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Arts Beat: SLO arts leaders urge fairness in reopening criteria

Courtesy of the SLO Symphony
The SLO Symphony has created a popular 'drive-in' concert series at Madonna Meadows, trying to stay in business despite pandemic closures.

The performing arts industry is taking a huge hit during the COVID-19 crisis, without much direction for an eventual reopening.

For many businesses right now, the income is dried up, employees are taking pay cuts and the future remains uncertain as doors stay shut.

In an attempt to light the way for the industry, local arts administrators are taking action. The Central Coast Coalition of Arts Leaders (CCCOAL) recently reached out to the state and San Luis Obispo County health departments with the goal of prioritizing the industry’s reopening.

The Coalition includes venues such as the Vine Robles Amphitheater, Fremont Theater and Harold Miossi Gallery at Cuesta Community College, and performing companies such as the Central Coast Youth Chorus and Orchestra Novo. 

“We all thought we’d be back by now,” said San Luis Obispo Symphony executive director Anna James Miller. “Chris Miller was all ready for 'Full Steam Ahead' on January 1, right?"

'Full Steam Ahead' was a SLO Symphony performance formerly scheduled at the Performing Arts Center, located on the Cal Poly campus. 

“That’s right,” said PAC managing director Chris Miller on a Zoom call. “I still have you on the calendar!”

Sharing the same last name, the two are unrelated; however, they are among 38 local coalition leaders to have signed and sent a letter addressing concerns over a lack of industry-specific reopening guidelines.

Coalition members said the performing arts has been left out of the public health discussion until recently. They said the negative economic impact to their industry is snowballing.

“We ended our fiscal year at the end of June with a $140,000 deficit because of the canceled events,” Anna James Miller said. “We immediately went to a more than 50% reduction of the budget on July 1, so we are now in a $580,000 budget for the current year. Had we not done that, we already would have closed our doors. It makes me concerned about whether we will be able to have any kind of season at all next year.”

Anna James Miller said the SLO Symphony has tried to schedule several different events with safety protocols in place since the pandemic began. Miller said these event requests included live performances, with no audience or in outdoor venues. They were denied by public health officials.

San Luis Obispo County Public Health officials said they understand the challenges businesses face right now. They also said the department is limited in what it can allow until further documentation is provided at the state level.

In a statement to KCBX, the Public Health Department said:

“In the absence of further state guidance regarding live, in-person performances, we strongly encourage the Central Coast Coalition of Arts Leaders to continue performing virtually. We also recommend the coalition continue to advocate directly with leaders at the state level to have your industry’s operations addressed in future state guidelines.”

State officials are starting to outline further guidance for the performing arts industry. Earlier this month, the governor’s office announced that recording live performances without an audience is allowed unless an individual county prohibits it.

Coalition members said this will help them work with the local health department to establish specific action plans.

“In this first phase, what we hope to achieve in conversations with [SLO County Health Officer] Dr. Borenstein and her staff is that what is being allowed at the state level can be allowed here in San Luis Obispo County,” Chris Miller said.

Immediate goals for the coalition include: recording live performances with artists, live drive-in concerts and eventually, live outdoor performances. Coalition members stand firm that health remains top of mind.

“Safety and protection of our artists, our audiences, etc. is the number one priority,” said director of Cal Poly Arts Steve Lerian. “But we want to be treated equally with other industries. We’re looking for fairness more than anything.”

For now, local arts groups are hosting virtual performances. But coalition members are optimistic that artists will be able to join each other on the stage soon. They say they’re confident that the performing arts will find a way to keep going.

“Go back to the early days of the pandemic in Italy when people were standing out on their balconies and singing arias for their neighbors,” Lerian said. “That’s what we represent. We represent hope.”

“Music and art are keeping us all going during this difficult time,” Anna James Miller said. “It’s a fight worth fighting.”

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obipso County. 

Rachel Showalter first joined KCBX as an intern from Cal Poly in 2017. During her time in college, she anchored and reported for Mustang News at Cal Poly's radio station, KCPR. After graduating, she took her first job as a Producer at KSBY-TV. She returned to the KCBX team in October 2020, reporting daily for KCBX News until she moved to the Pacific Northwest in July of 2022. Rachel spends her off-days climbing rocks, cooking artichokes and fighting crosswords with friends.
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