Editorial: A new report paints a grim picture for Chicago’s performing arts. But not all is lost.

A new report released Monday afternoon by the city of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events makes for some grim reading for those who love the performing arts in Chicago. None of this comes as a surprise to us, but the report puts some hard numbers on what we’ve been seeing.

According to the report, which relies on statistics developed by Southern Methodist University’s DataArts research group, dwindling audiences are now a huge problem for local arts organizations. “From 2019 to 2022,” the report says, “Chicago performing arts organizations and museums in the study saw 26% and 29% ... declines in the number of subscribers and members, respectively.”

For Chicago’s justly beloved theaters, the drop over four years in the number of subscribers averaged an eye-popping 39%, which is partly a result of the old-fashioned nature of subscription selling at a time of variable pricing and when people don’t like to make decisions far in advance.

Overall attendance is down a sobering 59% for Chicago’s performing arts. Last year, earned revenue was 46% lower than in 2019. And, as a result of emergency belt-tightening, Chicago theaters had 44% fewer full-time staff and 47% fewer part-time staff last year compared with 2019. That’s a lot of lost jobs, if the report is accurate.

But it’s not just about the number of subscribers or members; it’s also about how much revenue these customers are creating, or rather not creating, for the organization. Across all arts sectors in Chicago, the report notes, revenue dropped a stunning 61% in that four years. For Chicago theaters, it was 65%. That means subscribers and members, even those who are hanging on, now are paying much less. You don’t need an MBA to see that these numbers are not sustainable in the long term.

And those are not the only problems. As a result, theaters can do much less. In another stunning statistic, the report says, reflecting what’s happening in Chicago as well as in the arts field nationally, organizations achieved budget reductions through cutbacks in programming (”productions, exhibitions, education programs, lecture series, and the like”).

How much? Nearly two-thirds less.

Why this crisis? The report cites reasons such as competition from streaming services and phones, the atypical length of the pandemic closures in the arts (as compared with sports and other activities) and changes in audience habits that mean the inflexible performing arts don’t jibe well with how audiences now want to spend their time. We’ll add, based on what we’ve heard from numerous readers, that the fear of coming downtown at night to see a show is another factor — be it logical or not — as is too much programming that does not appeal to them.

Most arts organizations get their revenue from three sources: earned income, individual donors and governmental sources. The first category has seen a big falloff, which is rendering individual philanthropists yet more crucial.

Here, though, the high inflation of the last four years clearly is playing a role. While many donors are still giving at the same amounts as in the past, the reports says, those same donations now are buying much less because costs have risen so much even as donations have remained flat.

Government aid, especially federal aid, rose greatly as a consequence of the various pandemic infusion programs available to the arts as well as to other sectors of the economy. But arts organizations mostly kept their staffs employed while they were bereft of new revenue and their institutions at their former size, thus spending that one-time aid. You could certainly argue that was the intention of those relief programs. But it does not change the harsh reality that federal money now is mostly gone.

Much of the report is cloaked in hopeful language such as “recovery,” as distinct from a harbinger of systemic change, however undesirable.

Clearly, though, the arts organizations have to immediately adjust to a new reality of fewer resources. They hardly are the only industry facing that hard truth. But they can’t allow themselves to lose ambition, since such projects are those with the best chances of attracting an audience.

City Hall certainly needs to do what it can to help — local politicians have said little to date about this — and operate on several tracks. But there are some tough budgeting decisions to be made there, too, and part of what the cultural affairs department and its state equivalents should be offering is advice on how to face up to fiscal reality and still fulfill a mission.

Inevitably, this problem will fall most heavily on the supporters of the arts, both foundations and individuals. The good news there is that Chicagoans care about the performing arts, just as long as they can see their help is being put to good, realistic use with clear outcomes. Corporations must step up too. Our museums and world-class theaters make their job of recruiting talented staffers much easier.

If anyone still doubted that Chicago’s amazing cultural scene was fragile, here’s some hard data pointing out a clear and present danger of something that seems already underway.

Reversal will take everyone pulling in the same direction and serving the customer.

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