Buffalo arts scene, ‘desperate for anything that could help them,’ optimistic about NY Arts Revival

Jan 13, 2021

Perhaps no sector has been hurt more by the COVID-19 pandemic than the arts. During the second in a series of State of the State addresses, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a new initiative that could bring back outdoor performances, and perhaps even indoor performances. WBFO’s Tom Dinki got reaction from those in the Buffalo arts scene.


For three weeks this summer, Torn Space Theater was able to put on 14 outdoor performances at Silo City in downtown Buffalo. 

“It was capped at 50 people. They had to be six feet apart. And so under those guidelines, we were able to do performances,” said Dan Shanahan, the nonprofit theater group’s artistic director. “But of course, there has been no opportunity to do indoor performances.” 


So when Cuomo announced the New York Arts Revival on Tuesday, saying the state cannot wait until the summer to bring back the arts and provide a living wage for artists, Shanahan was immediately interested. 


“What I'm seeing here is that the governor is putting the arts and culturals in the foreground for how the state is going to move forward in a post-pandemic world,” Shanahan said.


The initiative will include a series of pop-up, outdoor performances across the state starting next month. Participating will be 150 artists, including Amy Schumer and Hugh Jackman, as well as an unspecified number of arts groups. It will be a public-private partnership, with the state providing staffing support, marketing, and access to spacious venues, including state parks.


Cuomo also teased the potential return of large, indoor performances, with the help of rapid testing and ventilation. 


However, it was unclear whether local arts organizations could still join the initiative. 


“The one thing that was missing was how to contact them,” said Terry Fisher, president of the Theatre District Association of Western New York, which represents approximately 20 theater groups, mostly in Buffalo. “The whole theater community is desperate for any kind of something new that could help them.”


Some local theaters have been producing digital performances available via streaming, but Fisher said those may only bring in about 60 to 70% of the revenue of a live show. The cost of cameras and video editing also eats away at the budget for set building, costuming and props, meaning less jobs for those behind the scenes.


A 2017 report by the Arts Services Initiative found that Western New York nonprofit arts and cultural organizations create more than $350 million in economic impact, as well as over 10,000 full-time jobs.

“I mean, it's much bigger than people think,” Fisher said.


While supportive of this initial push, Fisher said the state will need to boost the arts industry again later this year once spaces can hopefully return to full capacity. Audience members, who’ve spent the last 10 months consuming content from their living rooms, may need to be reminded of the importance of live performances. 


“How are you going to do that? Well, some of it’s going to have to be low-priced tickets, special events, two for one, whatever they come up with,” he said, “but it's not just, ‘Oh, look, our doors are open.’ That's not going to do it.”


The New York Arts Revival performances are set to begin Feb. 4.