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Arts & Culture

Art In The Time Of COVID-19

A scene from THE AGING MAGICIAN, which was to be presented by San Diego Opera March, 2020.
Beth Morrison Productions
A scene from THE AGING MAGICIAN, which was to be presented by San Diego Opera March, 2020.

San Diego event cancellations, confined spaces and the ripple effect of lost work and income on artists and nonprofits during the global coronavirus pandemic

San Diego art organizations, artists, venues and audiences are staring down a lot of uncertainty in the face of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Here's what we know so far, what it might mean for San Diego's arts scene, what you can do to help and how you can find refuge in art regardless of whether everyone stays home.


Late Wednesday night, Governor Newsom issued a briefing stating that "non-essential gatherings" of more than 250 people be postponed statewide and for smaller events to ensure six feet of space between individuals.

David Bennett, the general director of San Diego Opera, said that the cancellation earlier this week of "Aging Magician" was triggered by travel concerns from guest artists.


"Aging Magician" features the 26-member Brooklyn Youth Chorus in a complicated, fully staged production, and the group's board of directors cited concerns not so much about exposure but about the risk of future travel bans.

Bennett also pointed out that the organization is no stranger to stress and uncertainty. "San Diego Opera has weathered difficult times over the past decade, and out of that, we've worked hard to develop a spirit of nimble adaptation," he said.

In addition to "Aging Magician" at the San Diego Opera, the following organizations have also announced cancellations: the La Jolla Symphony's presentation of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" this weekend and all ArtPower events through May 10.

Jordan Peimer, executive director of ArtPower at UC San Diego, said that the impact of canceling is significant. "We will be honoring our commitments to the artists as we are voluntarily canceling the shows and no governmental authority has required cancellation of public gatherings or events," Peimer said in an email to KPBS. "The safety of our patrons, our artists, and our communities is vital. We are offering refunds to the public for the tickets they had previously purchased. Many of our ticket buyers are donating their purchases back to us as a way of helping ArtPower sustain these extraordinary costs."

And in a joint statement on Thursday, the La Jolla Music Society, La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Opera, and San Diego Symphony all announced that they have canceled or postponed all performances through the end of March 2020.


The Show Must Go On (For Now)

"For thousands of years the theatre has been a community gathering place that brings respite and joy in times of anxiety," The Old Globe said in a statement on Facebook, and several venues, festivals and organizations are also taking that to heart.

Update: In a new statement on March 12, the Globe announced cancellations. "Following guidelines released last night by Governor Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Public Health in response to the increasing challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic and COVID-19, The Old Globe has announced that it will suspend public performances effective immediately, and, per the guidelines, at least through the end of March."

With reassurances of special measures taken for the public's protection — from extra hand sanitizer to changes to refund policies — for many San Diego institutions, the show must go on, for now, though many will face changes in light of Wednesday's briefing from Governor Newsom. Be sure to check with event organizers.

The Latino Film Festival announced earlier this week that their weekend programming will continue as planned, though if individuals wish to stay home, tickets purchased in advance can be transferred to friends or used as credit to see any future movies at Digital Gym Cinema — or next year's festival.

Update: The Latino Film Festival has now postponed as of March 12. "Over the next few days we will try to re-organize ourselves & comprehend the totality of this announcement; and come up with new plans for moving forward with new 2020 festival dates."

San Diego Repertory Theatre sent an email to supporters confirming their performances of "House of Joy" are still on, but also introduced a "risk-free" ticket buying policy. California Center for the Arts, Escondido also made a statement that their programming would continue as planned. Update: California Center for the Arts has canceled or postponed programming now through Sunday.

National Ripple Effects And Uncertainty

With the cancellation or postponement of major festivals like SXSW and Coachella, whether bands will adjust or cancel the spring tours they built around those festivals still remains to be seen. San Diego often enjoys an influx of bands in the weeks surrounding the two Coachella weekends.

"We haven't seen any fallout from SXSW cancelling but have had a few shows cancel or postpone due to Coachella postponement," said The Casbah's Tim Mays, adding that a few cancellations have specifically mentioned fears about the coronavirus. "Short term I expect to see more upheaval in our schedule, but hoping for the best in the coming months," Mays said.

The band Le Ra performs at The Casbah in this July 2019 photo.
Julia Dixon Evans
The band Le Ra performs at The Casbah in this July 2019 photo.

"Artists, like every member of our gig economy, are extremely vulnerable," said ArtPower's Peimer. "Every day I hear about artists who are losing thousands of dollars in fees. The repercussions of this for our economy will be huge; every lost date means dollars out of the pockets of the people artists hire, places they shop from, of people who are hired to support them."

[Further reading: This is important reporting from KQED this week that unravels the far-reaching impact throughout the music business.]

While books seem like a quarantine-friendly refuge, much of a new book's already-uncertain success hinges on touring and book fair appearances. Writers are canceling book tours — like Leslie Halse Anderson who was scheduled to speak at the downtown library this week — and the Los Angeles Festival of Books has been canceled. In an email to speakers and panelists late Wednesday, the San Diego Writers Festival also announced it would postpone its April event until the fall.

The convention center has lost at least four upcoming conferences, but Comic-Con is reported to be still on for now.

Art Learning Under Quarantine

Both UC San Diego and SDSU announced plans this week to shift to online learning, though certain coursework that doesn't lend itself to virtual or distance learning is excepted. Labs, studios and certain graduate classes will continue.

David Borgo, chair of the UC San Diego music department said that some smaller and graduate level classes will continue to meet in person, but that larger ensemble classes will need a new strategy.

"Our musicianship course is really best taught in person, because you're ear training, you're singing together — these are all activities that are best done together," Borgo said. He also said that recitals and events linked to curriculum are not being canceled, but audience size will be limited and essentially closed to the public. "It's challenging because musicians love to play for audiences and often rely on the magic of the moment for the music to happen."

He's worried about the impact both financially and on the arts community at large in San Diego, particularly on graduate students, who struggle with the increasing cost of living — and performing — in San Diego. "The challenge for us is we often want to have these events because it creates community, and without them there's a sense of a loss of community."

What To Do Instead (And To Help)

If an event is canceled or postponed, some performing arts groups are hoping the public will refrain from asking for refunds from organizations already subsisting on a nonprofit, shoestring budget. "Ticket revenue is integral to how we operate, so loss of revenue from performances can be devastating. If you have tickets to a performance that is canceled, please consider turning the value of your ticket into a tax-deductible donation to help the organization you care about survive. If you are a supporter, consider making an additional contribution to help mitigate losses during this very difficult time," said Bennett.

Peimer added that people can support individual artists by buying music and merch from Bandcamp or Soundcloud, as well as donating to organizations that support artists. And yes, jumping right back on that "buy tickets" button as soon as events are rescheduled.

And if you're avoiding public or indoor spaces (stay home if you're sick!), there are other ways to experience art. Go on a mural tour, check out the city's online archive of public art, watch Tiny Desk videos, catch up on podcasts or finally make a dent in that stack of "to be read" books.

KPBS News And Events

You can find our statement and details on local KPBS events and tours here. We are also updating our arts calendar and main events calendar with event cancellations as we learn of new changes, but as this is a rapidly evolving situation, please check the status of any event with the organizer before attending.

How is COVID-19 impacting you, your art or your events? Join the conversation in our KPBS/Arts Facebook group.

Corrected: July 12, 2024 at 7:08 AM PDT
This is a developing story. We will update as the situation develops.