Navigating the local arts and entertainment scene: Reflections after a year of shutdowns

After nearly a year since the state of Michigan shut down in response to growing COVID-19 case numbers, those in the arts and entertainment industry dependent on in-person events are still waiting to work. While this shutdown has saved countless lives and slowed the spread of the deadly disease, for those financially dependent on in-person shared experiences, the economic impacts of the shutdown have been lasting. Within the arts and entertainment industry, revenue is largely dependent on crowded performances or drawing foot traffic to galleries, so the effects of the shutdown have been particularly devastating. These venues, and the artists who perform within them, are at particular risk even now, a year later, given the continued restrictions on indoor gatherings.

Concert venue owners like Tami VandenBerg, co-owner of the Pyramid Scheme, have seen a dramatic reduction in income throughout the shutdown. “We are down 95% [of our] revenue,” she says “Things are dire.” 

Over the past year, The Pyramid Scheme has, despite not turning a profit, been able to maintain relative stability and offer support to their laid-off team members. However, their doors remain open today only through a combination of efforts — grant and community support, a successful merchandise page (which was running before the shutdown), and new revenue brought in through pinball machine rentals. They have also generated income with their front bar, which has been able to reopen recently in limited capacity. And despite indoor capacity limits being increased, the situation remains tenuous for many businesses like hers. 

For VandenBerg, “everyone needs to think about what they want to survive on the other side.” She feels we all need to do our part to support our community. “Anything we can do to support our favorite artists or business we should. Because a lot of people are simply moving on and it's unfortunate,” she says. 

For those in this industry, the shutdown has meant either finding new revenue streams or closing the doors for good. Within Grand Rapids, a city so dependent on its local talent and culture for a healthy economy, fighting to protect those spaces and artists is especially critical. However, despite this adversity, some within the arts and entertainment industry are finding success by putting a renewed emphasis on community engagement driven by technological innovation. 

While the shutdown created many problems for venue owners, those artists lucky enough to receive unemployment saw a break from the grind that is being a performer. For these artists, no longer dependent on relentless touring schedules or unsustainable workloads to survive, COVID-19 offered a chance to reevaluate their careers and how they wanted to manage their business. One such individual is local performer, recording artist and studio musician Dutcher Snedeker. Snedeker says, “The shutdown was a moment to reset, to ask myself what am I putting my time into? What works well for me?” Like other musicians, Snedeker has found a relatively comfortable level of success over the past year by focusing on building an online audience through social media that can more directly support his work through Patreon, an online crowdsourcing outlet where subscribers pay a monthly fee to support individual artists.  

Dutcher Snedeker

For him, thanks to unemployment assistance and the shutdown, it was “easier to say ‘no’ and focus on important projects, especially after getting Patreon going”. Ironically, COVID-19 and the resulting government aid brought a stability that was often lacking for musicians and other entertainers even before the shutdown. No longer burdened by the need to overwork felt by so many artists, Snedeker was free to try new approaches. This experimentation led into livestreaming his own performances on Facebook, launching three new podcasts, and drastically improving his social media presence. Now, thanks to the direct support of his audience through outlets like Patreon, he has achieved an even greater degree of stability, independent of physical audiences. However, despite the small successes some individual artists have had as small-business owners shifting their model, for cultural organizations across the board, the shutdown continues to be damaging. 

Even cultural organizations which have grown to a world class level of recognition like Frederik Meijer Gardens (FMG), have not been spared by the shutdown. “Like other cultural organizations, COVID was devastating for us,” said John VanderHaagen, director of communications at Frederik Meijer Gardens. “A year ago or so, we had no idea what this next year would have in store. We, along with other cultural organizations, felt a significant and deep impact. One that will take a while to recover from.” Institutional art spaces like the FMG don’t secure the majority of their revenue from visitors or memberships, but are instead funded largely though endowment and philanthropic support, that remains stable even in difficult times. Despite this, the shutdown will still have lasting impacts. While on the surface operations may seem normal despite the shutdown and significant delays, as final plans for the new FMG welcome center and subsequent expansions remain close to their anticipated schedule, the situation within the organization remains tumultuous, operating on a skeleton staff after significant lay-offs. For the time being, larger cultural institutions are most likely to remain through COVID-19 because of their relatively stable revenue streams.

The independent venue owners and local artists who make Grand Rapids unique are still hanging in the balance after a year of shutdowns and their success has been dependent on their ability to channel community support into new revenue streams. Unlike larger cultural spaces which are often funded from a variety of sources, independent venues owners like VandenBerg do not have endowments. And our local musicians like Snedeker, who, at one point, counted on income from live performances, do not have the support of multi-million dollar philanthropic organizations. Such unprecedented times call for new forms of community support for local artists and venues to survive. Thankfully, in an increasingly interconnected era, reaching out and offering this help is easier than ever.

Updates regarding the Pyramid Scheme can be found on their website or their Facebook.  Dutcher Snedeker can be found performing live at the Listening Room and streaming on Facebook Live. His podcasts can be found through his Facebook and YouTube Channel, and he remains a contributing member to the bands Earth Radio and Blushing Monk. Frederik Meijer Gardens hopes to return in 2021 with their Summer Concert Series and continues to offer virtual classes and events. More information about both can be found on their website

Grant Kammer is a freelance writer and lifelong resident of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Photos courtesy Kristina Bird
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