Jobs in performance, museums and publishing have faced a slower recovery from the pandemic

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to finding solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Kurt Bestor will never forget the moment the curtain opened during a symphony performance at the Eccles Theater in May 2021.

Bestor, an EMMY-winning Utah composer, said he had “never felt that feeling on stage” as the curtain rose while he played a piano solo to open the nine-day performance of music by Andrew Lloyd Webber .

The audience was “electric,” he said, and it was clear that musicians who hadn’t performed live in a year and viewers alike were glad to be back.

He added that while it seems like people are missing the community aspect of art, they are “a little slow to go back to hanging out for a while with a group of people that they breathe.”

Data from a recent report echoed his impressions, showing that while Utah’s cultural industry continues to recover from the coronavirus pandemic, some sectors — including the performing arts — have recovered more slowly than others.

The Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute report shows that Salt Lake County’s cultural industry jobs grew nearly 9% in 2021.

Part of that growth is because “so much has been lost that we’re trying to put things back to where they were,” said Ernesto Balderas, associate director of the Utah Cultural Alliance.

The data “clearly shows that the total number of available and filled positions is almost back to pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

The Gardner Report shows that some sectors such as film and sound recording exceeded 2019 employment levels in 2021, while museums, performing arts and other sectors were still below pre-pandemic employment numbers.

That aligns with what Matt Castillo, director of Salt Lake County’s Department of Arts and Culture, has seen in recent years. Salt Lake County oversees the major performing arts venues in downtown Salt Lake City as well as the Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville.

The recovery from the blow the pandemic has dealt the culture industry has been “slightly faster than expected, but uneven,” Castillo said.

The pandemic has hit several industries hard, but cultural industries and leisure and hospitality have been hit the hardest, accounting for 9.5% and industry between 2019 and 2020.

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Revenue plummeted as venues closed due to emergency orders, and some remained closed to the public even after restrictions were eased.

Balderas pointed to smaller museums with space constraints that made implementing COVID-19 protocols unrealistic.

Castillo recalled a symphony performance where 600 people were spread out in a theater that normally seats 2,800.

Even venues with enough space were not open continuously. A spike in cases in late 2020 prompted Salt Lake County Arts and Culture to close its venues again, reopening with limited capacity in early 2021.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Emmy Award-winning Utah composer Kurt Bestor speaks during a press event Wednesday, March 24, 2021 as the Eccles Theater announced its first shows since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Artists like Bestor have been hit particularly hard during the pandemic.

Salt Lake County saw a return in jobs, with available cultural industry jobs growing 8.9% in 2021, according to the Gardner Report.

This growth was not evenly distributed, with some sectors showing growth compared to 2019 and others lagging behind.

For example, while Salt Lake County motion picture and sound recording jobs grew 11.1% between 2019 and 2021, museum and park jobs fell 20.9%, publishing fell 18.3%, and performing arts by 10.7%.

Poetry and performing arts were also among the hardest hit nationwide, Balderas said, and are still recovering.

The county’s venues could operate at full capacity for much of 2021, but many organizations that previously rented the space weren’t coming back, Castillo said.

Organizations and patrons began returning towards the end of 2021 and into 2022, he said.

Over the past year, audiences have returned faster than expected, and most venues are at or near pre-pandemic levels in terms of bookings and audience size.

Bestor’s annual Christmas show was recovering, he said, and a population boom has prompted younger audiences to return to concerts. However, in the ‘higher arts’ such as opera and symphony, which usually draw older audiences, the recovery has been slower than expected.

The pandemic disrupted habits like “getting ready and going downtown,” Bestor said, but people have started to return to some of their old routines.

Although some groups are still struggling, there are “a lot of positive signs,” Castillo said. This includes new organizations applying for grants through tax revenues from zoos, arts and parks, and a record number of applications, he said.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Children dig up fossils in a replica dig pit at the I Dig Dinos exhibit at the Discovery Gateway Children’s Museum in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, July 12, 2022. Museums are among sectors of the cultural industries that Not returning to pre-pandemic levels in 2021.

Lots of things are recovering that aren’t being seen in the data, Balderas said, but there is “a significant need and urgency to support sectors of the culture industries” that are still facing difficulties.

Balderas encouraged people to get to know and support their local cultural establishments.

“There are so many throughout the state of Utah that people just don’t know about,” he said.

The organization maintains a statewide map of cultural assets at as a starting point for locating businesses and organizations to support.

Megan Banta is the Salt Lake Tribune’s data company reporter, a philanthropic position. The grandstand retains control of all editorial decisions.

Justin Scaccy

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