Uneven, Long Recovery Continues For Houston Arts Groups

December 21, 2017       Andy Segedin      

Hurricane Harvey displaced thousands of Houstonians this past August and the Houston Symphony’s 88 orchestra members counted themselves among them. The symphony’s native Jones Hall was shut down for seven weeks following the storm and 13 musicians and crew members incurred damage to their own homes, according to Amanda Dinitz, interim executive director and chief executive officer.

Seventeen performances, events, and fundraisers were cancelled.

Without a venue, Dinitiz said that two-dozen musicians formed ensembles and performed at area shelters in the days following the storm. Leadership at Rice University quickly shuffled its schedule and equipment around to enable the symphony to play three weekends of shows and related rehearsals. The first two weekends were free to all as a gift to the city.

“The driver of that is that we are a nonprofit, a cultural service provider,” Dinitz said. “In a time when your city needs comfort and some happiness and some peace and a break from everything, that’s when, we learned, our role is more important ever.”

Somewhat lost in the shuffle of the devastation that hit the Houston area has been the city’s arts groups. The robust downtown arts scene has taken a hit in the months following Hurricane Harvey with buildings damaged, lost revenue, and dwindling support all throwing up barriers. As organizations regain footing, leaders are looking for their place in an altered city landscape.

The symphony returned to Jones Hall on Oct. 20 and has tried making up for lost time, playing as many as six shows in a weekend, according to Dinitiz. It also partnered with prominent arts groups such as the Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, and Theater Under the Stars (TUTS) on Sept. 27 for a benefit performance for the Harvey Recovery Fund. The groups have banded together in Harvey’s aftermath, sharing office space, work equipment, and information for navigating the insurance and foundation-support processes.

The symphony avoided serious physical damage through lessons learned from Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 — which led to the loss of the symphony’s music library and several instruments. Significant assets were moved out of the lower levels of the building, she said. Houston Symphony has, however, seen losses both in terms of direct revenue from seven weeks of missed performances and an indirect impact seen by arts groups in the city post-Harvey. There has since been softness in the market in terms of ticket sales and a reprioritization of philanthropic resources. Combined, symphony leadership is estimating a loss of between $2 and $3 million.

Additional performances, including Harry Potter-themed concerts that tend to be popular, have been added to fill the funding gap. Symphony leadership has also launched a recovery fund that had raised $500,000 as of Dec. 1. Should the fund reach $2 million by the New Year, it would trigger a board member’s challenge-grant match of $500,000.

TUTS’ schedule was interrupted less so than some peer organizations, according to Hillary Hart, executive director. The theater’s youth academy’s September performance of American Idiot was reduced from six performances to two and proceeds from both were donated to the mayor’s relief fund. The theater’s schedule corrected course in October for regularly scheduled performances of The Secret Garden.

Business disruption has been an issue, however, according to Hart. TUTS, like its peers, was forced to cancel the theater district’s open house, which was scheduled for the day after the storm hit. TUTS typically sees 15,000 to 20,000 people circulating through during the event and averages about $200,000 in advanced ticket sales, Hart said. The theater has projected a loss of $750,000 in first-quarter 2018 revenue based off of declines in philanthropic support and ticket sales.

The lost revenue is not covered by insurance or FEMA and TUTS leadership does not see an opportunity to make up for the loss later in the season. Leadership is currently engaged with a third-party company to map out rolling recovery over the next three years. TUTS expected to see year-over-year growth and had plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018, but is now factoring in losses. Efforts are also ongoing to fundraise as a means of providing free and reduced tickets to members of the community.

“How do you ask someone who has just lost their home, to buy a ticket,” Hart asked rhetorically.

Hart echoed Dinitz in stating that a silver lining to the storm has been the unity of Houston’s arts organizations. TUTS, for instance, altered its holiday schedule to accommodate performances for the Houston Ballet. There is a misconception that the arts scene is not back up and running, Hart said, but — while parking remains a post-storm issue — area arts organizations are rebounding.

“We are here to service our community,” Hart said. We are all open. We might not all be in our traditional homes, but we are all open, willing and able. Downtown is open and thriving and functioning and so is the arts district.”

The majority of Houston arts organizations are back in their home venues, according to Carolyn Campbell, director of communications for Houston First, which manages Jones Hall, the Wortham Theater Center, George R. Brown Convention Center, Miller Outdoor Theater, and other venues. To date, all of the venues are operational with the exception of the Wortham — which recently had its projected reopening pushed back from May of 2018 to September of 2018.

In addition to the Houston Ballet’s agreement with the Hobby Theater, the ballet will also host performances at Smart Financial Centre in nearby Sugar Land, Texas, Campbell said. Wortham’s other tenant, the Houston Grand Opera, has moved performances to the “Resilience Theater,” a converted exhibit hall in the George R. Brown Convention Center, until the Wortham is back up and running.

The extent of Harvey-related damage is not yet known, Campbell said. Initial FEMA reimbursement claims were $70 million throughout Houston First’s managed properties. That figure is likely to increase with additional repairs needed to address flooding at the Wortham. The structural damage is not being fundraised for and is expected to be covered by a combination of FEMA dollars and typical sources of revenue such as hotel occupancy taxes and convention and conference fees.

Philanthropic efforts are underway with vehicles such as the Houston Arts Recovery Fund, which will go to benefit area artists and crew members impacted by the storm. A fund representative told The NonProfit Times that the fund received 94 applications during its first round of grantmaking and expects to divvy out 35 to 40 grants. A second round is expected later this winter. Financial details were not made available. Other artist-focused efforts include the Actors Fund and MusiCares

Several arts museums reached by The NonProfit Times, including Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Contemporary Arts Museum Houston reported no or minimal damage as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Facilities at the University of Houston’s Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts experienced little more than a few leaky roofs, according to Andrew Davis, dean. A February 2018 gala benefiting the college’s various units such as the Blaffer Art Museum, School of Theatre and Dance, and Moores School of Music was suspended, however. Davis said that he and university leadership did not find it appropriate to ask area arts groups for support while several are displaced or dealing with other hurdles.

The university instead looked outward, hosting displaced community organizations such as the Houston Grand Opera’s studio rehearsals and a major run by the Alley Theatre. The University of Houston Cougars Assisting In Relief Efforts (UH CARES) student organization has also been active in assisting at shelters, gutting homes, and helping fill out insurance claims, Davis said.

The gala typically draws between $200,000 and $300,000 in net revenue that will not be realized. A separate fundraising appeal to help fill that gap, along with plotted strategic initiatives, has been communicated to supporters. Otherwise, the college has budgeted to absorb the hit, Davis said.

Davis also reported stable, if not increasing, attendance at performances — a likely product of UH’s fortune in not having to cancel or move any performances and a robust membership program that has fostered consistent supporters of the Blaffer and other units within the college.

“We haven’t changed institutional fundraising,” Davis said. “Our supporters have been strong so far. I have not run into difficulties with contributed fundraising. The members are buying tickets and coming to see shows. Attendance is up, not down.”

  • Arts
  • Houston
  • Hurricane Harvey