San Antonio arts organizations and fans tried to move past the coronavirus in 2021, only to be drawn back in to hesitation and closures as various variants dogged the community.
Looking toward 2022, the omicron variant of Covid-19 has thrown yet another challenge at year-end events and hopes for normalcy in the new year. The San Antonio Report took a look at five of the most important questions facing the arts and entertainment communities as the new year arrives.
5. Will the restaurant industry be able to lure workers back?
In 2017, San Antonio achieved rare status as a national culinary hotspot. Less than two years later, the pandemic hit, rattling what had seemed a thriving industry. The extended pause in operations threatened bottom lines, but also inspired creative pivots in business models and new service regulations that emphasized takeaway options. Restaurant workers were laid off, and while some returned when employers reopened with the help of federal funds, low pay and stressful working conditions, made worse by onerous pandemic protocols and prickly customers, pushed many back out, part of the wider national trend dubbed the Great Resignation.
Some restaurateurs have responded by upping hourly pay, while others have attempted new wage systems that spread the wealth more equitably among servers and staff — with mixed results. Options for customers have improved with expanded outdoor dining, takeaway and curbside pickup options, but “hiring all positions” signs remain a common sight in area restaurants, as slow job growth and labor shortages persist in the sector.
4. Will the live entertainment industry recover?
Without significant infusions of federal aid to help recover from pandemic shutdown, the entire live entertainment industry — from small venues to grand performing arts halls — might have gone under. As an industry standard, only the most popular acts tend to profit from ticket sales, while many ensembles and organizations struggle to maintain their balance sheets and depend on cover charges, food and drink sales, sponsorships, season subscribers and donors to stay afloat.
Meanwhile, successive COVID-19 waves have confused audiences with cancellations and kept halls half-full, as emergent and looming variants cloud the horizon. Last year, show producers modified performances with masks, plexiglass enclosures, distanced performers and other measures, while this year some have returned to seeming normality, with caution.
3. Will San Antonio museums’ new focus on the local continue?
Consumers understand supply-chain issues from late packages, out-of-stock products, and higher prices. For museums, pandemic shutdowns and travel restrictions set back exhibition schedules normally set years in advance, then staff shortages and layoffs throughout the industry caused further disruptions.
The San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA), the Witte Museum, the McNay Art Museum, and the DoSeum responded by turning to their own collections, focusing on local collectors, and by highlighting local artists, artisans, and makers, thereby avoiding snags with travel and shipping in the process. SAMA has also touted new acquisitions by local artists — bolstering its own collection and the pocketbooks of San Antonio artists in one turn.The McNay also completed a $6.25 million renovation of its grounds, creating a more welcoming environment meant to attract San Antonians for picnics and other forms of outdoor fun.
Museums depend on a global focus to build reach and range, but the momentary focus on local artists and collections will have far-reaching positive consequences for future shows and San Antonio art history.
2. Will Brackenridge Park and the Institute of Texan Cultures figure out their futures?
In June, the ailing Institute of Texan Cultures gathered seemingly every San Antonio luminary in town to help chart its future, then sought input from the community on what the 50-year-old museum should focus on. In September, the Brackenridge Park Conservancy released a 650-page report documenting the treasured city park’s historical value, then followed up by hosting public information-gathering sessions meant to garner public support for shoring up its crumbling infrastructure.
One year on from its splashy first gathering, institute officials will be expected to report on the progress of its “visioning” sessions, but whether specific initiatives will have been identified remains to be seen. Renovation costs for the Sunken Garden Theater have been questioned amid other pressing priorities for the 2022 municipal bond, and Brackenridge has too many priorities to tackle all at once, suggesting that progress will be slow and incremental.
1. Will the San Antonio Symphony survive?
The two sides in this dispute are deadlocked, trading charges of unfair labor practices and allegations of an unwillingness to negotiate. Management has asked for arbitration and/or mediation, while the musicians’ union has said the available arbitrators are biased in management’s favor. Instead, they have asked management to rescind the contract it imposed in September that would essentially gut the orchestra and turn union members against each other, in a competition for poorly-paid full-time and woefully underpaid part-time positions.
Management has made clear that such steps are necessary in the short term to shore up the always-struggling orchestra, while the union says accepting such terms would be suicidal. Other orchestras, such as the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, have gone through such drastic austerity measures before slowly crawling their way back to some semblance of earlier glory, but that example is in a city ten times smaller than San Antonio. Musicians believe what one-time interim executive director and “turnaround” ace Michael Kaiser said in 2018: “the money is there.” They blame their board for not working hard enough to get it, yet board members claim they have shaken every money tree in town and no more is forthcoming.