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Reflecting on the hit taken by the performing arts sector during the coronavirus pandemic shutdown, Tobin Center for the Performing Arts President and CEO Mike Fresher paraphrased boxer Mike Tyson, who once said, “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The Tobin Center, a nonprofit organization that normally would host more than 460 events per year, has been shuttered since Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s emergency declaration of March 13 banning gatherings of 500 or more people.
“Our plans have changed because we got punched in the face,” Fresher said. “So now the question is how do we regroup and get through the rest of the match and come out in good shape?”
Boxing metaphors come easily to Fresher, who regularly trains at ChampionFit Gym to keep in shape. While performing arts venues have been so far left out of Gov. Greg Abbott’s plans to reopen Texas businesses, gyms were allowed to reopen May 18. Fresher got right back to his workout routine that day, and the connection inspired him to take action.
Lying awake that night, Fresher had a realization. “The notion that Governor Abbott, with everything he’s dealing with, is going to think about a performing arts center just wasn’t reasonable to me,” he said. Fresher realized “I have to raise my hand for the arts organizations [in San Antonio] and say, what about us?”
“I have a commitment to 36 full-time employees that I need to get back to work, and I do not take that responsibility lightly. Beyond that, I’ve got seven resident companies here at the Tobin that aren’t working, they’re not plying their craft and creating revenues to just survive,” Fresher said. “Those are the things that keep me awake.”
The next day, Fresher sent a letter to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff appealing for “assistance and guidance” on how to bring the issue to the governor’s attention. Wolff added his own letter sent May 20 to Abbott’s chief of staff Luis Saenz, highlighting the Tobin Center’s adaptability to social distancing protocols due to its state-of-the-art floor configuration system, as well as the fact that churches and movie theaters, among other types of venues, had been allowed to reopen.
Wolff suggested that mid-sized theaters might have been overlooked, grouped in with larger concert venues and smaller music clubs without fixed seating, sports arenas, and events such as Fiesta and parades. “I quite frankly don’t see the difference between a church and a performing arts center or theater, as far as that goes,” Wolff said, stating that several churches have seating capacity of 3,000 to 5,000, while the Tobin Center seats 1,750, and the Majestic Theatre seats 2,200.
The Majestic and Empire Theatres announced on their joint website that they will remain closed through June 4, according to Nirenberg’s orders.
Wolff and Fresher received vague assurances that the governor’s office would look to address the situation “in June,” both said. The Office of the Governor has not yet commented publicly on the issue.
Regardless, Fresher plans to open the Tobin Center for a movie night June 12, to show It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring actor Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers. The movie was already on the schedule, but will be relocated from its regular plaza showing to the H-E-B performance hall, with a new seating configuration that skips every other row to accommodate 6-foot distancing between patrons.
The 350-seat Guadalupe Theater is also considered a movie theater, said Cristina Ballí, executive director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, that also regularly features live performances. She appreciates Fresher’s leadership in advocating for San Antonio arts venues, but said the Guadalupe will not reopen until the fall season, regardless of Abbott’s reopening plans. A major issue is preparing the facility to receive audiences safely, she said.
“There’s going to be a heavy burden to be ready to receive the public, with all the extra cleaning requirements and all the extra infrastructure requirements,” she said, mentioning touchless ticketing, concessions, and restroom facilities. “That’s all bricks-and-mortar infrastructure that we don’t have, and we weren’t ready to invest in, so it’s very problematic to reopen right now, and it’s definitely not cost-effective for performing arts.”
Ballí said her focus has been on the safety of her primary audiences among the Mexican American community, which tend to have underlying chronic health conditions.
“There’s still the concern about the community. Is it safe? We’re not sure if it’s safe or not for the community,” she said. “We’re getting mixed messages, and we’re erring on the side of safety for now.”
Though ticket revenues generally account for one-third of arts organizations’ revenues, many are experiencing heavy losses. Fresher said lost revenue for the year so far totals $5 million and counting, and Ballí said her annual budget of $1.3 million has been cut nearly in half. Compounding the loss for the Guadalupe was a $10,000 San Antonio Film Commission grant for its annual Cinefestival, rescinded by the Department of Arts and Culture when arts funding was slashed by City government due to revenue shortfalls.
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While Cinefestival might have continued in a truncated, online form, it was canceled due to lack of funding. However, the 39th annual Tejano Conjunto Festival – a staple of the center’s yearly programming – will continue as an online festival thanks to sponsorships, Ballí said. If all goes well, the Guadalupe will reopen in the fall, beginning with the smaller-sized classes of its education program, she said.
Urban-15 will also wait to reopen its 150-seat live performance venue, co-founder George Cisneros said. While Cisneros said he empathizes deeply with Magik Theater executive director Frank Villani, who on Thursday made an impassioned statement to City Council in favor of reopening his 600-seat venue for performances of plays for youth, he said he believes reopening now would be “irresponsible.”
Like Ballí, Cisneros is concerned for the safety of Urban-15’s audience, largely made up of members of at-risk communities. “We don’t know what the impact will be of all the people unmasking as of May 1,” he said.
Urban-15 has been an innovator in moving performances and classes online and will continue with virtual programming while the coronavirus transmission risk maintains. Ironically, Cisneros said, the company had already planned to go dark during what became the pandemic shutdown period, planning to reopen for the Manhattan Short Film Festival in September.
“As performing artists, we’re all anxious to get in front of a live audience,” he said, but “we have to take care of people. That is our mission. That is our job. It’s the good shepherd theory, making sure that no one is lost.”