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With loss of audiences, cultural institutions steady for uncertain future

The familiar refrain of "the show must go on" can't compete with a more sobering declaration: a state of emergency.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's March 12 order that no more than 500 people can congregate prompted the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to suspend all performances and events until April 12.

Shea's Performing Arts Center canceled its remaining shows of "Hello, Dolly!" at Shea's Buffalo Theatre and "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" at Shea's 710 Theatre, as well as "Three Tall Women" that was to open Friday at the Smith Theatre.

Just Buffalo Literary Center postponed two upcoming BABEL speakers – Marilynne Robinson on Wednesday and Colson Whitehead on April 16 – and closed Just Buffalo Writing Center until further notice.

Those are just some of the local and touring musical, theatrical and literary changes announced in recent days. For those with smaller venues, the coronavirus has left them wondering how to proceed if the emergency stretches beyond a few weeks.

"I could see the possibility of shutting down if it were three months or more, but this is totally unknown territory for me," said Joe Rubino, who owns Nietzsche's on Allen Street. "It's like living in a science fiction movie."

Arts organizations hope containment efforts will be successful and a return to normalcy will occur sooner than later, but there's no crystal ball to predict when that will be.

"I think we are in a much stronger financial position than we ever have been, but even financial strength in an arts organization means we are still fragile," said Daniel Hart, the BPO's executive director.

"Our endowment has grown a lot, and we have had steady ticket sales and annual fund growth and support from the governor, with good expense controls," Hart said. "But that doesn't mean we can weather the storm forever. We will obviously see a fall-off from ticket sales and will have to deal with that."

One positive, if it can be called that: The orchestra is off the month after Easter, so the timing for that appears to be fortuitous from a business standpoint.

Hart said he doesn't anticipate difficulty dealing with artists in postponing or canceling concerts.

"This is such an unusual situation in our industry, and artists are going to be very understanding about canceling or postponing things," Hart said. "We will be understanding about artists not being able to travel here, too. It's a two-way street."

Hart said everything is in flux as responses to COVID-19 ramp up.

"I think our musicians and board will absolutely pull together to do the right thing," Hart said.  "I think that in the coming week we will sit down and put our heads together and come up with some ways to deal with the situation."

In the meantime, Hart said, the BPO will be working on a couple of recording projects.

At Nietzsche's, Rubino worries about the long-term effects of the virus on his business.

"Hopefully in five or six weeks ago we're all saying, 'Wow, we made it through and everything's OK,' " Rubino said.

Neglia Ballet was forced to postpone its spring gala on May 16 because of the coronavirus outbreak.

"We thought no one is going to want to sponsor it, no one is going to want to buy tickets and no one is going to come," said Bronwen Battaglia, the dance company's director of logistics and communications.

Dance classes with reduced human contact pose a challenge. Neglia is looking into streaming ballet instruction on YouTube that students can follow from home, and adding video demonstrations from a Neglia alum who works as a professional dancer.

Looking ahead, Neglia is already wondering about whether its summer program, which provides a big share of the conservatory's income, can go on as planned. Twenty students from Argentina – one-fourth of those typically enrolled in the program – are due to arrive June 28.

On the bright side, if there is one, Battaglia said, work on the dance company's annual performance of "The Nutcracker" doesn't begin until November.

"Luckily, we are not about to do 'The Nutcracker,' " she said. "That's a really big production for us."

The uncertainty is making it hard for everybody in the arts, said Laurie Dean Torrell, executive director of Just Buffalo Literary Center.

"Having this drag on for an extended period of time would be extremely challenging," Torrell said. "I can't imagine any arts and cultural organization, even the strongest among us, that would not be challenged under those circumstances."

She said the organization will work with benefactors to see what role they can play as conditions change on the ground.

Torrell said there is also concern about the well-being of the artists Just Buffalo works with.

"We will be taking steps to do as much as we can in working with them," she said.

A number of local theater companies canceled weekend performances, including the New Phoenix Theatre on the Park.

Richard Lambert, the theater's executive director, told patrons in a phone message that the theater chose to err on the side of safety in canceling its performances of "Kiss of the Spider Woman." On Monday, Lambert cancelled the remaining two weeks of performances and the season-ending "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf?" in what had been expected to cap the theater's 25th anniversary.

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