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WKSU, our public radio partners in Ohio and across the region and NPR are all continuing to work on stories on the latest developments with the coronavirus and COVID-19 so that we can keep you informed.

First to Close, Last to Reopen: Arts Venues Feel the Pandemic Squeeze

Courtesy AEG Presents
Venues like The Agora in Cleveland are now limited to just 15% capacity or a maximum of 300 patrons.

The state has given the greenlight for Ohio arts organizations to reopen after months of being shuttered due to the pandemic. But regulations issued by Gov. Mike DeWine cap indoor attendance at 15% capacity – or no more than 300 seats. David Mitchell, General Manager of the Performing Arts Center at Kent State Tuscarawas, recently penned an op-ed on the uphill financial battle many venues now face.

Are the new mandates on seating capacity too strict or not strict enough?

Mitchell thinks they're fine for now, but if restrictions do not ease over time, many arts venues already struggling through the pandemic will likely fold.

"I know every venue across the state wants to maintain a level of safety for their patrons and their communities that they’re in. We certainly don’t want to be a hotspot for any type of outbreak," Mitchell said. 

But economically a 15% cap is unsustainable in the long term, Mitchell said. 

"We're not able to plan for the future because it's unknown territory. We don't know if this capacity restriction is going to last three months or a year." 

The PAC at Kent State Tuscarawas can hold more than 1,000 patrons, but the restrictions now cap it at just 163 seats. That's a massive cut to potential revenue. 

Mitchell said that will affect the caliber of artists they'll be able to afford to book in the coming year.

"Most artists are not necessarily reducing what their fees are. So we're looking for a different set of artists."

Instead of booking big name bands, Mitchell said they'll work to sign up-and-coming acts that may not be household names. 

"We're no longer going to be that venue that brings in the same artists you've come to expect. And this holds true for not only us, but for any venue across the state."

If your revenue is capped, Mitchell said, the only thing left to do is adjust your expenses. 

But would it better to be a smaller arts venue or a bigger arts venue? Mitchell thinks all venues are in the same boat because max capacity is capped at 300 no matter how large the venue. 

So even though Cleveland's Playhouse Square's KeyBank State Theatre is more than three times the size of the Performing Arts Center at Kent State Tuscarawas, it won't be able to sell three times as many tickets. 

Mitchell said arts organizations opening at all is a positive thing right now, he's just hopeful attendance restrictions ease in the future so venues across the state can weather the economic storm of the pandemic. 

"We'll find a way in the short term. But again long term it's not the answer." 

Mark Arehart joined the award-winning WKSU news team as its arts/culture reporter in 2017. Before coming to Northeast Ohio, Arehart hosted Morning Edition and covered the arts scene for Delaware Public Media. He previously worked for KNKX in Seattle, Kansas Public Radio, and KYUK in Bethel, Alaska.