Manitoba arts groups have sailed uncharted waters the past three months since COVID-19 closed theatres, concert halls, museums and bandstands.

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This article was published 12/6/2020 (490 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba arts groups have sailed uncharted waters the past three months since COVID-19 closed theatres, concert halls, museums and bandstands.

Two polls offer some clues as to which way the pandemic winds may blow this summer and in the fall, when many arts groups’ new seasons begin.

"If COVID has taught us anything, it’s every day you learn new information and every day you have to adapt to it," Camilla Holland, the executive director of the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, says in a telephone interview.

The information revealed in a Nanos Research poll earlier this week suggests there are two groups of post-pandemic audience members in Canada. It found between 26 and 39 per cent of Canadians will return to arts events immediately, once governments allow them and if social distancing and mask-use rules are followed.

A larger group, between 39 and 51 per cent of respondents, wish to wait for a COVID-19 vaccine before returning to cultural events.

"Those in small venues with flexible formats may see a lot of reason for hope," Christopher Deacon, president and chief executive officer of the National Arts Centre, said in an online conference call before almost 1,000 listeners on Tuesday. "Larger format producers and institutions may see stiff challenges on the road to recovery."

He added that social gathering is a fundamental aspect of the performing arts — a tenet under threat by social-distancing rules society has been asked to follow to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The 58-page Arts Response Tracking Study is based on responses from 1,001 Canadians on whether they were comfortable returning to indoor events, outdoor events or museums and galleries. It is sponsored by the national charity Business/Arts and the National Arts Centre, and used telephone and online surveys taken May 17-19. Nanos Research says the margin of error for the study is plus or minus 3.1 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

The same questions will be asked in six weeks.

Holland says the Nanos survey provides a helpful gauge for the country’s arts community. She recognizes the importance of addressing audiences’ safety concerns, and during the conference call, she also addressed the many questions all arts groups face for the remainder of 2020 and beyond.

Perhaps the critical question is about the bottom line. Skittish audiences and social-distancing rules will be a financial dilemma.

"How can we afford to produce shows at the scale and scope expected by our audience for a significantly smaller audience, either because of physical distancing or the reluctance to return?" Holland asked during the call.

The Nanos study also revealed half of its respondents watched a digital performance or virtual tour during the COVID-19 pandemic and that only one in 10 would not pay for a digital performance or virtual tour. However, four in 10 respondents were unsure what price they would pay.

The second survey, which Prairie Research Associates (PRA) released May 19, received 1,640 responses from Manitobans. It asked when they would be comfortable gathering with others without a COVID-19 vaccine available. The poll revealed 22 per cent of respondents would return to concerts or movies with more than 50 people this summer, 43 per cent in the fall, 58 per cent this winter and 71 per cent by the spring and summer of 2021.

Those numbers shrink significantly as the number of people attending an event — be it a large wedding or family gathering, a night at the theatre or a large sporting event — rises, the study found. Only 14 per cent of respondents would feel comfortable attending an event with 1,000 people this fall — it’s only 11 per cent for an event with 10,000 spectators — and only rises beyond 50 per cent after spring-summer 2021.

"Data suggests that Manitobans will not feel comfortable attending larger events until the spring or summer of 2021," the PRA study says.

It estimates the survey’s error rate is plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Winnipeg theatre groups, such as Royal MTC, Prairie Theatre Exchange and Manitoba Opera, had to end their 2019-20 seasons in March after the province restricted public gatherings; musical organizations, such as the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, did the same. The province’s museums and art galleries closed too, and virtually every outdoor festival this summer has been cancelled, owing to the COVID-19 threat. Indoor concerts big and small have also been shelved, and it is only recently that plans have been made to have bands at city nightclubs.

The province announced the first phase of its reopening plan on May 4, and the following day, the Winnipeg Art Gallery reopened. The Manitoba Museum will follow suit in the remaining weekends in June, starting today, while the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will welcome visitors on June 17.

Theatre companies have the summer to assess the pandemic landscape and adjust. They can be heartened by Manitoba’s decision Thursday to ease its self-quarantine rules for visitors, and the low number of COVID-19 active cases.

In the meantime, they will learn from the experience museums and galleries have encountered. It’ll be a different theatrical world that has already had to break its famous "the show must go on" rule, Holland says.

"The worst nightmare is if a cast member, an audience member or volunteer gets sick," she says. "We realize what a second wave and a second closure would mean."


Alan Small

Alan Small

Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.

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