The leaders of three arts and cultural organizations in Auburn discussed the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the support they've received during it, at a monthly forum Wednesday.
The February edition of the Wednesday Morning Roundtable, presented by the Auburn Downtown Business Improvement District, welcomed Auburn Public Theater Artistic Director Angela Daddabbo, Schweinfurth Art Center Executive Director Donna Lamb and Seward House Museum Executive Director Billye Chabot. Asking them about "Adapting in Times of COVID" was Courtney Rae Kasper, visitor experience manager at the New York State Equal Rights Heritage Center and administrator for Auburn’s Historic & Cultural Sites Commission.
Each leader began their part of the forum by sharing the details of closing their doors last March, one week after a well-attended Harriet Tubman Weekend in the city. The three organizations pivoted to virtual programs, which have allowed them to reach worldwide audiences they couldn't before. But the marketplace for those programs is also worldwide, they noted, and therefore more competitive.
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Virtual programs have also not been able to fully replace the magic or the monetization of in-person ones, the leaders said. For Auburn Public Theater, Daddabbo said, learning how to light and rehearse for Facebook Live events took a long time. But when the downtown venue hosted a January virtual concert by actor and musician Jeff Daniels, which he and his staff produced, the magic was there.
"That was as close to being at Auburn Public Theater in an audience with people we know and love as we ever have been able to get in this last year," she said.
Auburn Public Theater also made a couple hundred dollars from the Daniels concert, Daddabbo added. But it was the only event the venue has been able to monetize since last March. Likewise, the Seward House has seen respective drops in admission income, gift shop sales and large fundraiser proceeds of 75%, 86% and 73%, Chabot said. And the Schweinfurth not only saw 70% fewer visitors in 2020, but it had to cancel its annual Quilting by the Lake conference of exhibits and classes at Onondaga Community College, which represents about 20% of the art center's gross revenue.
Despite those drops, the three organizations have seen a heartening level of support from the community, namely private donors and local foundations. In combination with targeted COVID-19 relief like the Paycheck Protection Program, that support has helped the organizations keep their lights on and their staff paid, though Auburn Public Theater had to let three of their six full-time staffers go, Daddabbo said. The ones that remain — her, Executive Director Carey Eidel and Director of Operations Janie MicGlire — are accepting 50% of their salaries. But they've also accepted new responsibilities at a serendipitous new source of income for the theater, Café 108, which opened for takeout and delivery in August. The for-profit business pays rent and donates revenue to the nonprofit theater.
Another source of support the three organizations continue to receive is the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. Parts of the city's $10 million state grant are funding the renovation of Auburn Public Theater's basement into multipurpose space, the rehabilitation of the Seward House's barn and carriage house, and the creation of an arts campus the Schweinfurth will share with the Cayuga Museum.
The three leaders gave updates on their projects Wednesday. Daddabbo said the theater is tweaking its final building plan before going out to bid. She added that the timing of the pandemic is strangely fortuitous, as she was worried the work on the 13,000-square-foot basement would disrupt the theater's concerts, movies and other usual programming on the floor above.
The February edition of the Wednesday Morning Roundtable, "Adapting in Times of COVID," features Donna Lamb, executive director of the Schwein…
The Seward House, meanwhile, has completed archaeology work and an environmental review, and commissioned architectural drawings for its rehabilitation project. The museum hopes to begin stabilizing the barn and carriage house in the spring, Chabot said. It has also applied for a $500,000 Save America's Treasures grant to support the project, which will turn the barn into a multipurpose room and the carriage house into office space and a new home for the carriage once used by the museum's namesake, Secretary of State William H. Seward, and President Abraham Lincoln.
And the Schweinfurth has completed the first part of an environmental review, but evidence of a fuel tank discovered on the Cayuga Museum's property will require additional testing, Lamb said.
The art center's director, who concluded the roundtable, said that the Schweinfurth will open its annual "Both Ends of the Rainbow" exhibit Feb. 28. Masks and other COVID-19 guidance will be followed.
The center has seen mixed success with its virtual programming. Its youth art classes "didn't fly at all (because) children are sick of online learning," Lamb said with a laugh. But this year's "Both Ends of the Rainbow" saw as many art submissions from local senior citizens as ever. And that tells her the work of arts and cultural organizations is essential even during a pandemic.
"People are desperate for some sort of creative opportunity," she said.
Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.