Chris Ashcraft was on vacation when it all started coming apart. It was mid-March and coronavirus was banging on the door.
And it wasn’t going away.
Ashcraft, executive director of the Community Performance and Art Center in Green Valley, knew they’d have to act decisively and quickly.
“The news just made it very evident that we needed to do something,” he said. “Theaters are in that unique area where we have lots of people in small spaces. It was obvious pretty quick that we were going to need to shut down.”
Their last show was March 14, a "Tribute to Fleetwood Mac." Then the stage went dark for what they hoped would only be a month. They even optimistically rescheduled a performance for summer.
But after talking to venues small and large around the state, “it was obvious it was going to be much longer.”
Everybody was shutting down.
CPAC followed, canceling everything —70 acts, summer camps, visual arts workshops, exhibits.
“We just shut down everything,” Ashcraft said. They figured they’d lose about $200,000 in revenue, roughly a third of their annual budget. But it could end up being a lot worse.
Time to assess
The CPAC office has been closed for more than three months but Ashcraft says he has never worked harder.
But the abrupt closure has had a silver lining.
The board has been able to step back from normal operations and do a lot of assessing, he said. They also have been reminded of how much the community values the arts center and will stand behind it with dollars.
And though the closure came during Green Valley’s busy winter visitor season, “We basically had all the income that we were going to have this year,” Ashcraft said.
He said they should balance their budget at the end of the fiscal year June 30.
“It’s next year that it’s going to be a total mess,” he said. But that, too, comes with some good news.
“We’re in a position now to sustain something like that because of all the work we’ve done over the past decade, and the patrons really have our backs.”
In 2011, before Ashcraft was on board, CPAC was on the verge of closing. A surge in local support and some structural changes led by the newly hired Ashcraft and a strong board made the difference. Today, they have a solid endowment and year-round activities.
It’s been no less a show of force during this latest crisis.
CPAC, with one part-time and four full-time employees, has had no layoffs. They received about $42,000 in CARES Act money that gave them some breathing room.
“It wasn’t going to save us forever but it gave us a couple of months’ salary so we could pay our employees,” Ashcraft said.
He calls this an eye-opening period in the history of the arts center.
“It kind of forced us to look at CPAC in a different way and see if there’s anything we could do that made sense in a different atmosphere,” he said.
They’ve looked at what other venues are doing and are considering different ways to use their campus.
“It really gave us a chance to connect with our patrons on a different scale,” he said of the shutdown. “It’s been really wonderful because the people in this town are fantastic, they’re just so supportive.”
CPAC has a tentative plan that will be revisited at a meeting Wednesday.
After they canceled the summer schedule — which is generally watered down anyway — they looked to the fall.
“We had the choice to plan a season or not plan a season, so we chose to plan a season,” Ashcraft said.
They put together policies and procedures, are keeping an eye on state and CDC guidelines, and decided to reopen Oct. 1 at half capacity.
They have 12 shows booked for October and the ticket demand “is actually pretty high,” he said.
It’s a drop in the typical number of shows, but it’s where they’re comfortable. In all, they’re selling tickets to 100 shows from October through April.
“We’ve sold half of what we have to sell at this point,” Ashcraft said about two weeks ago.
It has meant renegotiating a vast majority of performer contracts. They’ve found some acts are willing to play a second show for free — two half-packed houses — while others settled for lower fees.
“There’s been a real collegial feel for those of us in the arts because we’ve all been trying to figure this out,” Ashcraft said.
They’ve discovered larger acts are staying off the road for the entire season while smaller acts are more willing to take the stage — if they don’t play, they don’t get paid.
The CPAC board also decided early on not to stick it to theatergoers.
“We made the decision we’re going to pretty much sit tight on ticket prices. We didn’t want to take advantage of anybody.”
Other than a convenience fee increase to two dollars for some ticket purchases, nothing has changed.
As a nonprofit, they hope to make up some of the losses in fundraising.
“The real blow is going to come next year when you start thinking about the lost revenue and then the amount of people not sure they’ll buy tickets, and only selling half a theater,” he said. They also will deal with people who didn’t get refunds on shows this year who will use the credits in 2020-21.
In all, the total losses attributed to the virus could approach $500,000, Ashcraft said.
In the end, he said they’re at the mercy of the pandemic.
“Assuming we can limp through the season in some fashion or another, we should be able to come out the other side just fine with the support of the community,” he said. “If this thing makes another round and they do forced closures and orders to stay at home for months on end, then we might be having a more difficult discussion. Even so, this community will ensure we survive.”