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BUILDING CAPACITY: Springfield Little Theatre has returned to full capacity for its performances, beginning with the recent production of "Kinky Boots."
Provided by Tonya Forbes
BUILDING CAPACITY: Springfield Little Theatre has returned to full capacity for its performances, beginning with the recent production of "Kinky Boots."

Arts leaders optimistic for future as patrons return

That’s despite the OPAL group falling well short of ‘audacious’ first-year $500K fundraising goal

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An arts advocacy and fundraising group formed a year ago amid the coronavirus pandemic is optimistic that its industry is in recovery mode even with lackluster fundraising results for its first year in operation.

Leaders of the Ozarks Performing Arts League – comprising Ozarks Lyric Opera, Springfield Ballet Inc., Springfield Little Theatre and Springfield Regional Arts Council Inc. – say despite falling well short of a $500,000 first-year fundraising goal, there’s growing financial support for the performing arts scene in Springfield as audiences return. Since its October 2020 launch, the group raised just $50,000 in donations, which are housed in an account managed by Community Foundation of the Ozarks Inc., said Leslie Forrester, executive director of SRAC.

Two of the primary donors for the OPAL fund are Bass Pro Shops and insurance provider American National, she said, declining to disclose the donation amounts.

“We all knew when we said the number of $500,000 that it was a very, very long shot – especially in the middle of a pandemic,” Forrester said. “Raising $500,000 in a year is really audacious for any organization, I don’t care what size you are. I feel really strongly that the group has been a great success in building awareness.”

Individual donations also came in at the end of 2020, she said, as several OPAL members were featured performers during a city holiday tree lighting ceremony event televised on KY3. The fund was promoted during the broadcast for people to text in donations.

Officials say the collaboration started as a pandemic crisis response to reach consistent and even infrequent supporters of the arts. Donations to the fund are intended to offset past, current and anticipated revenue losses due to COVID-19, maintain ongoing business operations and present performance content as the pandemic continues.

“The money that we’ve gotten from those sort of early adopters in this idea of OPAL combined with funding that has come in through the CARES Act, American Rescue Plan Act and all those other support measures did the work that we needed,” Forrester said. “We’re all still here and when we started, we weren’t all sure we could survive the next year considering limitations and the dangerousness of the virus. The primary goal was to make sure none of us went away.”

OPAL officials declined to disclose revenue for their individual organizations in fiscal 2020. However, Forrester said the four combined had revenue of roughly $3.03 million. That was down 11% from $3.42 million for fiscal 2019. The most recent fiscal year, which ended June 30, showed a rebound as revenue finished just shy of $3.2 million – a 5% year-over-year increase.

Cumulative donations to the four organizations also are on the rise. In fiscal 2021, donations were nearly $1.14 million, up 4% from fiscal 2020.

The local revenue decline in fiscal 2020 contributed to a national impact by the pandemic for  nonprofit arts and culture organizations. As of mid-September, financial losses were estimated at $18 billion, according to Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Americans for the Arts.

On the calendar
While all four OPAL organizations dealt with cancellations and postponements of performances and programming in 2020, officials say part of that financial rebound is because event calendars are starting to fill out again.

Artsfest, which SRAC annually helps organize with the Downtown Springfield Association, returned in May after a year’s absence. Forrester said net revenue shared between the two groups usually is around $80,000. However, rain, combined with a reduced artist presence to allow for social distancing and added safety-related expenses, saw a $50,000 revenue drop.

“We always plan for a very lean Artsfest,” she said. “But being able to bring it back this year was a really critical piece for us.”

After more than a year of productions with capacity challenges, Springfield Little Theatre is opening up, said Executive Director Beth Domann.

“We’re starting full productions now. ‘Kinky Boots’ is really our first show that we’re back to whatever the new normal is,” she said of the musical, which ran Sept. 10-26 without occupancy restrictions.

Masking is not required for SLT shows but strongly encouraged, Domann said, adding all 12 of the nonprofit’s full-time staff are vaccinated.

“People seem ready to come and be a part of live theater and that’s encouraging,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll just stay on track for coming back.”

Domann said due to copyright restrictions of this season’s shows, only “Shrek Jr.” will have a virtual option to watch from home.

Both Ozarks Lyric Opera, which changed its name in June from Springfield Regional Opera, and Springfield Ballet are preparing for big productions before year’s end. Sean Spyres, the opera’s administrative director, said “Turandot” is scheduled for Oct. 22, a move from August due to safety concerns as the community dealt with a surge in COVID-19 cases. The show, which has a cast of around 120, is at Juanita K. Hammons Hall for the Performing Arts.

“It will be back to business as usual in a sense,” Spyres said, noting its productions typically draw 800-1,000 people.

Springfield Ballet is in rehearsals for its annual performance of “The Nutcracker” at Landers Theatre. Artistic Director Ashley Paige Romines said last year’s production was limited to 25% capacity amid the pandemic, although it also was livestreamed. She’s hopeful the theater, which holds 527 people, can return to full capacity for the December performances.

Look ahead
Forrester said a grant program to benefit other performing arts venues and organizations is still in the plans, but the OPAL fund will need to be larger before it’s established.

“We’re not to that critical phase yet of raising enough funds to distribute yet,” she said. “It kind of just depends how this next year’s cycle works.”

Even as the OPAL member organizations look ahead on their event and program calendars, Spyres said the art groups remain committed to “dreaming big” by raising awareness and money.

“The funding goal hasn’t worked out as hoped,” he said. “Maybe that step forward is going to take a lot more time than what we imagined it was going to take.”

Forrester said the group hasn’t spent much time on a new fundraising target, adding those conversations will be forthcoming this fall.

“We haven’t really recalibrated yet,” she said. “Perhaps instead of an annual goal of half a million dollars, that becomes our big goal we’re going to work towards and bite off chunks in the next couple of years.”

Spyres said fostering more relationships with corporate donors will be a key component.

Forrester agreed, noting OPAL’s success will best be measured with a long-term view.

“It’s really going to bear fruit longer term as we look at ways to do things more efficiently as we do share a lot of audiences and donors,” she said. “Talking with those folks with a collective voice continues to be an impactful approach.”

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