The worst, it seems, is far from behind us.
Studies from marketing research company Limelight Insights and Wolf Brown/AMS Analytics paint a sobering picture: As hopeful as our performing arts industry is for a return to live in-person performances this fall, our audiences are anxious, concerned and cautious.
That’s to be expected. Live arts audiences are some of our most community-engaged citizens.
A recent head-snapping story from DC Metro Theater Arts on the latest Limelight Insights study reports that only half of D.C. theatergoers surveyed are ready to return to live performances starting this October.
And the well-regarded and much-discussed market research for orchestras from Wolf Brown shows additional cause for concern: backsliding in how comfortable patrons are attending in-person cultural events as the delta variant rages; growing concern over breakthrough infections; and a persistent segment of arts audiences — a full one-third in the Wolf Brown research — waiting for conditions to improve before going out again to in-person cultural events. In July, only 20% of those surveyed by Wolf Brown had attended an in-person cultural event, either outdoors or indoors, within the last two weeks.
We have a long, long road to welcoming back our audiences at their pre-COVID attendance levels.
But there’s reason for hope.
What’s moving the needle for these patrons in both studies? Proof of vaccination.
A full 70% in the Limelight study favored allowing only audience members vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend live performance events, while Wolf Brown’s research showed that, on the coasts, over two-thirds of those surveyed are more or only likely to attend with proof of vaccination policies in place. The Wolf Brown study also revealed another interesting finding: 95% of respondents identified as having been fully vaccinated. That impressive figure is yet another indicator of the intelligence and care of our audiences.
This issue is at our collective door, and in some regions, cultural venues are out in front, rolling out robust COVID-19 vaccination policies to promote safe experiences for all who participate and attend.
So, it begs the question: Where are our D.C. regional cultural venues and organizations in this conversation on vaccine requirements? And how could a regionally coordinated strategy be encouraged?
We are, after all, the fifth-largest arts-vibrant community in the country, with audiences shuttling across Virginia, D.C. and Maryland to attend world-class arts events.
The question of venue requirements for proof of vaccination is especially acute for the hundreds of regional nonprofit cultural organizations like The Washington Chorus, where I serve as executive director, that produce in venues we do not own. We rent concert halls, churches, performance spaces and theaters to produce concerts and community programs that reach more than 25,000 audience members every season and — on COVID and other important safety considerations — are beholden to the decisions of our friends who own and operate these venues.
Broadway has announced a vaccination and masking requirement. Carnegie Hall has published its proof of vaccination policy. In the last few weeks, a rush of San Francisco Bay Area music venues have rolled out vaccination requirements.
We’re also seeing progress locally. Just yesterday, the Kennedy Center — one of the venues where we perform — along with Ford’s Theatre announced they will require audience members to be fully vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test. They follow other theaters such as Arena Stage, GALA Hispanic Theater, Keegan, Shakespeare Theatre, Signature, Synetic, Woolly Mammoth and several others in implementing vaccine requirements, along with some musical venues such as the 9:30 Club and the Anthem.
It’s a welcome development, although there’s still no region-wide consensus among theaters on vaccine requirements — let alone consensus among the myriad cultural venues throughout the D.C. area.
Some believe this to be a legal question or, perhaps, a financial calculation.
To me, this is a character question. It’s a matter of respect.
As organizations committed to creating a more equitable and beautiful world, it’s vital we give our artists, technicians, staff and audiences the full respect they deserve. The respect of peace of mind, knowing that we take their personal health and safety, and that of their families, seriously. The respect evidenced by welcoming those who likewise respect themselves and their communities — and have the vaccination card to prove it. The respect of an optimally safe environment to experience the transformative power of live performance together.
The last 17 months have been emotionally shattering and economically devastating for all of us dedicated to live entertainment and the arts. For American performing arts workers, it’s meant some of the deepest earnings losses in any industry.
Last week I sat in a room, live and in person in downtown Washington, D.C., with 80 singers from The Washington Chorus, all of whom had presented proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to gain access to our first indoors, in-person rehearsal since early March 2020. Tears rolled down my cheeks as the chorus warmed up and raised their voices in emotionally evocative music from Mozart, Mendelssohn and this perfectly selected spiritual from Melanie DeMore: “You gotta put one foot in front of the other,” the chorus bellowed out, “and lead with love.”
The Washington Chorus, like hundreds of arts nonprofits across the D.C. metro region, is putting one foot in front of the other, working to lead with love as we prepare for our return to live, in-person performance this fall and winter.
The data couldn’t be clearer: In the D.C. metro region, there’s only more business upside than down to requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination at cultural venues.
Our audiences and artists are increasingly ready to return and have overwhelmingly done the right thing by getting vaccinated. The thing rooted in respect. Now our venues across the DC region should very carefully consider doing the same.
Stephen Beaudoin is executive director of The Washington Chorus, a cultural nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.