some tough decisions early on. Everybody’s very on board and everyone’s working towards the long haul,” Danis said of her staff.

The company is experimenting with ways to keep the music going during the pandemic. Six young singers, ages 14 to 24, participated in a two-week, in-person and socially distanced live opera lab at its Doral rehearsal space recently.

No one got sick or infected, Danis said, so she’s now planning to bring in five artists for a fall training program to be conducted both live and virtually. She’s also contemplating some small performances of arias and duets that could be streamed online.

FROST SCIENCE

In February, the Frost Museum of Science — built at a cost of $325 million, most of that borne by Miami-Dade taxpayers — had 130 full-time employees to manage visitors and run operations. The Frost has one salient feature unique among the county’s cultural attractions: an aquarium and animal exhibits that require complex, and costly, life systems to maintain.

After it exhausted a $1.55 million in PPP funding and a $160,000 disaster loan it has to repay, the museum is now down to 75 employees. The museum also reduced employee benefits across the board, and has top administrators filling shifts on the museum floors. It’s still not enough to balance the books, CEO Steslow said. Before COVID, admissions, concessions and special events accounted for 80 percent of the museum’s $18 million budget.

On top of high operating costs, the Frost saw significant extra expense to ensure safety and heightened sanitation to reopen, including the installation of a thermal imaging scanner to take visitors’ temperature.

A crew member carries out intensive sanitizing of a dinosaur skull exhibit at the Frost Museum of Science, which reopened to visitors in June after a three-month closure prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
A crew member carries out intensive sanitizing of a dinosaur skull exhibit at the Frost Museum of Science, which reopened to visitors in June after a three-month closure prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, Steslow expects a drop in revenue of $4 million — and an equivalent drop for next fiscal year if the low-attendance trend continues for the next several months.

Asked if that’s sustainable, Steslow was blunt: “No,” he said.

“I think everyone knows we’re doing everything we can to save money,” Steslow said, but he added that the Frost will likely need additional state and federal aid to survive.

“We’re hoping our peer organizations lobby for additional federal support,” he said.

Still, there have been bright spots, including some popular new online programs and a successful, sold-out summer camp — though it was run at severely curtailed capacity, Steslow said. The camp had just eight students per classroom where up to 30 is normal capacity, he said. That kept the summer program limited to 32 students at a time. Another plus: Steslow said the Frost has not been linked to any infections.

MIAMI CHILDREN’S MUSEUM

The nonprofit cultural and educational institution on Watson Island had just come off one of the strongest years in its history when the pandemic hit, CEO Deborah Spiegelman said. A total makeover of exhibits drove an 8% increase in attendance in 2019.

Now its charter K-to-Five school has restarted for its 315 students, and so has its preschool, though online only, she said. But the museum and its extensive in-person programs, which in normal years serve as many as 550,000 kids and parents, remain dormant. And Spiegelman said she can’t say yet when it would be prudent to reopen since its primary audience is young children.

“We were the first to close and will probably be the last to open,” she said. “It’s tough. We don’t want to run the risk of either our team becoming infected, or children getting infected and going home to multi-generational families We take a very conservative approach.”

A screenshot captures a virtual summer program at the Miami Children’s Museum, which remains closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
A screenshot captures a virtual summer program at the Miami Children’s Museum, which remains closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The museum hoped to reopen in July, but the summer surge of infections put an end to that plan, so it missed out on its busiest season as well as a popular summer camp.

The hit to the bottom line to the museum’s $10 million budget so far has been $2.9 million, Spiegelman said, but it could have been worse. In a stoke of lucky timing, Miami Childrens held its big fundraising gala just before the pandemic erupted, netting nearly $1 million in donations.

“We went into COVID days having the revenue from that gala. That really helped,” she said.

Still, Spiegelman said, with doors shut and no ticket or restaurant revenue coming in, the museum was forced to lay off 70 of its 118 employees.

“I cried a lot. We have an incredibly devoted team of people. We tried to convert and merge job responsibilities where we could,” she said.

Spiegelman said the museum avoided one pitfall that some other children’s museums across the country encountered. Some reopened too soon, and had to close again as coronavirus cases surged and attendance plummeted.

Confident that families will flock back once it eventually reopens, Spiegalman said she believes Miami Children’s will survive and thrive again — and rehire its full staff.

“When we reopen we hope to bring people back,” she said. “I can confidently say the museum will be around for a long time.”

MIAMI CITY BALLET

The ballet, widely regarded as one of the country’s best, has taken an especially hard hit from the pandemic. It canceled the last two ballets of its past season and sent its dancers home early. Then MCB leaders made hard decision to cancel the full 2020-21 season, having decided it made more sense to set a direction for the company early and clear the deck to begin planning its post-COVID future.

“Quarantining 50 dancers is not possible. It gets very complex,” said City Ballet Executive Director Tania Castroverde Moskalenko

The company reduced staff, froze hiring, cut salaries and slashed its projected budget from $23.5 to $11.5 million, but has protected its dancers. All 50 dancers hired for the season have been retained, though the contract length was reduced from 40 weeks to 27 weeks, Castroverde Moskalenko said. Some longstanding donors increased gifts, softening the impact of the cancellation, she said.

But the company stands ready to return to the stage in some fashion if conditions change.

“We just looked at the worst-case scenario,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to hibernate. We are going to re-imagine what a season under these circumstances will look like. Every day since March 13 has been like whiplash, with new scenarios of what the future might look like. We were at a standstill. We did not want to be paralyzed any longer.”

To keep some revenue flowing, the company held a five-week summer school program in person, but cut it to 100 students, or fewer than half the usual number. It hopes to open its school in the fall, but at “greatly reduced” capacity from the typical 800 enrolled students, Castroverde Moskalenko said.

The City Ballet took over a vacant storefront on Lincoln Road Mall near its Miami Beach headquarters at the invitation of the property’s landlord, using it for distanced classes or rehearsals. That’s reminiscent of its early days, when its home was on the pedestrian mall and rehearsals took place in full public view.

Miami City Ballet dancer Nicole Stalker rehearses in the new pop-up studio space on Lincoln Road.
Miami City Ballet dancer Nicole Stalker rehearses in the new pop-up studio space on Lincoln Road.

It’s now exploring the possibility of holding performances outdoors or virtually, Castroverde Moskalenko said.

“COVID is also a great accelerator. It’s causing us to question how we’ve done everything and how we connect with our communities,” she said. “It’s pushed us into this virtual world.”

But some things, she noted, won’t change. And that should ensure Miami City Ballet’s survival.

“The dancers want to dance, and people want to see the company perform,” she said.

NEW WORLD SYMPHONY

Since the New World Symphony closed its Frank Gehry-designed Miami Beach home in March, only a handful of staff have gone in the building to maintain its advanced digital equipment systems. Everyone else, including most of its 80-member staff and the 77 young musician “fellows” who make up the institution’s renown training orchestra, was sent home. Live performances at its Beach home and at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, where New World is one of three resident companies, were canceled.

The pandemic has taken a big bite out of New World’s budget, trimming it from $17 million last year to $13 million. Like YoungArts, though, New World is in a rare position of financial solvency for a Miami-Dade cultural group, thanks an anonymous donor who helped set the organization up with a $100 million endowment.

The symphony resumed its Fall semester on Sept. 8, but it will take place fully online for now. About 30 fellows will be based in Miami, while others will work from other locations, New World president and CEO Howard Herring said. He anticipates all will be in Miami by January, but he can’t yet say when full orchestral rehearsals or performances will resume.

“We’ll be as vibrant as we’ve ever been,” Herring said. “With our building set-up, we have the digital infrastructure to let our imaginations go wild into this new world.”

A screen grab of a virtual session shows New World Symphony fellow Drew Comstock coaching cello student Carlos Rua of the Iberacademy in Medellin, Columbia. The Miami Beach-based symphony has been operating fully online since the COVID-19 pandemic forced closure of Miami-Dade’s cultural institutions.
A screen grab of a virtual session shows New World Symphony fellow Drew Comstock coaching cello student Carlos Rua of the Iberacademy in Medellin, Columbia. The Miami Beach-based symphony has been operating fully online since the COVID-19 pandemic forced closure of Miami-Dade’s cultural institutions.

He expects online lessons for fellows will expand from 150 total a year to 750, for instance. The organization’s ultra-popular outdoor Wallcasts will balloon from 12 broadcasts to 80 performances, though at first those will be pre-recorded “encore” shows, Herring said.

With appropriate social distancing, Herring said, the park out front where the Wallcasts are projected on the New World building’s facade can probably accommodate 400 people.

“We intend to do that as quickly as possible. We think that’s the first step to bringing people back,” he said.

Every other Friday, New World will also resume its post-COVID “Live from our Living Room” program of live streamlined solo and duo performances.

Much of the digital offering will be made possible by a $500,000 gift from New World trustee Judith Rodin, Herring said.

PAMM

Pérez Art Museum Miami scotched a planned Sept. 1 reopening after the summertime coronavirus surge, but still hopes to welcome visitors again before the month is out, director Franklin Sirmans said.

When it does, the museum will be fully functional, despite a strong financial blow from the extended pandemic shutdown. It has cost the county-supported institution nearly $2.9 million in lost ticket sales and revenue from its popular shop and bayfront restaurant, Verde, which won’t reopen until the museum does.

The drop forced PAMM to lay off 15 full-time workers and furlough 54 part-timers while instituting salary cuts for the remaining 49 employees. Salaries account for about 43% of the museum’s annual $15 million budget.

To stay in the public eye and bring in some revenue, PAMM ran a brief pop-up shop in the Miami Design District. Meanwhile, crews have been installing a high-profile exhibit of art from Africa and the African diaspora drawn from the collection of developer Jorge Pérez, after whom the museum is named. Sirmans is banking on blockbuster-like attendance to jump-start PAMM’s reopening.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Sirmans said of the exhibit’s quality.

The museum has also kept its teaching program going. In conjunction with the Overtown Youth Center, it’s been offering a different online program every Thursday that’s funded by the Knight Foundation, Sirmans said.

On reopening, Sirmans said, visitors should expect timed ticketing, a suggested route through the museum to ensure social distancing, and “a strong emphasis” on outdoors events and exhibitions in PAMM’s lushly landscaped sculpture garden.

YOUNGARTS

Last month, Jewel Malone stepped on the historic campus of the young-artists’ group she leads for the first time since the pandemic struck. The perpetual calendar on her desk read March 13, the date when Miami-Dade Mayor Gimenez ordered a countywide lockdown.

Her calendar may have frozen, but much had changed since then. The budget of the National Young Arts Foundation, which focuses on developing talented artists ages 15 to 18 nationwide, was $13 million on that date. Today it’s dipped by $3.5 million. But the nonprofit organization is in an enviable position, thanks to a solid $47 million endowment and a wide network of deep-pocketed supporters.

The foundation has retained most of its staff of just under 40 people, and has found ways to continue to employ its extensive team of artists as coaches and teachers as it moves its programs online. Through a closed online portal for alumns, YoungArts provided emergency “micro-grants” of $1,000 to 300 artists by asking for donations and reprogramming other funding, Malone said.

“Many of our artists are going to feel the hurt,“ Malone said. “We’re impacted, too, but we’re finding ways to continue to put out resources for the artists who we serve. You are asking artists to continue to create work, but also giving them the ability to make ends meet. That grant is really critical, and donors are opening up their hearts and wallets.”

YoungArts will continue its flagship program of rigorous auditions nationwide in which developing artists compete for a year’s worth of lessons and coaching. The program, with about 400 student participants every year, culminates at the end of the season with YoungArts Week, a gathering of live performances and exhibitions in Miami at its headquarters in the landmark former Bacardi complex on Biscayne Boulevard.

But all of it will likely be virtual this year given the still-uncertain path of the pandemic, Malone said.

“The conversations about this future are ongoing today. We don’t know the long-term impact of this pandemic yet,” Malone said. “But we hope it can be the same artistic experience. What we’ve heard from our faculty is, ‘Yes, we can do this.’ We’re hopeful and grateful to be in this position. We are resilient.”