Scott Showalter could see the writing on the wall.
“As soon as there was a recommendation to not gather in large quantities, that was an immediate signal to us,” he says. “Our core product, after all, is bringing mass quantities of people together, frequently, in an enclosed space.”
Six years ago, Showalter moved up from Los Angeles to become the president and CEO of the Oregon Symphony, which is the oldest orchestra in the western United States. In its 124-year history, it has been interrupted only once, performing in fits and starts throughout World War II before picking back up, full force, in 1947.
Last week, the Symphony laid off all its musicians and more than half of its administrative staff.
The novel coronavirus—SARS-CoV-2, officially—has, since its initial detection in China late last year, torn through neighborhoods, nations, and economies at breakneck speed. To date, Oregon’s cultural sector reports $8.6 million in virus-related losses. Data from the Regional Arts and Culture Council projects that figure will reach $56 million by the end of May.
The Oregon Cultural Trust, founded in 2001 to “promote and preserve” the state's cultural institutions, might be in a unique position to help. Its permanent fund of $29 million, built primarily from individual tax-deductible donations, has sat untouched for nearly two decades. Now, members of the trust's board are pushing to break the emergency glass and distribute as much as $10 million to flailing arts organizations statewide.
"The whole concept and purpose behind the permanent fund is to ensure culture for future generations, and without using some of that money now, we may not have much culture left for future generations," says Brian Rogers, the Cultural Trust's executive director.
There's a catch: the trust itself can't break the glass without prior approval from the legislature. To protect against ill use, the board of directors is subject to stringent criteria for distributing permanent funds, and the language of that criteria makes no mention of emergency relief. This morning, Governor Brown committed to considering the Cultural Trust's proposal in the legislature's as-yet-unscheduled upcoming special session.
"It's crushing to our coalition to see the corpus get spent. There's a lot of heartburn. But I think a global pandemic's at the top of the list of what you'd spend those dollars for," says Sue Hildick, the senior advisor for the Cultural Advocacy Coalition, a 501(c)(4) that lobbies the state on behalf of the arts. "Our message is that the state should match it."
While the $2 trillion federal stimulus package the Senate approved on Wednesday doles out $75 million each to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, local leaders have so far been relatively silent about how state funds might alleviate the unprecedented financial burden on Oregon's cultural institutions.
In an open letter last Monday, Showalter called on Governor Brown and other elected officials to address the Symphony's urgent need for $5 million in emergency funding. (He acknowledges that the money would likely come from a variety of sources, not just state dollars or a Cultural Trust grant.) That money would pay the healthcare premiums of Symphony personnel who've been laid off, pay the wages of the few employees left fundraising and processing benefits, and help recoup some of the staggering ticket losses the organization sustained from its truncated season.
"We are the shepherds of this community," Showalter says, "and it would be horrific if now, as a result of this crisis, [we] were to go under without the care and support of those who are in a position to do something. And I would call upon the mayor and the governor to be a part of that solution."
He points out that, beyond the Symphony's aesthetic and cultural value, it's an economic force. Last year, it provided 800 jobs to artists of all stripes and administrators who kept the lights on. A 2017 report from RACC and Americans for the Arts found that Portland's arts and culture sector generated some $330 million annually in economic activity.
"I think that a lot of times, people think the arts are a 'nice to have' instead of a 'need to have.' I would argue that this economy needs us," Showalter says. "Everything that this does for tax revenue and tourism and restaurants and parking, the ancillary benefits of the programs we run—it would be devastating if the Schnitz were dark 100 plus nights a year."