BizTimes: All UPAF Groups Plan to Resume In-Person Performances and Programming this Year

Lauren Anderson | May 10, 2021

After weathering a devastating 14 months, all 14 United Performing Arts Fund member groups plan to resume in-person performances and programs this year.

That outlook bucks national trends, where only one-third of performing arts organizations plan to open at some point this year, according to a new report from the American for the Arts, shared Monday by UPAF president and chief executive officer Patrick Rath during a Greater Milwaukee Committee meeting.

But getting performance venues back to full capacity will be key for those groups to operate profitably moving forward, Rath said.

"We have to have 100% of facility capability to really make the business models work," Rath said, noting that less than 20% of the capacity of the city's art facilities can be used under social distancing regulations.

Arts groups are eager to make up for the significant losses from the past year as soon as possible. Since March 2020, UPAF's 14 member groups lost ticket purchase revenue totaling $23 million. About two-thirds have lessthan 10% of their operating expenses as cash on hand.

Rath attributed those groups' ability to stay afloat, despite many of their doors being closed over the past year, to direct donors and those who give to UPAF.

"This is going to help us come back better than most cities across our entire country," he said, citing another report that 41% of performing arts groups  nationally don't have resources to resume in-person programming anytime soon.

UPAF is currently raising funds for its annual community campaign, with a $11.3 million fundraising target. Its member groups include First Stage, Florentine Opera Company, Milwaukee Ballet, M ilwaukee Repertory Theatre, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, Skylight Music Theatre, Bel Canto Chorus, Black Arts MKE, Danceworks, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra (MYSO), Next Act Theatre, Present Music and Renaissance Theaterworks.

Rath said increasing COVID-19 vaccination distribution is necessary to get back to fully occupied theaters and concert halls.

"The best way for us to fight this is through vaccinations," he said. "...We want to see vaccinations rise significantly. But we also have to look at science and start saying 'can we start reducing some of the social distancing because we are mask wearing, because we have all the good filtration in place and because vaccination rates are rising?"

Kendra Whitlock Ingram, president and chief executive officer of the Marcus Performing Arts Center, echoed those concerns in a recent interview with BizTimes. She said the viability of shows like the Broadway hit "Hamilton" depend on full theaters.

"Our business model operates in a way where, to do a show like "Hamilton," we have to have 80% to 90% to 100% capacity in order to make the financials work," she said. "And we can only do that if people are vaccinated and we start to bring down the case numbers."

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