For arts organizations across the state, COVID-19 closures meant an unprecedented cascade of lost revenue, shuttered venues, and reimagined creativity. Talking to Minnesota arts leaders, a picture emerges of a cultural scene that, more than three years later, hasn’t returned to its previous level of engagement and ticket sales. Each of them describes wrestling with the complexity of why this might be, from inflation to home entertainment options to the simple reality of how behavior patterns changed when people were staying home.
“The recovery has been slow and uneven,” says Walker Art Center executive director Mary Ceruti. “Audience behavior has shifted. I’m not sure we all completely understand because the data is messy, which is not surprising given where we are.”
The numbers for the Walker are also challenging. More than 1 million people came through the doors in the 2018 fiscal year for gallery shows, performances, and events. That number dropped to about 591,000 in 2022. Ceruti describes outreach and efforts to engage with new audiences to drive those numbers up.
At the Guthrie Theater, the seasonal subscriber base was about 17,000 before the pandemic. That number dropped to fewer than 12,000 last year but rebounded to more than 13,000 in the first few months of 2023. At the end of 2022, the Guthrie production of “The Little Prince” was considered a box office success comparable to pre-pandemic benchmarks, such as 2015’s Marx Brothers-based comedy “The Cocoanuts.”
The downturn hit the Guthrie’s staff hard as well. In May 2020, the Guthrie laid off almost 80% of its workforce, but employment numbers are ticking close to full strength today. Guthrie managing director James Haskins describes the situation as better than many of the theater’s regional peers.
“In many ways, it feels like we’re bucking some trends that we’re hearing about locally and nationally,” Haskins says. “It’s not that we’re back to full strength, but it does mean that many Minnesotans are very interested in coming back to the Guthrie in greater numbers than we’re hearing about from some of our colleagues.”
Two contrasting pictures of the Twin Cities theater scene emerged earlier this year. The Guthrie announced an ambitious 2023-24 season that will include world premieres as well as Shakespeare’s epic history cycle of “Richard II,” “Henry IV,” and “Henry V” for the first time in more than 30 years. Within days, though, Park Square Theatre raised alarm bells with the abrupt announcement that it was canceling three shows remaining in its 2022-23 season, along with the request that patrons holding tickets donate that money spent to the theater rather than ask for a refund.
Up north, the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center programs a wide range of touring productions, music, and meetings and exhibits. After rough waters when the organization hired more than 400 people in two months around the time the COVID-19 Omicron variant scrambled expectations, things are roughly back to normal. The DECC had higher entertainment attendance in 2022 than 2019—albeit at significantly more events. The number of conventions and conferences at the facility was essentially unchanged in 2022 compared with 2019.
“The convention center got very entrepreneurial and found new ways to make money, and that helped us come through,” says DECC executive director Dan Hartman, citing aggressive experience upgrades and marketing for the Duluth Haunted Ship tour, as well as added staff and greater financial risks taken for events such as 2022’s Cider Fest.
Nothing has been simple. “It’s complicated overall,” Hartman adds. “We have new audiences that didn’t come for a lot of old stuff, and people who used to come to things and haven’t returned.”
In Minneapolis, First Avenue vice president of marketing Ashley Ryan describes a lot of enthusiasm for younger audiences showing up for R&B, hip-hop, country, and indie rock acts. Family events themed around such artists as Prince and Taylor Swift have brought in parents and their kids. Standout acts booked by First Avenue and who have played in its main room include Stephen Sanchez, Samia, and Mod Sun, and dance nights have seen huge attendance, Ryan says.
She notes that a fair number of music fans came of age during COVID-19 closures and have a lot of pent-up demand for live experiences. First Avenue also took a major hit during the Omicron wave of winter 2021-22, and the feeling was that it took the better part of last year to play catch-up.
“People are coming back for almost every genre or category that we can put out there,” Ryan says. “But I would say there is still hesitancy in certain audiences where the levels aren’t quite the same. There’s a crowd of people who haven’t come back. The challenge is in reaching out to them.”
The outlook is complicated, but there’s optimism. Minnesota leaders are quick to bring up recent triumphs, from innovative experiences at the Walker to full-strength seasons at the Guthrie to the look of joy and connection from audience members coming back to live events for the first time in months or years. That is, after all, a great deal of what we lost during the pandemic months: communal experience, the stuff of being human. Getting back to it represents stitching back together the threads of what makes a community and how it talks to itself through story and song.
Taking Stock: Actor Tracey Maloney
An accomplished artist reconsidered her ambition and values when her livelihood vanished
Tracey Maloney has long been a familiar face on Twin Cities stages, working extensively with such well-established houses as the Guthrie, the Jungle, Pillsbury House, and Ten Thousand Things. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, just as it was for so many other professional performers, both her art and her livelihood vanished nearly overnight.
“When everything shut down, it was terrifying,” Maloney says. “Theater is what I love, and creating and exploring all of that was gone.”
It is rarefied air to make a full-time living as an artist, whatever the medium, and for actors such as Maloney it’s the result of decades of training, sacrifice, and ambition. What happened in the absence of theater work ended up, for her, being a process of transformation in how she related to her career.
“As time went on, I realized that I didn’t miss a whole lot of what I had been doing,” she explains. “It became a relief not to do the hustle of where my next job is going to come from, or worrying about missing rehearsal because I might be sick. Stepping back from all of that put things in a different light. I realized that I didn’t miss a whole lot of that.”
Performing artists often deal with uncertainty over getting gigs, keeping a steady income flow, and navigating fraught and competitive situations, such as auditioning. While Twin Cities theaters remained closed, Maloney began to lean on her work as a teacher at Upstream Arts, an educational organization for people with disabilities, and her shifts at Minneapolis restaurant Bull’s Horn. As her financial reliance on the theater became a thing of the past, she saw her priorities shifting.
“I have had some personal family stuff recently, and I’m grateful to be out of the theater world in a way so that I could show up for people in my life,” Maloney says. “I have a little more balance now that I’m not as reliant financially on theater. It’s also a matter of stepping back from ego. I didn’t think I defined myself in that way, but I did, and now I’m trying not to.”
Maloney hasn’t walked away from the work she loves. She acted in a show at Pillsbury House Theatre in March and April 2022 but describes it as a labor of love for a play that speaks to her values and experience of life. Now that venues and companies are back to full operation, she says she’s not eager to go back to the way things were.
“I think now I’m framing who I am in different terms,” Maloney says. “I’m asking whether I’m a good person in the world and a good person to my family and friends, rather than focusing so much on what I’m doing with my career. I’m realizing [that] experiencing that pressure is not important in terms of the whole scope of life.”