Like many businesses, the Lied Center for Performing Arts has felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 16, the center rescheduled or canceled all of its events through April 16 and has since moved additional events from their original dates.
As half of its income comes from ticket sales, the Lied Center faces a major financial challenge for as long as it can’t host performances. However, executive director and chief artistic officer Bill Stephan is optimistic that the center can survive this uncertain situation.
“Financially, it's a real struggle, and we're still waiting to see what this is all gonna look like. We have a large staff that we're continuing to employ. Income is down, [but] expenses are still happening, so that's a challenging situation,” Stephan said. “But we are lucky to be in Nebraska and part of the University of Nebraska, and so I have faith we're going to be able to pull through this and be able to rise above and have the shows back and get back to a strong financial footing with the help of support from the community and the university.”
Stephan said the center started discussing the potential impact of the pandemic a few months ago, when the virus was only starting to take hold in China. Once UNL canceled in-person classes for the rest of the semester on March 12, Stephan said he and his team worked quickly to contact artists and tour managers to begin restructuring the center’s entire spring schedule.
“The first step once the university was moving to online learning was [deciding] what will happen with the Lied Center and our performances, being that great gatherings of people is one of the things you're trying to avoid to minimize the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “We took that concern very seriously and proactively worked with our artists and our patrons and university leadership to identify what we can do to try to salvage these plans and performances while making sure that the safety and health of our patrons and our artists and our employees are number one.”
Stephan said that even without a global pandemic, putting together the event calendar is logistically one of the most challenging tasks for the center. When picking a new date for an event, the Lied Center staff has to take into account the whims of the artist and when their respective tours will be able to pass through the Lincoln area.
“It’s been a chaotic several weeks of looking at calendars,” he said.
The center’s staff has mostly moved to working remotely, although a small crew remains to work on box office activity, mail and other facility projects. Stephan said the Lied Center has followed UNL protocol on all staffing decisions, encouraging social distancing for employees still working on-site and paying all employees as though they were working normal hours for as long as financially sustainable.
While working remotely, Matthew Boring, the associate director of marketing and patron development, said online tools like Zoom and Asana have helped him communicate with his team to answer their questions and help them stay productive.
“I think we're all pretty comfortable just in terms of being able to have projects move forward, even if we're not meeting about it in person all the time,” Boring said. “One thing that's important to me is just replacing that in-person physical communication where you normally just check in with people or things like that."
Communications director Lauren Silverman Durban has an unusual perspective on adapting to remote work — her first day working for the Lied Center was March 17, right at the beginning of Lincoln’s COVID-19 crisis. The former evening anchor for KLKN and co-host of KX 96.9’s radio show “JP & Lauren with Husker Nick” said she only had one day in the Lied Center office before the staff was told to work from home.
Silverman Durban said her transition to the Lied Center staff has been aided by the support of her coworkers.
“We make sure everybody's clear on everything, and then we all go on our merry way for the day,” she said. “Everybody has been really just generous and supportive of me and very patient with me while I'm learning. So even though we're not physically together, I feel very supported by the team.”
While working from home, the Lied Center and venues like it continue to impact their respective communities. The center has received and given support to other performance venues through its membership in the Major University Presenters, a consortium of 19 university-affiliated performance arts centers and programs from around the country. Stephan said the group has held multiple conversations to share ideas about generating revenue and keeping engaged with the community during the pandemic.
Although the Lied Center can’t physically host patrons right now, Stephan said he and his staff remain committed to providing the arts. Stephan said the center’s social media pages have been routinely promoting free recordings and live streams of music, as well as hosting the new Lied Live Online series — live concerts streamed via Facebook Live. The center hosted the first Lied Live Online concert on March 27 when singer Emily Bass performed, and the second was on Sunday night, featuring singer and guitarist Susan Werner.
Stephan said these concerts have provided an opportunity for people anywhere to tune in to Lied Center-sponsored events and experience local music.
“One of the interesting things about these broadcasts is now people from all over can see a show, where before you had to physically be here,” he said. “So I think that is one of the unique things that we'll see maybe out of these concerts that are taking place, is that people will discover new things and new places in the performing arts in the national scope of the web.”
Silverman Durban said she has enjoyed the opportunity to promote the series in her first few weeks on the job, helping people connect in a time of self-isolation.
“When we can't [have] physical concerts in the space, we were very much looking for a way to still bring people arts and entertainment and all of those wonderful things that people normally turned to the Lied Center for,” she said. “It's been such a wonderful way to expose local artists. It's not every day that we would get to feature these local artists, and so what we've been saying is normally we get to share the greatest artists in the world with Nebraskans, but right now we get to share Nebraska's greatest artists with the world.”
While the immediate future of the Lied Center is uncertain, Stephan said he’s excited to continue to provide an outlet for the arts in Lincoln and maintain the center’s presence in the community during the pandemic and for years to come.
“The arts provide the ability to warm your soul, your heart; take your mind somewhere else; appreciate beauty, love and passion; calm your soul; it does so much for us,” he said. “I think during a time like this, we need arts and entertainment potentially more than ever ... And I think being able to connect with each other and share beauty and humor is really critical at this time.”