A coalition of arts leaders forged during the pandemic is now working together to speed up its organizations' recovery.
The group is launching a big marketing campaign — titled "Come to Wonder" — designed to lure people back to theaters, museums and other shared spaces.
"The main purpose of the campaign is, first and foremost, to tell the people that we are open for them," said Abdo Sayegh Rodriguez, executive director of TU Dance, "that they're welcome, that they should feel motivated to come and be themselves in our individual spaces."
Most arts and culture organizations are still experiencing lower attendance and enrollment, said Sayegh Rodriguez, who co-leads the steering committee for the Minnesota Arts and Culture Coalition, the group behind the campaign. TU Dance's most recent performances attracted a third of the people who'd normally attend. Student enrollment, too, stands at just 50%, he said.
At the same time, participating in the arts could help young people struggling with mental health and other issues, Sayegh Rodriguez said. "Our success as an organization is the success of the people."
Back in 2020, a few dozen leaders from various arts nonprofits began meeting weekly via Zoom to reckon with a pandemic that closed their doors and rocked their bottom lines. That alliance has now swelled to more than 100, including nonprofits big and small and in every corner of the state.
The group plans to spend $400,000 on the statewide campaign, which includes a searchable directory of arts events. Funders include the McKnight Foundation and Ameriprise Financial. Ads will begin appearing later this month, said Tom Jollie, senior vice president of the public relations agency Padilla.
"We want everyone in Minnesota and everyone traveling here to know that this is a tool to help them plan," said Christina Woods, executive director of the Duluth Art Institute.
While class attendance at the Duluth Art Institute has rebounded, fewer people are showing up for events, she said. "Our numbers are still relatively low, and when that happens, it impacts our ability to engage donations."
Charging more isn't an option, she added, because people aren't willing to pay more than they did before the pandemic.
National arts organizations, including the American Alliance of Museums, have reported lagging attendance and lingering losses. Among the hardest hit were theaters, some of which remained dark for 18 months.
"Some people are really excited to be coming back," said James Haskins, managing director of the Guthrie Theater. "And I think there are others who still have reluctance."
When the Guthrie reopened, "we had really, really strong attendance, incredibly strong sales," Haskins said. "A Christmas Carol" did as well as in previous years.
Then, the omicron variant hit. Since then, attendance has been inconsistent, Haskins said. But sales for "Hamlet," onstage now, have been strong.
In addition to this campaign aimed at the public, arts organizations also have been targeting lawmakers. They're trying to convince legislators to tap the state's historic surplus to fund $190 million in one-time grants to help 1,500 venues and arts and cultural organizations.
COVID-19 was "a once-in-a-lifetime hit to the community," said Sarah Fossen, executive director of Minnesota Citizens for the Arts.
The proposed legislation, the so-called C.R.E.A.T.E. Jobs bill, is the biggest her organization has ever backed. "We've been pushing for relief for three years to no avail," she said. "We've pushed and we've waited our turn."
Before it became an arts coalition with a marketing budget, the group of arts leaders was an informal check-in for leaders in search of answers. Small organizations benefitted from bigger ones. Together, they studied state rules, traded guidance and, at a time of shortages, located COVID-19 tests.
At one point, one organization needed masks and asked for advice on procuring them. Another group offered theirs up, free of charge.
"I get goosebumps just to think about it," Sayegh Rodriguez said. "We survived because of a lot of that help."
The weekly meetings were one of the pandemic's silver linings, Haskins said. Finally meeting in person was a trip.
"Omigod, you've become my best friend!" he said. "I have come to adore my colleagues in this space so much."