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Has performing arts employment in Illinois recovered from COVID-19?

A sold-out audience attends a preview of the world premiere of The Prodigal Daughter at Raven Theatre in May 2024. Attendance is still down by about a third in Chicago’s theaters, according to an estimate by the League of Chicago Theaters.
Sam Varley-Stephens
A sold-out audience attends a preview of the world premiere of The Prodigal Daughter at Raven Theatre in May 2024. Attendance is still down by about a third in Chicago’s theaters, according to an estimate by the League of Chicago Theaters. 

New state-level analysis from the National Endowment for the Arts show that employment in Illinois’ performing arts sector has not returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the news is not all bad.

The new analysis also shows that growth in Illinois’ overall arts sector is outpacing that of other states, in the Midwest and beyond.

About 1,000 fewer people report being employed by performing arts groups – that is, theater companies, dance companies and the symphony – compared to 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted widespread shutdowns. For the arts, those shutdowns lasted well into 2021.

According to inflation-adjusted data, the performing arts industry generated about $555 million for the Illinois economy in 2022, an 11% decrease from 2019.

Still, according to the most recent data, in 2022, the overall arts and culture sector contributed to 3.5% of the total state economy and employed more than 216,000 people, according to Patricia Mullaney-Loss, a social science analyst in the office of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s an improvement from a low point in 2021, and Illinois is doing better than its neighbors.

“When we look at the relative concentration of the arts and culture sector in Illinois, it ranks at the top of all Midwestern states,” Mullaney-Loss said.

Yet wages in the performing arts sector have dropped since 2020 and not fully recovered, said Sunil Iyengar, director of the office of research and analytics for NEA. The median wage for performersin Illinois has dipped from $21.88 down to $20.50.

So, even with the growth in the sector leading the nation, there are still fewer jobs available, and those jobs often pay less money.

What does this mean for theater in Chicago?

Marissa Lynn Jones is the executive director at the League of Chicago Theaters. Her organization represents 207 theater companies. She says one of the biggest shifts in the local scene has been changes to the season structure.

“A larger theater might have had nine shows within their season,” prior to COVID-19 shuttering venues, said Lynn Jones. “They might have cut those down post pandemic to about five shows. Just to give you a sense, that could be anywhere from two to 50 performers per show that are not getting work, or union workers or designers that are not getting work.”

The shift to smaller seasons may be reflected in the data showing fewer jobs and in overall revenues that, once you adjust for inflation, have not returned to 2019 levels. What’s more, audiences still haven’t returned to adequately boost ticket sales. Lynn Jones says theaters in Chicago are still seeing a 30% decrease in audience attendance from 2019.

Some performing arts groups have warned that the arts were struggling even before the pandemic.

Joshua Davis-Ruperto, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council, said that in 2019, the performing arts, specifically theaters, were already confronting declines in corporate sponsorships and subscriptions. Many organizations were seeking new funding models. The pandemic exacerbated these issues, but it didn’t create them.

Mid-size venues, in particular, have been hit hard, Davis-Ruperto said. “A lot of the large [theaters] had endowments, and small ones were pretty nimble enough to adjust accordingly. Those mid-sized organizations really had a hard time surviving and we saw a lot of closures.”

Davis-Ruperto said his office has worked to ensure the levels of state arts funding have remained consistent; his group has also shifted funding models to ensure organizations have more flexibility in spending grants.

He thinks the key to success for performing arts moving forward is in continuing to respond to the new needs of audiences – not focusing on getting back to 2019.

And Lynn Jones agrees.

“I think 2019 was a long time ago and we have to continuously shift and be creative about the things we’re doing,” said Lynn Jones. That’s prompting theaters to look for new audiences and stage work that’s more reflective of different audiences and stories. “People want to see themselves on stage.”

Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.
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