PEORIA – The same day Governor JB Pritzker announced the COVID-19 shutdown, glass artist Jeremie Draper’s dream melting furnace was delivered – a 3,000 pound unit that cost as much as a car.
Draper had ordered the custom-made furnace in November. She’d been saving for the purchase for five years, but at the moment of it’s arrival the expense seemed as heavy as the furnace itself.
"We didn’t even know if we should turn it on," said Draper, who had already canceled all her classes, her main source of income.
After much consideration, Draper did fire it up.
"We were still taking commission orders and memorial orders are still going fabulously. So I thought we have these commissions, this will give us enough money to pay the bills, and if the city shuts me down we’ll deal with it," said Draper.
COVID-19 has challenged area arts organizations in a way they have never been challenged before. Draper is doing OK, due to good financial planning, a boost from the Paycheck Protection Program and the support of the public – most of the people who had signed up for the canceled classes didn’t ask for a refund.
"I was so tickled – we had over 130 students already paid in full, but when we contacted them to let them know it wasn’t safe for us to have people in the studio, like 99 percent opted to stay with us and reschedule – only two families needed a refund. That gave me some confidence that once it was safe to have people back in the studio we will still be here, able to do that."
JDraper Glass LLC is poised to survive the shutdown, but many other organizations might not be as fortunate.
"Just like every other industry, the arts industry has been hugely impacted by COVID," said Jenn Gordon, executive director of ArtsPartners, an organization with the mission of strengthening the arts for the economic and cultural enrichment of Central Illinois. "All arts organizations are hemorrhaging right now. It’s definitely trying times."
When the shutdown began, many organizations worked to stay in the public eye by offering free programs, concerts and performances online.
"I think it’s been a big point of inspiration and a reminder that the arts are still happening, that we haven’t been stripped of our culture overnight, and I think it’s really been a source of comfort for a lot of people as they do shelter in place, but now we’re at the point where collectively, as an arts sector, the revenue question is starting to loom."
Particularly affected by the shutdown are live performances, said Gordon.
"Even now, there’s still limited knowledge as to what performance-based events are gonna look like, particularly indoor performances, and when those organizations will be able to start pulling in revenue," said Gordon.
Nicki Haschke, manager of Peoria Players Theatre, has been scrambling to save the 101-year-old organization.
"People think you are shut down, you can go relax. It’s been quite the opposite," she said "It’s been actually double or triple the work. We had to have three different budget meetings to go back to the drawing board, basically."
The theater was at the end of their season when the shutdown hit, though they had to cancel the season-ending bash and fundraiser, a loss of about $50,000, said Haschke. The group has just launched the #SavePeoriaPlayers fundraising drive, sending out flyers and soliciting donations through their Facebook page. They have kept expenses to a minimum – board members bought and donated stamps for the mailings, and everyone has been working from home to save on utilities at the theater.
For Haschke, the effort is more than a job. The theater has been a big part of her life. She’s worked there for 28 years, following in the footsteps of her mother who began working there in 1978. When asked if the theater would make it through this crisis, Haschke was emphatic: "YES! YES! It’s not gonna take us down!"
With an even longer history, the Peoria Symphony Orchestra has also been hard-hit by the shutdown. Executive director Susan Hoffman also expressed determination in the face of this unprecedented crisis.
"This will be our 123rd season for the Peoria Symphony Orchestra, and we plan to be in the community for decades to come. We intend to survive," she said.
At the Contemporary Art Center in downtown Peoria, William Butler has also been working like crazy since the shutdown began.
"I panicked at first, and also was very sad because we had all those plans," he said. "We have like 92 events a year, and all of that was squashed."
A big chunk of the CAC’s revenue comes from events where people gather in large groups. By cutting expenses and soliciting for donations, the CAC is also on track to survive, but will still likely be hampered by the 50-person limit imposed in stage four of the Restore Illinois plan, Butler said.
"I think we’ll probably be okay if we continue in this mode. It’s definitely going to be limping if we can’t have more than 50 people in here. I think even in 2021 we’re still going to be in stage 4," he said.
Public support is at the core of the CAC’s survival. All the artists renting studio space there kept paying rent, as did Downtown Yoga and Tango 21, even though neither business was able to hold classes. Caterpillar’s extended COVID matching gift program was also very helpful, and numerous individuals donated money, said Butler.
"I take a bow to all the different ways people have supported us," he said. "It’s really special to see people responding that way."
Public support is going to be key to the survival of Peoria’s rich arts community, said Gordon.
"My hope is that the public will keep supporting and engaging with arts organizations even if they can’t in traditional ways," she said. "Keep those donations coming if you really value your local arts community and you want to see them survive this and come back. Reach out to them and ask how you can help and how you can be part of the solution."
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.