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Black Friday for the Arts in Madison

We’ll start with a review of the timeline of what has unfolded in the past few days in Madison, WI and then talk about immediate effects on artists and arts organizations.

Today’s post will be a launching pad for several others. We’ll start with a review of the timeline of what has unfolded in the past few days in Madison, WI and then talk about immediate effects on artists and arts organizations. I’ll also include a list of suggestions of how you can help – I’ll revisit this topic often so if you have additional ideas, please post them in the comment section.

“Friday, March 13 (Friday the 13th) became a Black Friday of another sort in the arts community in Madison. One announcement after another of cancellations."

Timeline of COVID-19 Announcements in Madison, Wisconsin

While it seems like we’ve been embroiled in the tumult of COVID-19 for weeks, it’s only been five days since University of Wisconsin-Madison announced on Wednesday, March 11 that they were moving all instruction online for March 14 through at least April 10, that official travel to many locales was suspended and personal travel was discouraged, and that students were encouraged to move home during spring break, all as a proactive measure to flatten the curve and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Here’s a timeline of the days that followed:

  • On Thursday, March 12 the governor’s office issued an executive order declaring a public health emergency due to COVID-19 recommending the cancellation of events of more than 250 people and the mandating the closure of schools starting and on Friday, March 13 Governor Evers closed all public and private schools in Wisconsin, effective Wednesday, March 18.

  • On Friday, March 13 the mayor’s office in the City of Madison, Public Health Madison & Dane County issued orders to stop mass gatherings of 250 or more people across the county to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and banned official travel to several states and countries.

  • On Friday, March 13, following the lead of UW-Madison and the recommendations of the Governor’s Office, UW System Schools across the state announced extended spring breaks and the move from in-person to online instruction for the foreseeable future, many until “at least April 17.”

  • On Sunday, March 15 the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) issued a recommendation against gatherings with 50 people or more.

  • On Sunday, March 15 Public Health Madison and Dane County announced that all Dane County schools will be closing immediately to curb the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). “The anticipated reopen date is April 6, but that could change.

  • On Sunday, March 15 Chancellor Becky Blank issued the following: “By way of this email, schools, colleges and units are directed to implement the campus telecommuting policy in an effort to reduce the amount of face to face contact.”

What happened in the arts in Madison that week?

On Wednesday, March 11 the Chazen Museum of Art cancelled all public events and announced reduced hours starting March 23.

On Thursday, March 12, The Isthmus ran a story by Mike Muckian of current postponements and cancellations (most related to UW-Madison venues like the Wisconsin Union Theater and Hamel Music Center) with cautious words from leadership at local arts organizations.

Friday, March 13 (Friday the 13th) became a Black Friday of another sort in the arts community in Madison. One announcement after another of cancellations. UW-Madison Varsity Band Spring Concert. Madison Opera’s production of “Orpheus in the Underworld.” Wisconsin Youth Symphony’s remaining performances. Wisconsin Film Festival. Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra. CTM’s production of “Peter Pan.” Madison Symphony Orchestra. Madison Ballet. Forward Theater’s “The Amateurs.” Madison Children’s Museum. The list goes on and on.

On Friday, March 13 Overture Center for the Arts announced that it was closing until at least April 13 which means no activity by any of ten resident companies, no access to art galleries, and no touring productions and concerts. Frank Productions and Live Nation announced that they were postponing all events at The Sylvee, The Orpheum, The Majestic, and The High Noon through March 31.

What does this for the arts in Madison?

Venues like Overture Center, Kohl Center, and The Sylee sustained massive financial hits as they are dependent on ticket sales and concessions for earned income needed to pay rent, pay their employees, and keep the doors open.

Many Arts Venues and Arts Organizations learned that their “event cancellation” or “business discontinuation” insurance did NOT cover epidemics so they would receive no help regarding the sunk costs already invested in now cancelled events and in recovering any of the lost ticket revenue. Couple this with what is happening in the stock market and the decimation of endowment funds across the country and the impact is more than doubled.  More on this in a future post.

In a matter of hours, the livelihood of many local performers, stagehands, and technicians evaporated. In a gig economy, there are no vacations days or sick days. When a gig is cancelled, you are not paid. Read back over the partial list of organizations that cancelled events and start to do the math on how many musicians, actors, dancers, designers, stagehands, performers, and arts administrators and employees have been affected.

Most artists have a clause called force majeure in their contracts. This means, even when they’ve already spent hours learning a role or music, they can lose all income for the gig.

“Perilous times for working musicians lie ahead. ‘Force majeure’ clauses in artist contracts—releasing companies from liability in the event of disruptions—mean that many opera singers and freelance instrumentalists, not to mention actors, dancers, and backstage technicians, will go unpaid for the duration of the pandemic.”

For those who are members of a union, the cancellation may also affect their ability to maintain health insurance as full membership, and benefits, are dependent on the number of weeks worked each year. For Equity actors and stage managers, 11 weeks of union employment qualifies you for six months of coverage and you’ll need 19 weeks more for 12-month of coverage. In IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), depending on which chapter you belong to, coverage can be dependent on the number of days worked in a particular period (for NYC 60 days in a 6 month period), the amount of money paid in (% of salary goes into a fund), or any of number of contractual agreements, all dependent on actually working gigs.

What can you do to help?

Reach out to your friends who work in the arts and check in. In this time of social distancing, every virtual visit by phone or Skype/Facetime will be appreciated. Sure we can chat on social media but hearing the smile and laughter of another human makes a difference.

All of these suggestions come from the position of someone who has regular income and is not 100% dependent on the gig economy so take them with that privilege in mind:

In the short term, when an event that you had tickets for cancels, please consider donating the tickets rather than asking for a refund. Arts organizations need your support now more than ever and that donation can help them stay financially solvent. Already several area nonprofits are asking employees to go on a furlough with reduced compensation as the organizations are concerned that they will not be able to make payroll in the coming months if they keep everyone on full-time during the weeks that they are closed down or on greatly-reduced operations.

If you watch a livestream or video of an arts event or performance, please donate to the organization or individual artist as they are dependent on tickets sales for income. In this case your donation is your “ticket” to the experience.

If you or your child takes music, art, dance, or photography lessons, consider doing so via Skype or Facetime. Teachers are dependent on that income so try to find a way to continue that relationship in an alternative setting.

Buy art, music, and literature online from the creators themselves and/or local businesses.

Looking for a book to read? Order from a local bookstore so the $$ stay in the local economy. Rather than listening to music for free on Spotify, order a CD or purchase mp3s from the artist. Buy merchandise from your favorite musicians and shows. Visit the websites of visual artists and purchase their work. Commission a new piece of music, visual art, theatre, or dance.

Consider contributing to online fundraisers for arts organizations, artists, and technicians.

One group that is being hit particularly hard is IATSE (International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees). As the stagehands and workers who support the entertainment industry, they are completely dependent on the venues and events that hire union workers to make events, performances, and shows happen. Losing calls for the UW Varsity Band Spring Concert, CTM, Madison Opera, and slew of others events that cancelled has wiped out income for hundreds of stagehands for at least the next six weeks, and this is happening during one of the busiest times of the year.

IATSE Local 251 Business Agent Justina Vickerman has started a GoFundMe to help those in the greatest need in the coming weeks.

Last, but not least, here’s an article on how community members in Seattle are working together to help each other:

Reading List

How COVID-19 is affecting the arts” by Mark Lowry for Theatre Jones, North Texas Performing Arts News, on March 13, 2020

Coronavirus Concerts: The Music World Contends with the Pandemic” by Alex Ross for The New Yorker on March 14, 2020


Additional Sources

UW-Madison press releases and info regarding COVID-19 are available at:

The Madison Metropolitan School District COVID-19 page incudes updates and a list of resources (WiFi and Chromebooks, Mental Health resources, Neighborhood Food Sites and more):

Announcement from Frank Productions and Live Nation:

Announcement from Overture Center for the Arts:

In Actor’s Equity (the union for actors and stage managers):

In order to qualify for plan eligibility, you must have at least 11 weeks of covered employment in any 12 calendar months “accumulation period” to qualify for 6 months of coverage. If you attain 19, or more, weeks of covered employment in an accumulation period, you may qualify for 12 months of coverage.

The IATSE (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) contract for stagehands and entertainment members who work in New York City.  I learned today that, unlike Actors’ Equity, there is not a standard across the country and that each chapter negotiates their own benefits.

Employees qualify once they have worked 60 days under a contract in a period of six consecutive months. Coverage then starts on the first day of the second month after you complete the 60-day requirement, and continues for six months. Coverage continues uninterrupted beyond your initial eligibility period as long as you have 60 days in covered employment in each successive six-consecutive-month period.


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