The Charleston arts scene is tentatively approaching the other side of a precarious window predicted last year in a survey from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.

The survey was a forecast to help funders communicate the necessity for action to save nonprofits in the wake of the pandemic. It also provided hard data to balance anecdotal evidence. The S.C. Arts Commission and the Donnelley Foundation published a separate survey focused specifically on arts nonprofits.

“It doesn’t look great, but it’s not surprising,” said Kerri Forrest, Donnelly’s director of Lowcountry programming. “When you think about the arts field and just the struggle that the arts has, particularly on the nonprofit side, with getting public and private funding in a very crowded nonprofit field, it was depressing but not necessarily surprising.”

Artistic director for PURE Theatre, Sharon Graci, said the pandemic shakeup in the local arts scene is continuing to affect audience numbers | Ashley Rose Stanol file photo

Donnelley provides funding to a variety of organizations across the coast. Some of their smallest grantees have budgets around $25,000 annually, up to Spoleto Festival USA, which runs a roughly $8 million budget. Donnelley doesn’t have a large funding pool for the Lowcountry, but the funds, provide general operating capital and resources the organizations can use as needed.

Out of 3,782 arts, culture and humanities nonprofits surveyed in the spring of 2021, roughly 48% of respondents claimed they could operate for about six months without additional revenue. At the time, most organizations were either still not producing new content or had pivoted to new avenues. All were looking to the fall arts season as a time of returning audiences and revenue streams. The report also examined job loss among nonprofits and said the slight economic recovery of mid-2021 was a small bump in an ongoing drop for arts organizations.

But the fall return of audiences and patrons to art spaces and theaters seems to have helped. As of December 2021, no Donnelley grantees had reported closing up shop. The challenge now is how much longer the groups can survive. With the federal government giving no indications of additional assistance, companies are working to return to pre-pandemic financial states.

Redux Contemporary Art Center has been a Donnelley grant recipient for many years. The company has been hosting arts events for much of 2021, but it isn’t quite out of the woods yet.

“We’re getting close to our pre-pandemic financial state, but that only partially has to do with the returned audience,” said Cara Leepson, Redux’s executive director. “That also has to do with the massive relief funding that was available throughout 2020 and 2021.”

Leepson | Ruta Smith file photo

PURE Theatre is another of Donnelley’s local grantees and has been for many years. The company returned to full productions with audiences in September, but had to navigate delta variant spikes. 

“If you’re not able to be nimble at this time, I don’t know how you make another year of uncertainty,” Forrest said.

Part of that uncertainty was on full display this fall, as performance spaces opened doors to audiences at reduced capacity.

“PURE’s earned revenue is down approximately 44% from pre-pandemic numbers, and the steady growth that PURE has enjoyed has been arrested, simply due to the fact that people are out of practice when it comes to seeing live theater,” said Sharon Graci, PURE’s artistic director. 

The omicron surge continues to shift production plans — PURE recently delayed its opening of Richard Strand’s Ben Butler by two weeks.

“Audience demographics and logistics such as, ‘In order to participate, I must sit in close proximity to strangers,’ versus, ‘I can experience this exhibit socially distanced and solely within my own party’ affect the degree to which organizations are rebounding,” Graci said. “Additionally, new ways of experiencing or consuming art are still developing, and require long-term commitments and resource allocation to ensure that they have a chance at becoming meaningful forms of engagement and viable, sustainable revenue streams.”

In response to some of the findings and to strengthen the arts scene, Donnelley and the S.C. Arts Commission worked together to provide training to organizations to prepare for best- and worst-case scenarios moving forward.

The hope is that people will realize the importance of a thriving cultural scene, and will take a more proactive approach in directly funding Charleston’s incredibly vibrant arts community, either through philanthropy or just buying a ticket. 

“You know that the nonprofit sector is back when the arts are back, because the arts were hit so hard,” Forrest said. “And I think just having somebody, a third party, be able to really articulate, ‘We’re not making this up. We do serve a purpose here, and we’re really taking it on the chin’ was good validation.”