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Houston Arts Groups Working to Recover From Hurricane Harvey

The Prince and Mouse King from the Nutcracker throw out the first pitch prior to the first inning of a baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies, July 25, 2017.
The Prince and Mouse King from the Nutcracker throw out the first pitch prior to the first inning of a baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Philadelphia Phillies, July 25, 2017.

Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch looked flushed as he stood at the edge of the Hobby Center's Sarofim Hall stage during a break in the company's annual Jubilee of Dance performance.

The Houston Chronicle reports his military-style jacket seemed apt for the warrior's role he has played in recent months, trying to keep his 59 dancers sharp and happy in their glittering costumes as he shuffles their performances in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The audience had just seen a video describing how the ballet rebounded from damage to its $45 million studio building but lost its stage venue — the Wortham Theater Center — for what will likely be the entire season, forcing a season-long home town tour. And Welch wanted to convey the gargantuan effort it takes to produce world-class dancing, even as some of his weary staff members continue going home every night to flood-gutted messes.

Tears welled in his eyes.

“It's still a very raw thing for all of us,” Welch said.

Leaders of Houston's powerhouse performing arts companies have been more emotional than usual this fall. Worn to a nub from the scramble of relocating, rethinking and rescheduling shows because Houston's Theater District was so severely damaged, they also need to convince Houstonians that their work is more meaningful and necessary than ever.

On the cusp of the all-important holiday entertainment season, a time when audiences typically flock to their productions, they are constantly comparing notes and watching their numbers. Never before have so many of the city's cultural jewels looked so precarious at once.

The ballet, symphony, opera and Alley Theater each expect setbacks of millions of dollars as a result of the storm. Insurance will offset some of the losses, but ticket sales for the rest of the season remain a huge and critical unknown. Directors worry that people’s priorities have changed.

“The entire momentum of the city has been disrupted,” said Perryn Leech, Houston Grand Opera's managing director. “Even if 10 percent of people don't come back to the theater, when they get out of the habit of going out, that's a challenge.”

Bobby Tudor, chairman of the Houston Symphony's board of trustees and former chairman of the Board of the Society for the Performing Arts, said the storm's effects underscore the fragility of the city's arts organizations.

“The vast majority of them live from hand to mouth,” Tudor said during a panel discussion at a recent luncheon about the importance of Houston's arts economy.

Arts organizations of all kinds across Houston's 10-country region amount to a $1.1 billion industry that employs more than 25,000 people, but most of those companies operate dangerously close to the margins.

“At some point, you worry about making payroll — whether you're a small contemporary dance company, a presenting organization or a big, multimillion dollar organization,” Tudor said. “Too often in the arts, we spend every single penny-plus of what we can raise in contributed income and philanthropy, and we have no cushion when bad things happen. And this was a bad thing.”

The Alley stands to lose an estimated $18 million — about the equivalent of an entire year's operating budget. Managing director Dean Gladden said he hopes to recoup most of it through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (the Alley owns its building, which was insured) and fundraising.

On the plus side, tickets are selling well for “A Christmas Carol,” which marked the theater company's return to its home. Its smaller, basement-level Neuhaus stage, which was flooded to the ceiling, is still under reconstruction but slated to reopen in late January.

The Houston Symphony, which closed for seven weeks and canceled 17 events at Jones Hall, could lose an estimated $3 million this season and up to $6 million during the coming three years, although it is back on track now with performances in Jones Hall. The company hopes to recover some lost revenue with a concert added to its season: A score performance and screening of “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” a follow-up to last summer's wildly successful ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' concert.

And returning theater and symphony audiences will be able to park nearby. The Theater District Garage, which took on 270 million gallons of floodwater, was expected to be operating again by late November.

But the Sugar Plum Fairy won't be joining the downtown party this year.

Houston Ballet has had to move Welch's massive new production of “The Nutcracker” to Sugar Land's Smart Financial Center and downtown's Hobby Center for 28 performances — 10 less than it usually presents at the Wortham. As a result, executive director Jim Nelson has lowered his team's “Nutcracker” sales goal by $1.25 million this year, to $4 million.

On top of that hit, relocating the massive production — twice — will cost the company several hundred thousand dollars. The ballet has a deeper cushion than some of the other organizations, with an endowment that's currently worth more than $76 million — the third largest among American ballet companies — although Nelson doesn't want to rob it.

Deep-pocketed patrons have helped. Lynn Wyatt, for example, bought a traveling dance floor for Houston Ballet after the storm because the Hobby Center, where the ballet has staged several performances, wasn't equipped with one.

“It's tough,” Nelson said. “Costs are higher, and revenues are compromised. We will get through it, but now more than ever, we need community support.”

Leech said the opera has adjusted its ticket sale targets, too — and still not met them.

HGO spent more than $500,000 to create the makeshift Resilience Theater inside an exhibit hall of the George R. Brown Convention Center, where it has performed “La Traviata” and “Julius Caesar” and will premiere “The House Without a Christmas Tree” on Nov. 30. The acoustics aren't great, and the orchestra has to sit behind the stage, but at least shows are going on, and artists are excelling in spite of the conditions.

Houston First, which operates the city-owned convention center, Wortham and Jones Hall, has shifted 27 clients to other spaces to accommodate the opera, also supplying some of the lighting and stage equipment, which it extracted from the empty Wortham.

Houston First president and CEO Dawn Ullrich expects the ballet will be performing at the convention center next year, too. Nelson said there were still details to iron out before he announces the remainder of his organization's season, but the schedule will likely offer different ballets than originally planned, and on different dates.

The ballet has loss of revenue insurance, but the opera does not. Leech expects HGO's setback could be as high as $15 million, well over half of its normal annual budget.

“I consider us to be part of the hurricane relief ask,” Leech said. “This is definitely a conversation with the people who have supported us: Do you want HGO to take a backward step? We as a city need to have the arts as part of the recovery plan. The arts are more important now than ever.”

Everyone expects it will take the companies three years to fully recover.

Amanda Dinitz, the symphony's interim executive director and CEO, believes all arts organizations need to anticipate a shift in how people are spending discretionary income and prioritizing their donations now. But she remains optimistic about recovery from the storm.

“We're confident that this community has a strong interest in not maintaining but continuing to build the quality of the arts,” she said.

The funding environment is challenging for arts organizations everywhere, even without storm issues.

Randy Cohen, vice president of research and policy at the nonprofit advocacy group Americans for the Arts, which produced the economic research, said he's confident Houston's theater community can turn lemons into lemonade. In other cities, forced relocations have helped entrenched groups in the long term.

“The arts are all about hope, aspiration and connectedness,” Cohen said. “Sometimes the urgency to do things differently can engage an audience in a community in a whole different way.”

Arts organizations across the country have stepped up to help, too. The Alley has received monetary donations from other theater companies. Major ballet companies in other cities have opened their costume and set coffers to their Houston colleagues.

The ballet's annual Margaret Alkek Williams Jubilee of Dance (named for its underwriter) had to be staged earlier than normal. Welch instituted the annual showcase of rigorous dancing and season highlights more than a decade ago to give performers and serious ballet fans a break from the ``Nutcracker'' marathon that typically begins the day after Thanksgiving. This year, ``The Nutcracker'' opens fairly far into the holiday period, on Dec. 10, in Sugar Land.

Welch lamented, along with the loss of the Wortham, a heartbreaking undoing of ballet history. The 15 feet of floodwater that filled the theater's basement for several weeks destroyed costumes for 50 one-act ballets. That is a huge chunk of the company's repertory, including seminal works by George Balanchine, Christopher Bruce, Mark Morris and other leading choreographers.

But Welch is adamant that the ballet will continue to present great art, a sentiment his cohorts at the theater, opera and symphony echo as they plead with Houstonians to buy tickets. Audiences are what they need most right now.

“When this storm hit us, we dusted ourselves off and picked ourselves up and came here to perform beautiful art for you,” Welch said. “We would like to say thank you for being patient with us, and for being here with us tonight. “The curtain behind him parted to reveal a stage full of people in costume and not — dancers, backstage artists, teachers, ticket sellers, accountants. “We are Houston Ballet,” Welch said, “and we are Houston strong.”

The audience stood and cheered.