Franklin arts organizations pivot to stay engaged during pandemic

Arts and entertainment venues, such as the Franklin Theatre, have been closed for months during the pandemic. (Wendy Sturges/Community Impact. Newspaper)
Arts and entertainment venues, such as the Franklin Theatre, have been closed for months during the pandemic. (Wendy Sturges/Community Impact. Newspaper)

Arts and entertainment venues, such as the Franklin Theatre, have been closed for months during the pandemic. (Wendy Sturges/Community Impact. Newspaper)

When Studio Tenn Artistic Director Patrick Cassidy moved to the Franklin area in January, he said he was all set to announce a new performance season for the regional theater group and begin directing. Then, the pandemic hit.

“It’s like, ‘Now, what is the artistic director going to do?’” Cassidy said. “I was very nervous.”

As businesses across the state and in Williamson County have largely been able to reopen after closures due to the coronavirus, one sector remains shut down: arts and entertainment. Events have been mostly canceled since March, as health and government officials have cautioned against large gatherings due to the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

The second half of the year is usually a busy time for the arts and for events in Williamson County. Gatherings such as the Main Street Festival, Pumpkinfest and Dickens of a Christmas typically draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, according to The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County. Visitor spending in the area reached an all-time high in 2019, at nearly $500 million, according to Visit Franklin.

This year, however, the U.S. Travel Association predicts the state will see a 35%-40% decline in tourism dollars. Additionally, a survey conducted this year by Americans for the Arts—an organization dedicated to supporting arts organizations—found that due to the cancellation of nearly all events this year, organizations are expected to lose more than $52 million statewide, including $1.8 million lost in Williamson County.

However, local organizations said this year has led to unanticipated opportunities for education and for engagement with a community looking for new ways to interact.

“We knew that it was such an uncertain time where we weren’t sure if we would even be able to have these events,” Heritage Foundation CEO Bari Beasley said. “We just made the decision that the wisest thing for us to do as a nonprofit was to be very frugal and thoughtful of our donor dollars and to be mindful of public safety and really just be extremely focused this year on our core mission, which is preservation, advocacy and education.”

Adapting to the times

While it is not yet known what the full economic effects of losing large events will be for the area, Beasley said downtown shops have already been hit as a result of declining tourism, which is a factor the foundation considered when canceling all of its festivals this year.

“Those festivals bring anywhere from 75,000 to 140,000 to downtown Franklin on a given weekend,” she said. “So it was a very big decision back in June for the organization to do this.”

The foundation also controls the Franklin Theatre, which hosts about 600 events each year, such as the Nashville Elvis Festival, concerts and holiday movie showings, she said.

As the months wore on and business restrictions were lessened, Beasley said, the foundation began working on ways to get people downtown in a safe and socially distanced manner. The foundation created online tours and lecture series and recently began hosting small-group tours of historic sites.

In October, the foundation launched Paint the Town Orange, a month of themed weeks during which business owners decorated windows and encouraged people to begin visiting downtown again.

“Those festivals were created 40 years ago to bring people to downtown Franklin, so it’s almost like going back to the roots of the early days,” Beasley said.

Beasley said given the success of Paint the Town Orange, the foundation has already begun work on more events for the Christmas season, Holiday Magic on Main, which kicks off Nov. 27

Unexpected paths

With Williamson County residents having stayed mostly at home in spring and early summer as ordered by Gov. Bill Lee earlier this year, many performing groups were forced to make cuts to staff, including Studio Tenn, which announced in June that it had furloughed the majority of its staff. Statewide, 40% of arts organizations have furloughed or laid off artists or creative staff, according to the Americans for the Arts.

Cassidy said the theater group began looking for ways to stay connected to the community even if it could not put on a show.

Earlier this year, Studio Tenn began its online outreach with a virtual musical theater contest, in which many community members sent in video submissions for a chance to win prizes.

“It was just remarkable, and what I realized in that moment was there was this need to connect with people through the theater—yes, in a virtual way, but to connect,” Cassidy said.

In spring, Studio Tenn began offering education camps with classes for all ages in acting, music and dance, as well as Studio Tenn Talks, a weekly online show with Broadway performers.

Williamson County organizations are not alone in these efforts. Americans for the Arts estimates that more than 70% of U.S. arts and nonprofit organizations have increased their online presences as a means to keep operating.

“For us, this allowed us to launch an education program, and we had not really done that before,” he said.

Moving forward

While many organizations have managed to remain open during this year’s hardships, they have still had to face financial hurdles in the absence of their main sources of revenue.

Earlier this year, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which resulted in nearly 5 million loans being issued to businesses across the country. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, out of more than 88,000 loans given to Tennessee businesses, about 3,100 loans, or 3.5%, were given to nonprofit organizations. In Franklin and Brentwood, more than $6 million in combined Paycheck Protection Program loans were given to more than 130 nonprofits, according to the SBA.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 7, Lee and representatives with the Tennessee Financial Stimulus Accountability Group announced $50 million in Supplemental Employer Recovery Grants for small businesses.

“The SERG program will provide further relief to small businesses, especially those who may not have been able to access previous federal and state relief funds,” Lee said in an Oct. 7 statement.

Studio Tenn and the Heritage Foundation are both looking at 2021 as an opportunity to make a comeback. While a new performance season has not yet been announced for Studio Tenn, Beasley said the Heritage Foundation is moving ahead with plans for in-person events for all of its festivals in 2021.

“We’re very dependent on revenue that’s generated from these signature events to help fund our mission and be able to be here in the community doing this work,” Beasley said. “So it’s more important this year than ever, ever before for people to give, if they choose to do so.”

Rescheduling for 2021

Several Williamson County events were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. For most of them, planning has now begun for 2021. This list is not comprehensive.

Studio Tenn performance season

Original date: February-May 2020

Rescheduled for: TBD

Main Street Festival

Original date: July 18-19, 2020

Rescheduled for: April 24-25, 2021

Williamson County Fair

Original date: in-person events canceled; held virtually Aug. 7-15

Rescheduled for: Aug. 6-14, 2021

Pilgrimage Music and Cultural Festival

Original date: Sept. 26-27, 2020

Rescheduled for: Sept. 25-26, 2021


Original date: Oct. 24, 2020; alternate events Oct. 1-31, 2020

Rescheduled for: Oct. 30, 2021

Dickens of a Christmas

Original date: Dec. 12-13, 2020; alternate events TBA

Rescheduled for: Dec. 11-12, 2021

Ways to support

With most events postponed until at least 2021, many nonprofit organizations are relying on donations from the community to help keep operations going.

1937 Club

This fund supports The Franklin Theatre, which was founded in 1937 and saved from permanent closure by The Heritage Foundation in 2007. The fund goes to support programming.

Leadership Society

Donations to this fund help The Heritage Foundation of Williamson County close the gap between expenses and funds raised.

The Show Will Go On

Studio Tenn is raising funds to help pay artists and teachers and to plan for future shows.
By Wendy Sturges
A Houston native and graduate of St. Edward's University in Austin, Wendy Sturges has worked as a community journalist covering local government, health care, business and development since 2011. She has worked with Community Impact since 2015 as a reporter and editor and moved to Tennessee in 2019.


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