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The show must go on: Idaho performing arts organizations struggle, innovate

Idaho's Biggest Toy Drive

While much of Idaho’s economy got up and running in May – live arts performances remain on hold. 

Arts-based businesses and organizations across the Treasure Valley have been hit hard by the pandemic and are searching for ways to keep going without crowds of in-person audiences. Some delayed events indefinitely until COVID-19 ceases raging and others shifted to virtual and outdoor performances to keep going during the unprecedented pandemic. 

No matter which path these organizations take, they all worry about making it to the other side of COVID-19. 

Getting by with a little help from fans

Monique Michel almost lost her Mexican folk dance company, Ballet Folklorico Mexico Lindo, a few weeks ago. Without the last-minute intervention of a GoFundMe campaign, she would have been unable to pay back rent she owed on her downtown Nampa studio. 

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BVA Development
Idaho's Biggest Toy Drive

Usually, she relies on money she makes from paid dance performances at Cinco De Mayo, Dia De Los Muertos, Hispanic Heritage Month, Mexican Mother’s Day, and other events throughout the year to pay her rent on top of the small fees she charges for dance lessons. But with the pandemic, she dropped from 50 or 60 performances a year down to two. 

[April: Idaho Shakespeare Festival works on plan for season in wake of pandemic]

Michel put in for countless applications for grants and other assistance to help her through the pandemic, but she ran into roadblocks over and over because her dance company is not a non-profit. However, she doesn’t have any employees other than herself so she fell short of qualifying for assistance for businesses. Michel also lost her job with nonprofit Caldwell Fine Arts and went without any income at all. 

Two weeks ago, her landlord told her she needed to pay back $3,000 in back rent owed on her studio while she tried to scrape by on virtual classes and smaller than usual numbers of students returning to the studio. As a last-ditch effort, she launched the page and hoped to raise a few hundred dollars. 

“We made the $3,000 in 15 hours and the money kept coming and kept coming,” she said. “And I was like ‘you’ve gotta be kidding me’ and I was trying to pull the campaign and saying “thank you so much” but people kept giving…It was the kindness of strangers and people I don’t even know. People were sharing it like crazy.”

The dancers of Ballet Folklorico Mexico Lindo will continue to have a space and Michel will continue using the extra funds she raised from the GoFundMe, but she’s not sure what the future holds. 

“I know what I do and I love my dance company and it’s very much an extension of who I am, but this pandemic is so much more than anybody and it’s nobody’s fault,” she said. “I’d like to think and be hopeful and positive that things will be able to resume and we’ll be able to celebrate. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Is crowdfunding the future of Treefort?

Treefort 2020 decorations in a Downtown Boise window in March. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

Treefort Music Fest also had to do a major shakeup. 

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Idaho's Biggest Toy Drive

The pandemic began impacting Idaho just days before the annual music and arts festival’s start date in March. In a scramble, festival organizers delayed the event to September in the hopes of a quick resolution for the pandemic. But as it continued to wear on, organizers decided to delay Treefort to September 2021. 

[Treefort on hold: Festival pushed back into 2021]

Eric Gilbert, Treefort’s Festival Director, and co-founder, said the festival wanted to err on the side of safety. However, delaying the festival until 2021 posed some financial challenges. With Treefort only weeks away before organizers pushed it back a second time for more than a year, the festival had a lot of expenses without any revenue coming in.

There is also the looming worry about holding a festival in September 2021, with another one coming right behind it on the normal schedule in March 2022. 

“We’d already incurred a lot of expenses going into this year’s festival,” Gilbert said. “By moving ticket holders into 2021 there’s ticket inventory we won’t be able to sell for next year so we have a revenue gap we need to make up in creative ways.”

To make up what they lost, Treefort opened up a crowd funded campaign where supporters could invest in the festival and become part owners. Gilbert said the goal is to raise roughly $550,000 to close the gap caused by skipping a festival and all of the expenses. So far, Treefort has raised roughly $230,000 from 537 investors. 

Local venues struggling without shows

Gilbert says the festival will survive, but he said he remains concerned about the local music venues Treefort relies on to host its shows and events around town every year. Many of these venues have gone without booking shows since March. Gilbert said they are in dire need of stimulus funding to help them stay open. 

Gilbert hopes a bill called the Save Our Stages Act passes through Congress soon to provide help to performance venues so they don’t close during the pandemic. He said many people think of concerts as an upper-class activity, but he said they are important to the vibrancy of downtown. 

“It is a luxury, but it provides so much mental health and cultural value and it is an economic driver,” he said. “There’s one number that gets used quite a bit by people who are a little more academic than me, but for every dollar spent at a concert there’s $12 spent in the local economy. If someone goes to a show they’re going to go out to eat or hang out at the bar later.”

The Olympic, a small venue on Main Street in downtown Boise, almost completely shut down in March and remains mostly closed. Kaci Furniss, co-owner, said the pandemic “absolutely devastated” her business. 

Under state law, the venue can open. But, Furniss said there aren’t any artists trying to play shows, weddings or charity events hoping to use the space anymore. 

“We can possibly technically open, but there’s nothing coming through and no one wanting to book anything and with the capacity limits and everything else we’re just struggling,” Furniss said. “We’ve had a few things that have almost book and then cancel.”

Furniss also owns Mulligan’s Pub & Eatery downstairs, which opened for business. Some of her bartenders who used to work at The Olympic have been able to pick up some shifts in Mulligan’s to make ends meet, but there are only so many business hours. 

With $50,000 in rent owed without any way to make money on the space, Furniss isn’t sure what the future looks like for her venue and others. 

“I don’t know if all of the smaller venues will survive,” she said. 

Live, local ballet on demand in your home

Photo courtesy of Ballet Idaho, Mike Reid

Ballet Idaho started holding a season of performances, but they will appear online instead of in-person on stage in Boise.

In March, the company was on the verge of a performance when the pandemic came to Idaho and they had to cancel. At the last minute, a video production company filmed a dress rehearsal and cut it together into a digital performance available for ticket holders at home. The response was positive and viewers tuned in from across the country who wouldn’t otherwise be able to come to Boise. 

After that experience, Ballet Idaho decided to shift the entire 2020-2021 season online. The company will record all of its performances, and make them available for viewing at home anytime by season ticket holders for $200. This includes access to all of the performances and behind the scenes content through a streaming platform. Ballet Idaho is also working on a way for viewers to rent tapes of individual performances for 72 hours at a time, but the price is not yet set. 

“It’s exciting seeing the dancers adjusting to this new way of performing,” Ballet Idaho’s Marketing Director Alanna Love said. “Instead of this flat view, the camera gets to explore all sorts of different angles. You can see close ups of hands and feet, and the dancers are performing in the round instead of just center stage. It’s creating a unique and beautiful experience.”

To keep dancers safe, they split into different “pods” where groups of dancers only interact with a small set of other dancers and staff. Rehearsals have been held on Zoom, and specific dancers have assigned partners for the whole season to limit who is in physical contact with each other to slow the spread. Masks are required and the amount of people allowed in each room is limited to 9. 

Love said digital performances aren’t preferrable, but it provides an opportunity for a different experience than before. 

“One way that’s been on my mind recently is why there is an undeniable pure magic of being able to watch a performance live is that line between the audience and stage you can never cross,” she said. “While this is no one’s ideal circumstance, this is a special way to take the patron behind the scenes to see what putting on a ballet is really like.”

Margaret Carmel
Margaret is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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