Chandler Center for the Arts looks back at difficulties of last two years

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Musician Sandra Bassett had to get back on stage. When the world sputtered to a halt in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the jazz vocalist was swimming in uncertainty—she said she did not know when she would be able to perform again and if the venues that once hosted her would ever reopen. ••Then in came the Chandler Center for the Arts with an opportunity for a virtual show, weeks after the initial two-week lockdown due to the virus had still not been lifted.

“As a performer I was wondering if I would ever be able to perform and at what capacity and at what venues, and if any of the venues would have to close permanently,” Bassett said. “[Performing virtually] was an odd experience. Usually, I feed off the energy of people in the room. ... We live for that opportunity to engage and have that energy received.”

The Chandler Center for the Arts—the city’s only music venue and a staple since 1990—was in the middle of its biggest season ever when the COVID-19 pandemic caused the performing arts industry to shutter for months due to rules around congregating and large crowds. Staff at the Center adapted as quickly as they could, putting on virtual shows, outdoor shows, masked and social distanced shows and eventually—about a year and a half later—sold-out shows.

Michelle Mac Lennan, Chandler Center for the Arts general manager, said the arts industry was one of the hardest hit industries in the pandemic, and while shows may be back, the industry is still years from fully recovering. She said industry experts expect it to take another three to five years to see the arts fully recover.

“We are still moving forward, but I think it’s really important to acknowledge where we have been,” Mac Lennan said.

On Jan. 1, 2020, the Center saw record-shattering sales of $1.8 million and a 137% increase in attendance, according to center officials. But by March 13, 2020, officials at the Center were calling off a sold-out Buddy Guy show an hour before it was set to begin loading into the theater. That same day, a national emergency was declared.

“The overriding thing that brings people together is art—we needed music because that’s what lifts and encourages people and keeps us connected during difficult times,” Bassett said. “It was a complete joy that [the Center] recognized that and gave what they could, how they could to the community to continue to give them a way to relax and enjoy the arts.”

Surviving 2020

Had it not been for a record-breaking year of ticket sales, several large grants and the donations of people looking to support the arts during the pandemic, Mac Lennan said she was sure the Center would have been much worse off.

“It was going to be our biggest season ever,” Mac Lennan said. “Our ticket sales were incredible, and the artists and shows we had lined up for that 30th anniversary season were amazing. Everything was falling into place for that season. We were getting acts we never thought we’d be able to get.”

In the last two years, the Center has been awarded just over $1.8 million in COVID-19 emergency grants. Mac Lennan said the Center has also seen a great amount of support from the community.

“It was the Wild West, and we didn’t know what we were doing day to day or week to week, but people continued to support us,” Mac Lennan said.

The Center operates its season according to fiscal years, Mac Lennan said. According to data from the Center, there were 66,242 paid ticketed attendees in fiscal year 2019-20, but in fiscal year 2020-21, there were 761. Refunds issued from March 1, 2020, through Feb. 11, 2022, have totaled just over half a million dollars.

“Coming out of the pandemic has been just as challenging and uncertain in a lot of ways as it was going in,” she said. “We are doing our best to meet people where they are.”

The Center closed for shows in March 2020 and by May 10, it was launching its CCA Anywhere virtual series, in which artists such as Bassett were able to perform—albeit nontraditionally. In October, the center launched its outdoor series, and on July 23, 2021, the Center opened after a 15-month closure for a free summer concert with “Notes from Neptune.”

Terri Rettig, assistant manager at the Center, said March 13, 2020 began a series of “unthinkable” scenarios and forced everyone in the arts to be adaptable.

“The industry as a whole was navigating how to do this; there was no blueprint,” Rettig said. “It’s been such a time of rebuilding and change. It taught us the value of live performance and events.”

Sept. 24, 2021, marked the first ticketed live performance at full capacity—it was a sold out Boz Scaggs show.

“We all cried,” Mac Lennan said of the first in-person performance she saw at the Center again. “I’ve been bawling every show. There is so much heart in the arts. The arts offer an opportunity for not only that connection, but for healing. And we aren’t healed. It’s not over. We are still trying to figure out how to live in this world. We can be a source for joy, emotions and feelings that you can’t get anywhere else. There’s nothing like it.”

What lies ahead

Beginning this year, the Center is engaging in an 18-month Americans for the Arts economic impact study, Mac Lennan said. The study will survey how arts—and specifically the Center—affects the city’s economy. In 2019, based on figures from other cities, Mac Lennan estimates that the economic impact of the Center was $8.8 million.

“It’s so hard to prove that we are essential to a community,” Mac Lennan said.

Rettig said the atmosphere at the Center is “cautiously optimistic” as new acts are selected for future shows and seasons and events from the last two years are rescheduled. The Center is also focusing on bringing to life an artist in residency program and searching for ways to better connect with the community.

“We don’t know what the future will hold, but we so appreciate people’s willingness to overcome all that has happened in the last two years and find a way to come together where they feel safe,” Rettig said.

Ernie Serrano, a former Center board member and frequent patron of the Center, said he and his family grew up with music and the arts, and it has always held a special place in his heart. He and his wife went to their first show after the Center had been closed in 2021.

“I was really impressed,” he said. “People were still masked, but it didn’t matter. Everyone was there to have a good time.”

Mac Lennan said she views the arts as a “second responder” in a crisis—a way to bring people together even in the most divisive and difficult of times.

“There is nothing like the energy of a show; it’s inspiring,” Mac Lennan. “That’s what we are all here for; that’s what we want to do. We want to create magic for the audience.”