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United Performing Arts Fund's representatives speak on $38 million revenue loss from last three seasons

Entertainers perform.
Naomi Baker
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Getty Images
While shows are returning to the stage and audiences are growing, the challenges facing the performing arts community remain.

This fall marks the fourth performing arts season for local organizations grappling with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While shows are returning to the stage and audiences are growing, the challenges facing the performing arts community remain.

United Performing Arts Fund members throughout Milwaukee had a collective revenue loss of almost $38 million during the past three seasons due to 18 months of no audiences or ticket sales. And this upcoming season, government aid will not be available. The community’s full recovery will take more time and support.

Patrick Rath, president and CEO of the United Performing Arts Fund, and UPAF board chair Tim Mattke speak on these organizations' losses as ticket sales remain 20-50% lower than before the pandemic. Signifying that COVID-19 continues to impact ticket sales revenue and performers' capabilities.

“We were having to shut down upwards of about 80 performances, just because there was one individual who had COVID, they're out for five to 10 days, there is not an understudy, there isn't somebody else who's prepared to be in those roles. And so what happens is we lose the income from those activities as they get reimbursed back to patrons, but we still have the expense going forward,” says Rath.

Mattke explains that while ticket revenue is lower, the UPAF cannot cut down production costs because they are committed to giving patrons the performance they paid for and expect. Some organizations have been dipping into reserve funds they have acquired from income over the years, but that model is unsustainable for an extended period.

“For [arts organizations] it’s really difficult because they can’t get back to full capacity tomorrow, and I think they’re recognizing that, but they also can’t sort of scale their production to be half of what it was to reflect a half full audience,” says Mattke.

The government aid acquired by these organizations only replaced a year of revenue, leaving theaters still financially behind. They are looking to the public for contributions to keep the arts alive through the pandemic. They predict it will take around five years or more to return to where they were in 2019.

“We've grown to understand during this pandemic, how important it is to have public support and have public support at a greater level. But we also need longer term resources because to Tim's point earlier, much of that has been utilized just to get through this timeframe,” says Rath.

The two urge Milwaukeeans to continue to support the arts through this financial low point. Through supporting the arts, they believe you are supporting the community as a whole as 1,200 individuals make their livelihood off of their art and performances.

“I think the arts is really crucial in how they open people's minds, how they spark innovation, how they make people think critically about issues that they wouldn't think about maybe otherwise. And I think that's really important to our overall dialogue. That's a part of this community that is not easily replicated by another sector,” says Mattke.

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Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.
Cait Flynn joined WUWM in June 2022 as an assistant producer for Lake Effect.
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