DC theaters face ‘catastrophic’ economic impact if coronavirus causes prolonged ticket sales decline

Written for The DC Line and published on that site here.

DC theaters may soon be struggling with the economic impact of the new coronavirus as theatergoers choose to stay at home or are forced to do so. 

In San Francisco, municipal officials ordered a 14-day halt to performances and other large events at theaters and other facilities owned by the city, and many nonprofit and private operators followed suit. The San Francisco Chronicle compared the impact on local business to “an immediate recession.” Restaurants and bars near the shuttered theaters are nearly empty.  

Rebecca Medrano, executive director of GALA Theatre in Columbia Heights, said a two-week closure like the one in San Francisco would have severe effects, potentially wiping out the entire run of a show years in the planning.

“A 14-day closure would be extremely damaging for GALA [right now] because we are opening our GALita children’s theater world premiere this week,” she said. “We would lose the entire projected income for this production.”

Representatives from several other DC theaters did not respond to requests for comment.

Thus far, theater professionals are having to wait and see whether the spread of the coronavirus results in government-ordered closures, reduced ticket sales or empty houses. Even if theaters aren’t forced to close, box office receipts will be affected if individuals and institutions alter their routines.

Amy Austin is CEO of theatreWashington, the industry association for DC-area theaters. “The potential spread of the virus could impact ticket sales. [But] it’s too early to tell since we have very few reported cases in the region.”

Austin said that on Friday. As of Tuesday afternoon, four cases of coronavirus had been confirmed in DC, and about 22 in the greater region.

Michael Kaiser, former president of the Kennedy Center, said that even a 20% reduction in ticket sales for an extended period of time would be “catastrophic” for the fiscal health of area theaters.

Closures to prevent community spread of the coronavirus are now being implemented across the country. Late last week Austin canceled the widely popular South By Southwest technology and entertainment festival despite the expansive economic impact for the Texas capital. The NCAA is making contingency plans to play its annual “March Madness” basketball tournament without a live audience, and the NBA is similarly preparing for the possibility of games with only essential personnel in attendance

Meanwhile, a growing number of universities and companies have canceled employee travel and conferences, and today American University announced plans to conduct its classes online for two weeks. Locally, cancellations have included the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, which was scheduled to start Thursday and will instead highlight selected films online next week.

“We did not come to this decision lightly, but the safety of our audience, local and out of town participants, volunteers, partners, and staff is our number one priority,” the film festival’s executive director, Christopher Head, said in a press release. “Given the situation, we felt this was our only viable option.” 

Long-term planning is proving difficult given uncertainty over the spread of the coronavirus, so it’s not surprising that Capital Fringe Festival executive director Julianne Brienza declined to comment on the potential impact on that event, scheduled for July 7 to 26.

“We understand the concern regarding the potential impact on the creative and entertainment industry,” John Falcicchio, DC’s acting deputy mayor for planning and economic development, told The DC Line in an email Friday. “However, in line with the latest science-based guidance available at this time, we encourage our residents, employers and visitors to go about their daily lives while following all of the safety tips provided at coronavirus.dc.gov.”

Already the DC government is feeling an economic impact, related primarily to tourism. Initial projections suggested the outbreak could cost the District $52 million in lost sales tax revenue from hotels and restaurants, according to DC Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt’s revised revenue forecast released Feb. 28. 

Much of the initial impact has centered on events dependent on international travel. At least one major area conference, a gathering of the International Association of Dental Research, has experienced registration cancellations, NBC4 reported. North Carolina-based SAS Institute canceled a global forum at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and the International Monetary Fund dropped plans for its spring meetings in DC, the Washington Business Journal noted. Thus far, organizers of the National Cherry Blossom Festival have said events will proceed as planned March 20 to April 12, with appropriate health-related precautions. 

The financial effects on the tourism and hospitality industry, however, do not translate squarely into the theater community. Most ticket buyers are locals, not tourists, according to theater professionals — a key reason that DC’s theaters were spared much of the impact from DC’s tourism slowdown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

This time, the impact could result from local residents who are told to — or who decide they want to — stay home.

“We didn’t take as much of a hit as you might think after 9/11,” said Joy Zinoman, founder of the Studio Theatre and artistic director from 1978 to 2010.“Studio Theatre overwhelmingly serves DC residents and the region, and we found people really wanted to be together. But this is a different kind of situation. People may decide not to buy tickets, to stay out of crowds.”

Kaiser, now president of the DeVos Institute, headed the Kennedy Center from 2001 to 2014. “The vast majority of Kennedy Center tickets were sold locally, so the loss of tourism post-9/11 did not affect ticket sales substantially,” he told The DC Line. “What was affected more was attendance at educational programs as schools cut back on travel to DC that year (which also included massive snowstorms, the anthrax scare and the DC sniper).”

As far as the bottom line for DC’s theaters, costs will still mount even if performances are canceled. Medrano noted that GALA would incur significant production costs in the event of a forced closure during a play’s run. “Due to contractual agreements with artists, we would have to pay them 45% of their contracted pay if we cancel with less than a week notice,” she said.

Opportunity for Jewish Artists: Authenticity and Identity Exhibition


Application is live for artists to submit for inclusion in a visual arts exhibition considering the issue of Jewish Authenticity and Identity. What makes a work of art Jewish? What makes an artist Jewish? Any artwork relevant to the topic may be included. The exhibition will be held at Adas Israel Congregation, curated by Ori Soltes. View the online submission form [link to come] here.

Curator Ori Z. Soltes is a professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. The former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum he is co-founder of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project and author of numerous books and articles including Tradition and Transformation: Three Millennia of Jewish Art & Architecture; Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century; and The Ashen Rainbow: the Arts and the Holocaust.

  • The exhibition will be on display May 6 – June 2, 2020
  • Submission is free.
  • Artwork of any type may be submitted for consideration, including paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, digital media, sculpture, and more.
  • Artists may submit more than one item for inclusion, up to 4 pieces.
  • Artwork does not have to be newly created to be submitted; Artists, collectors, gallerists, and estates, may submit artwork for consideration.
  • Selected artwork must be delivered to the site ready for hang.
  • The exhibition will occur at Adas Israel Congregation in the Cleveland Park neighborhood of Washington D.C., 2850 Quebec Street NW DC.
  • The application period opens February 10 and will close March 25, 2020.
  • Selected artists/artwork will be notified by April 10, 2020.

The exhibition is produced in a partnership between Adas Israel Congregation and the Jewish Artists of the National Capital Region and through funding from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Adas Israel Congregation is the nation’s largest conservative synagogue, a vibrant, dynamic, multi-generational community that offers access to Jewish life for people of all backgrounds. For almost 150 years Adas Israel Congregation has been a flagship synagogue in American Jewish life and that tradition of leadership and excellence continues. The Jewish Artists of the National Capital Region is a community of area artists working to enhance the capacity of Jewish artwork to inform, inspire, and educate, and supported in part by Hazon’s Hakhel Intentional Community incubator program.

To facilitate activities and events related to the exhibition the project partners have created an exhibition committee and if you’re interested to participate in that, or learn more about the exhibition, please email exhibition director Robert Bettmann at Robert <at> Day Eight.org or Naomi Malka at Naomi.Malka <at> AdasIsrael.org.

Celebrated artist Robin Bell helps Corcoran look back on tumultuous time

This article was written for The DC Line and you can read it on that site here.

Sitting in the rotunda of the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design’s renovated Flagg Building across from the White House hours before the highly anticipated opening of artist Robin Bell’s exhibition Open, Corcoran director and curator Sanjit Sethi reflected on the show’s inspiration. “I think it’s important for us to have dialogues about what happens when cultural institutions get something wrong,” he said.

Sethi was commenting both on Bell’s artworks in Open, which reflect on themes of transparency and dialogue, and the stimulus for the exhibit: a troubling episode of censorship at the Corcoran back in 1989, long before its transformation from an independent institution to a school within The George Washington University.

Unusually for a fine art exhibition, Open is described as a “prelude” to another show. The upcoming 6.13.89, curated by Sethi, will encourage investigation of the Corcoran’s fateful decision on June 13, 1989, to cancel its planned display of The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs. The Perfect Moment’s first stops — in Philadelphia and then Chicago — spurred growing protest from people who decried the exhibition as an example of government funding for artwork they deemed immoral. The show included gay-themed works that socially conservative politicians and “family values” advocacy groups lambasted as pornography masquerading as art.

Open is Bell’s first solo museum show, and it includes more than the political text-based artwork the artist is best known for. With its scrolling text and blinking lights, the exhibition is engaging and self-aware — like a massive resistance group selfie. Bell’s works float in and balance through the various atrium and first-floor gallery spaces. In one section of the atrium, lights that blink and change colors hang on either side of a black video screen with white text that reads, “It is happening here.” The statement might be interpreted as the artist’s opinion about the Corcoran, and the District, or as an ironic reference to the canceled 1989 exhibition that did not happen.

One section of the atrium features lights that blink and change colors alongside the video screen with text that reads, “It is happening here.” (Photo by Robert Bettmann)

Bell’s art works, several of which have gone viral since President Donald Trump’s election, are equal parts humor and anger. His best-known works are guerilla outdoor projections of text, which he and others capture in short videos distributed on social media. One of his early viral works projected the words “INSERT EMOLUMENTS HERE” on the side of the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, with a large arrow under the words pointing at the doorway into the hotel.

While Bell’s well-known guerrilla displays are sometimes 50 feet tall, conceptually the work is compact. The artworks in Open reveal more of Bell’s technical range, as well as a more complex and allegorical relationship to his subject matter.

A projection on the outside of the Flagg Building during the opening (Photo by Flavio Cumpiano, used by permission.)

Bell’s works don’t usually articulate the artist’s own voice, but one projection on the outside of the Flagg Building during the opening — “I Was Protesting Before Trump” — playfully did just that. The exhibition also features a video that rolls like fog across the atrium steps, a projection of overlapping 10-foot faces, and scrolling phrases that hang across and beneath the upper balustrade in the foyer. There’s something familiarly peripatetic and temporary about Bell’s work, even in this museum space, where the art’s existence doesn’t cause threat of imminent arrest (as one of his unlicensed public artworks did last week, resulting in a misdemeanor citation from U.S. Capitol Police for one of Bell’s projectionists).

Sethi said Bell’s exhibit is the museum’s latest effort to dedicate its atrium to “exhibition projects that involve critical social dialogues … that we think need to be part of a broader context.”

When asked if he condemned the Corcoran’s 1989 decision to cancel, Sethi explained, “I’m less engaged in the forensic examination of who did what and what the cause was. The question for me is the fidelity of the Corcoran Gallery to the commitment they had made to show this work… The question for me is about how do cultural institutions handle controversy?”

In an interview prior to the opening, Bell was less equivocal. He called the 1989 cancellation “a disservice not just to the institution, but to the entire arts community.” In interview with the university prior to the opening Bell said his Open is about asking the audience to reflect on closure, and cancellation. “As thinkers, as people and as educators we want to talk about openness,” Bell said.

Open — on display through March 31 — and the upcoming 6.13.89 — the dates for which have not been announced — reflect on a darker part of the Corcoran’s history. “It’s important to go ahead and exhume one of the greatest ghosts of the Corcoran’s past,” Sethi said.

Looking back to summer 1989

In the summer of 1989 the District was the center of what came to be called “the Culture Wars,” a series of impassioned, high-profile debates about arts funding, morality, censorship, and homosexuality.

Curated by Janet Kardon and developed under the auspices of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia, The Perfect Moment was scheduled for display in five cities after its winter 1988 debut in Philadelphia. Conservative groups including the American Family Association began to protest the exhibition soon after its opening, saying the exhibition included “indecent” images. The Perfect Moment exhibition was developed in part through grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, and the exhibition’s scheduled arrival in DC coincided with some Republican members of Congress urging elimination of all arts funding after seeing federal dollars go to some projects out of step with their values.

The Corcoran Gallery of Art’s decision to cancel its display of A Perfect Moment just weeks before the planned opening led to intense public scrutiny and prompted mentions in scores of newspaper articles, editorials and opinion pieces that have been preserved in the Corcoran’s archive.

The Tuscaloosa News in Alabama ran James Kilpatrick’s June 1989 column for Universal Press Syndicate under the headline “When porn passes for art.”

It’s nearly unimaginable that any museum decision today would make headlines over an entire summer as the Corcoran decision did, but national interest was fomented in widely read political opinion pieces. One column by conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan — who backed the cancellation and said the show never should have received any government funding — was published in more than 30 newspapers in the U.S. and Europe between June 16 and June 25. The various headlines included “Obscenity at the Taxpayer’s Expense” (The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C., June 16), “A Mere Label Can’t Turn Pornography Into Art” (The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville, Fla., June 20), and “No Censorship Involved Here” (Taunton Daily Gazette, Taunton, Miss., June 20).

Two major newspaper editorial boards weighed in subsequently, criticizing the Corcoran’s decision-makers. The New York Times published an editorial headlined “Caving in at the Corcoran” on June 23, 1989. “The Corcoran unwisely chose to repudiate its own artistic judgment. Instead of helping to avoid controversy, the gallery’s cave-in only attracted it,” the newspaper wrote.

The Washington Post’s editorial board agreed days later: “They scheduled the show without adequate understanding of what was in it … and then, at the first sign of trouble on Capitol Hill, panicked and canceled with much hand-wringing about not wanting to get into politics or to give government an excuse for cutting funds.”

After the Corcoran’s cancellation, The Perfect Moment was shown in the District by last-minute arrangement at the Washington Project for the Arts, and the tour proceeded to other cities amid continued controversy.

A full understanding of the Corcoran’s decision requires a value judgment on whether the cancellation in fact amounted to censorship of Mapplethorpe’s artwork based on its homosexual imagery.

Mapplethorpe had died three months earlier of complications from AIDS. Reacting to the cancellation, Urvashi Vaid, a spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, told the Washington Blade at the time, “It is appalling that [Sen.] Jesse Helms succeeded in having a pre-emptive impact on homoerotic art.”

But objections to the exhibition were more complex than simply objecting to any depiction of homosexuality.

The Perfect Moment was a comprehensive retrospective of the artist’s work, including 125 images. While the majority of the images were from Mapplethorpe’s more commercial work — including pictures of celebrities and flowers — the exhibition also included depictions of naked children and homosexual sadomasochism. One well-known image shows the photographer’s buttocks in profile, a bullwhip protruding like a horse’s tail. Another displays a young girl seated on the floor, her white dress pulled up to her knees exposing her naked groin as she looks innocently into the camera.

Even though the photographer had parental permission, several of the images from this series are no longer exhibited as art in adherence to 21st-century standards of child protection. Critics of the exhibition, and federal funding of the show, charged that Mapplethorpe’s images were criminal, not art. A June 22, 1989, commentary by The Miami Herald’s editorial board referenced Mapplethorpe’s work to bolster objections to government funding of artist Andres Serrano’s artwork “Piss Christ”: “Also disturbing is the traveling exhibit of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe that include explicit sadomasochism and child nudes.”

Uproar over the Corcoran’s decision to cancel the exhibit required a villain — a censor. That person was identified as the museum’s executive director — Christina Orr-Cahall, who resigned later that year — even though it was the Board of Trustees that canceled the show. When consultants performed a subsequent audit of the Corcoran’s decision-making process, they attributed the unanimous decision to the board being too large to keep its members well-informed. In response to the audit’s recommendation, the Corcoran reduced the size of its board by two-thirds. The presence of fewer board members — along with dwindling commitments from outsiders soured by the controversy — had a predictable impact on the institution’s coffers, and it’s not a stretch to argue the Corcoran’s demise as an independent institution can be traced to the summer of 1989.

Ironically, given the hatred poured on her as a “censor,” Orr-Cahall’s action may have saved the National Endowment for the Arts as we know it today. By proposing to the board members that they not display the controversial photographs in DC while Congress was debating restrictions on or outright elimination of federal arts funding, she created a major new issue in the debate. On the day the Corcoran announced the cancellation, then-U.S. Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, called images by Mapplethorpe “morally repugnant trash” and Hugh Southern, the acting head of the NEA, told Congress that he would “try and weed out” objectionable artwork. The cancellation decision prompted such a strong backlash against censorship, and in support of free expression, that federal arts funding continued.

The relevance of Robin Bell

Now, 30 years later, the works of another artist some see as courting controversy occupy the Corcoran, communicating a related message. Bell’s art, including his work in Open, encourages transparency and holding power to account.

The history of Washington, DC, is alive in the memories of longtime residents, and the legacies of hometown artists like Langston Hughes, Duke Ellington and Alma Thomas exist like small bonfires around which residents warm. But other memories live on as deep scars, occasionally causing a collective hiccup, and the cancellation of the Robert Mapplethorpe show at the Corcoran the summer of 1989 is one of those.

A few months ago, when the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities pushed a new contract out to grantees attempting to restrict funding for political or offensive works, The Washington Post reported “the short-lived controversy sent shock waves through the city’s arts community and had many recalling the 1980s culture wars.” And for one summer, the summer of 1989, the Corcoran Gallery of Art served as a battleground in those culture wars.

The new exhibit, according to Sethi, reopens a dialogue set to continue with 6.13.89, which has not been announced in detail but which will include documents from the Corcoran’s archive.

“This institution has an opportunity to talk about its values,” Sethi said, “and to talk about ways that we can talk about critique. Critique of systems. Critique of individuals. Critique of policy. And to do so in provocative manners. And that’s what you start to see here.”

Robin Bell was sanguine about what Open might mean for him personally. “The biggest difference,” he said, “is that people will be able to see [my artwork], to come over the next two months and see it as opposed to seeing it online and appreciating it that way.”

In Open we find Robin Bell and the Corcoran looking back on what went wrong and are encouraged to look back with them.

The exhibition continues through March 31, with public access from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 1 to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the Flagg Building, 500 17th St. NW.