BizTimes: UPAF’s CEO and board chair on why performing arts groups are facing ‘the most difficult year of the pandemic’

Arthur Thomas | August 24, 2022

It is fairly easy to understand how the initial shutdown period of the COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult for performing arts organizations, but Patrick Rath, president and chief executive officer of the United Performing Arts Fund, says the coming season could present an even greater challenge for arts groups in Milwaukee.

“They’re not out of the woods. This is going to be the most difficult year of the pandemic,” Rath said on the BizTimes MKE Podcast.

Rath and Tim Mattke, CEO of MGIC and chair of the UPAF board, joined BizTimes Media managing editor Arthur Thomas to talk about how UPAF and the performing arts groups it supports are navigating the continuing effects of the pandemic. While government support and reserve funds helped groups navigate the first couple years of the pandemic, those resources are increasingly tapped out.

Adding to the challenge, performing arts groups have to make a certain level of investment in the shows they put on.

“If you’re going to put on the performances people expect, you can’t cut back on that, right? So when the organizations look to tighten, they look to tighten sort of administrative, behind the scenes, because you can’t give a performance that people don’t expect from you,” Mattke said.

Groups may be planning to put on shows, but Rath said planning a season is difficult when it is difficult to predict attendance and other circumstances.

“Right now, our organizations are facing a very precarious situation where they’ve utilized much of their long-term resources, they do not have enough people that have dedicated or committed to come back to the theaters as of yet for a variety of reasons and so it becomes very difficult to plan, especially when you’re planning 18 to 24 months out,” Rath said.

He estimated around one in three downtown office workers have returned to working downtown regularly, changing the dynamics of how likely people are to come to a show.

“That’s a significant change in routine and change in pattern that the arts need to respond to as well, because people used to stay in town for a little bit, have dinner, have some drinks, go out to a performance, and that’s just not the same routine that we’re seeing at this point in time,” Rath said.

Pre-pandemic, the organizations that UPAF supports would bring in around $60 million in revenue and perform for around 700,000 people a year, equivalent to an entire Milwaukee Bucks season. The scale of the organizations was enough to support around 1,200 artists making their full-time living.

The success of the arts organizations also has broader implications for the business community, Mattke said.

“I think about it at the simple level of if you’re trying to be a world class city, you want to have amenities for your co-workers and the people you’re trying to attract to your business and retain,” he said.

But the implications go even deeper than having performing arts groups to go along with professional sports teams in attracting people.

“I think if you peel it back another layer, though, you think about what it provides to people when they’re here, you think about the outlet it provides, the dialogue that it creates in the community, I think trying to have people who are innovative on your teams and when they get exposed to the performing arts, it has them think about those things that they maybe don’t think about in their everyday jobs and has them sort of broaden their mindset. I think that’s invaluable,” Mattke said.

Even if the upcoming season goes well, Rath said it will likely be another few years before organizations return to their prior levels of strength.

“It’s eerily similar to the economic downturns of 2008 where it took about five years for most organizations just to get back to a level where they were operating and that’s what we’re facing now here too, but the stakes are even higher because there’s less capital to leverage during this timeframe,” Rath said.

CLICK HERE to listen to the full podcast with Patrick Rath and Tim Mattke on the BizTimes website.