The rolling wave of financial misfortune in the theater industry has swallowed another victim: the next season by Portland’s Artists Repertory Theatre.
The company, Portland’s second-largest, announced on Tuesday that it “has made the difficult but necessary decision to suspend production of our 2023-24 season as planned.”
The announcement quotes Pancho Savery, ART’s Board Chair: “The ongoing national crisis among regional theatres has presented us with significant obstacles that require careful consideration and action. To navigate these challenges successfully, we believe it is crucial to take this strategic pause in order to focus on key areas that will shape the future of ART and ensure its sustainability.”
Like all of the American regional theater, Artists Rep is bedeviled by the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused prolonged shutdowns and seems to have weakened the public appetite for live theater, leading to a sluggish recovery. Artists Rep’s particular circumstances include being in the midst of a long and expensive renovation to its downtown Portland headquarters.
But the main trigger to this season suspension was the failure of Oregon House Bill 2459. Titled “Relating to pandemic relief for Oregon cultural organizations; declaring an emergency,” the bill would have allowed the Oregon Business Development Department to give money to arts and culture groups around the state, including $250,000 earmarked for Artists Rep. But the bill was rejected in a June 25 vote by the state legislature.
“This shortfall leaves us with insufficient cash on hand to cover critical operating expenses,” read Tuesday’s announcement, “necessitating immediate reduction of expenses and redirecting staff resources to operational planning and revenue generation.”
“All signs pointed to it (passing) and we were dependent on that assumption,” Savery told ArtsWatch in a phone interview. Savery said that he did not have information at hand about the precise amount of the present budgetary shortfall, or whether such a figure was less or greater than the quarter-million that had been expected from HB 2459. But, he said, “if we had got that money it would have allowed us to finish some work on the building and perhaps start doing productions in the lobby.”
(The current phase of construction on Artists Rep’s home includes work on a large, new flexible-use lobby that will accommodate various configurations of seating risers. When that construction proceeded in late June, executive director J.S. May – who has since switched to the role of capital campaign director – said that he hoped to be able to use the new lobby for the final show of the ‘23-’24 season. According to Savery, that plan was later accelerated, in part to avoid having to pay rent on another venue. “The general idea is that the sooner we get back into the building, the better off we are.”)
This latest development at Artists Rep feels shocking not just because of the company’s stature amid the region’s cultural institutions, but also because it comes fast upon what had been more encouraging signs. Last September, the company hired Jeanette Harrison as its new artistic director, following the nine-year tenure of Damaso Rodriguez. In April, the second phase of work on the wholesale renovation of its Southwest Alder Street headquarters began, with May stating that the company had raised about $24.5 million toward an overall capital campaign of $30-$31 million. Late June saw Artists Rep lure Portland Playhouse’s development director, Aiyana Cunningham, with the job of managing director. It looked like a return to stability after several unsettled years.
But the Artists Rep pause is part of a disquieting wave of similar news across the country in recent months – canceled productions, postponed seasons, layoffs, shuttered companies.
“I would say that there are two main problems,” said Savery. “One is the lack of government funding for the arts sector. And the second is that we are in this continuing post-Covid universe, where people stopped going to theater when there wasn’t any theater and now are reluctant to go back.”
All the same, Savery remains hopeful. He stressed that the season has not been officially canceled, and that May will be meeting soon with potential major donors. “We are optimistic that we’ll be able to produce a show in the lobby” of the renovated theater by the spring.
And even though neither government funding nor public health and public confidence are within the control of theater management, Savery believes that Artists Rep has a viable path to renewed success.
“One of the things we want to do is to produce work that isn’t happening anywhere else,” said Savery. “One of the things that Jeanette (Harrison, artistic director) is intent on is this company being a showcase for Native theater, and she is working on grants to produce that kind of work. And we feel that once we’re putting these shows onstage that people will be flocking to come and see them.”