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Columbus Arts Organizations Take Financial Hit As Holiday Season Goes Virtual

The Ballet Met's "Nutcracker" will go virtual for the 2020 holiday season.
Sarah Irvin
Ballet Met
The Ballet Met's "Nutcracker" will go virtual for the 2020 holiday season.

This holiday season, the unrelenting pandemic will strike an economic blow to Columbus’ downtown entertainment sector. The ever-popular “Nutcracker” ballet and other seasonal performances will not be live on stage.

“To lose those shows that are here every single year and are really a mainstay of what we host at the Ohio Theatre, it’s certainly disappointing,” says Chad Whittington, president and CEO of the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA). “It’s a tough year.”

Whittington says while most of the money from ticket sales for “The Nutcracker” would go to Ballet Met, CAPA does receive $3.50 for every ticket sold. 

“Last year, it was roughly 22 performances that brought in almost 40,000 people to the Ohio Theatre, so that’s a lot of financial impact,” Whittington says.

The total impact is nearly $3 million from all CAPA's holiday shows, including “A Christmas Carol” and Holiday Pops with the Columbus Symphony, amounting to about 15% of the organization's annual revenues.

“We get rent revenue for renting the building,” Whittington says. “We get the concessions when folks are in the building. And we get a facilities fee that’s part of every ticket sold, it’s $3.50, and again that money is put directly into a fund to do improvements in the Ohio Theatre.”

Whittington says because of the pandemic and restrictions on in-person contact, CAPA laid off all of its part-time employees during the shutdown in mid-March. It then laid off more than half of its full-time employees, about 45 people, in July. 

“Most of them have lost their ability to earn a living right now, and like folks in a lot of industry sectors, they’re struggling,” Whittington says.

Sue Porter, executive director of Ballet Met, says her organization will lose more than $2 million from the cancellation of all its fall and holiday performances, including “The Nutcracker.” That’s nearly 30% of annual revenues of $7 million.

“We’re an organization that has clearly prided itself on having earned revenue, but without being able to have the earned revenue, we’ve had to ask for more contributed revenue,” Porter says.

Porter says Ballet Met donors have contributed enough money to rehire 23 professional dancers in January. In place of the staged show, Ballet Met has produced a virtual experience called “A Nutcracker Holiday," which is available now. 

Whittington says some of CAPA's other holiday performances will be presented virtually with old footage of shows. Now that CAPA has obtained the technology for virtual performances, he says will be used as another tool to reach an audience.

“At the Palace Theatre, for example, you can only fit 2,700 people into the theatre for a performance,” says Whittington. “From a virtual perspective, you don’t have that capacity limit. It is an opportunity to make more people aware of the things that go on.”

Whittington says he is optimistic for 2021, when a COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be distributed across the country, but he understands returning to in-person events will take time.

“Realistically, performing arts like stadiums and other places where people need to be there in large numbers, we’re going to be one of the last that gets the opportunity to reopen," Whittington says.

CAPA is hoping to resume some version of “normal” performances by next September.

Debbie Holmes has worked at WOSU News since 2009. She has hosted All Things Considered, since May 2021. Prior to that she was the host of Morning Edition and a reporter.