Andrew Jorgensen decided to do more to help. And what could be better than a benefit?
Jorgensen, the general director of Opera Theatre of St. Louis, had to cancel the company’s season; instead of just invoking force majeure, he and his board undertook a $500,000 challenge grant to pay all their artists 50 percent of what they would have earned. They met with a great response from foundations, companies and patrons.
When that initial goal was surpassed, Jorgensen said, “I took in how deep and clear the challenges were that COVID-19 was creating,” and asked himself what else they could “to support our artistic ecosystem.” It matters to the entire region; according to a 2015 study commissioned by RAC, the not-for-profit arts and culture segment generated no less than $590.9 million and 19,129 full-time equivalent jobs for the greater St. Louis area that year.
The answer came to Jorgensen quickly. The Regional Arts Council already had an Artist Relief Fund in place to support working artists with emergency needs; OTSL could work with other arts organizations to support RAC’s efforts through a “virtual benefit” that would showcase St. Louis artists. The goal is to raise at least $250,000.
“Arts venues were among the first to close as the pandemic came upon us,” Jorgensen observed, “and they will be among the last” to re-open. That means that the income of most working artists has been slashed. RAC’s fund gave out $150,000, but quickly ran out of money; applications are currently closed. Said Jorgensen, “We can bring more resources, more energy, more awareness to the important work that RAC has already started.”
The response to Jorgensen’s idea was overwhelmingly positive. Chair Mont Levy and the rest of RAC’s board of commissioners were excited; Tom Ridgely, producing artistic director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, “jumped in with both feet, acting as the creative producer,” Jorgensen said. “Every partner we approached gave us an enthusiastic yes. People want to support the community in this way.” Switch, the production company, is providing technical support, largely on an in-kind basis.
Ridgely, who had to cancel a touring production two weeks into a 10-week, 50-venue tour, and is now looking a much-delayed run for the Shakespeare Festival, said, “Artists in this situation have been like reverse Marines; they were the first ones out of the economy and will be among the last ones in, because everything they do depends on groups of people being together in safety. It’s an urgent need, and there are hundreds of artists – dozens of actors, designers, production staff – in the same boat.”
Produced by OTSL in partnership with the Shakespeare Festival, the “Arts United STL” virtual benefit will take place at 7 p.m. on May 31 and be streamed live by OTSL at ExperienceOpera.org/ArtsUnited (where donations can also be made before, during and after the event) and on the company’s YouTube channel.
It will feature 14 other arts organizations; along with OTSL’s young artists, there will be performances by members of the Shakespeare Festival, Jazz St. Louis, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, the Big Muddy Dance Company, St. Louis Children’s Choirs, the Muny, the Black Rep, Circus Flora, Jazz St. Louis, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, St. Louis Ballet, and others.
Jorgensen promised that the show will be entertaining, calling it “old school variety telethon meets adaptive arts in the age of COVID, with eclectic and exciting organizations coming together to showcase the incredible vibrancy of the artists who make our work possible, and add so much to St. Louis. “
Andrea Purnell, an artist, arts administrator (with the St. Louis Art Museum) and member of RAC’s board since 2015, will be the host for the benefit, broadcasting live from the stage of Powell Symphony Hall. “We have to not only look at the problem, but be a part of the solution,” she said. “Artists are storytellers; no story like this has been told in my lifetime, but artists have to have their basic needs met in order to create at the highest level. We have the opportunity to continue telling the story. We know the need is great.”
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