The show must go on: Eugene arts groups ramp up performances, despite facing job shortages

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The coronavirus pandemic disrupted many industries, but few more than the arts.

By their nature, the arts are about congregating, and come spring 2020, 6 feet was too much distance and many venues were forced to shut down, laying off workers, with some going digital.

But now with the mask mandate lifted, many people vaccinated and others growing more confident in crowds, the arts scene is picking itself up off the ground.

Rich Holly, director of marketing for the Hult Center for the Performing Arts, remembered his first elbow bump with author Michael Pollan in March 2020. There would be no meet-and-greet book signing following the event, a sign of things to come.

“From there we followed all directives, canceled events,” he said. “Is it two weeks, two months, six weeks, six months? Everyone had differing opinions (about how long the pandemic would last).”

What he soon learned was the Hult had to get creative and stay relevant to keep the lights on, so to speak. And the Hult, based largely on its partnership with the city, avoided painful layoffs that struck many industries that rely on in-person attendance. Those people whose hours were reduced were reassigned to other gigs around the city, like handing out personal protective equipment.

“One of those good things about being part of the city is being able to share resources,” Holly said.

Anecdotally, Holly heard from a group that had lots of hourly staff who didn’t return from the lockdown. As things began reopening, Holly said all the Hult’s usher positions filled right away with familiar faces. “That commitment reinforces the arts in people’s lives here,” he said.

The impact on the community isn’t merely ornamental. An Arts & Economic Prosperity study from 2017 showed the nonprofit arts and culture sector is a $62.2 million industry in Eugene with nearly 2,500 full-time jobs. That said, that was a few years ago. The pandemic changed everything.

The Eugene Symphony performs "Soundwaves: Concerto for Strings" to an empty Hult Center.
The Eugene Symphony performs "Soundwaves: Concerto for Strings" to an empty Hult Center.

Brian Rogers, executive director of the Oregon Arts Commission, noted that the 2018 fiscal year boasted 13,261 paid positions from 180 organizations but 2021 saw just 8,105 paid positions from 161 reporting organizations, a drop of 5,156 jobs.

Total earned revenue for 2018 was nearly $115 million. In 2021, that cratered to $27 million, a loss of $88 million.

"That's all across the board," Rogers said. "From large organizations to small organizations, everyone faced the need to layoff."

The long tail of it is these organizations need to earn that money back as best they can and regain stability. Without the earned revenue streams, they can't hire with confidence.

"That's going to take time, a couple of years to feel comfortable," Rogers said. "You need money to play people and they want to make sure the earned revenue is stable before they hire people. Who wants to lay off people because of a lack of funding?"

As for hiring, Rogers mentioned rural organizations have trouble based solely on the number of people they have to draw from. Larger organizations may be able to cast a wider net by offering remote-work opportunities.

“One thing of note, there’s hiring fatigue with arts employers — nonprofit arts and for-profit businesses” Stacey Ray, Lane Arts Council executive director said. "This is the Great Resignation. Folks are having a harder time hiring. At Lane Arts Council, we’ve seen that in the couple positions we’ve had open. Fewer people are applying. Applicants are being more particular.”

Ray noted how the community, and the arts scene in particular, was “shellshocked” over the past two years. Now, there is a sense the pandemic is slowing, and despite throngs of people flocking to Saturday Market or grocery shopping without face coverings, there’s still a sense of reluctance from many in the area to be in close proximity.

“There’s a hesitancy from audiences and older or immuno-compromised folks,” Ray added. “Not everyone is comfortable being in a crowded theater, sitting next to someone without a mask. Even on the Art Walk, there are folks who don’t want to be on a crowded tour.”

Dancers with the Eugene Ballet company wait in the wings for their cue to take the stage during a Thursday rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Hult Center in Eugene.
Dancers with the Eugene Ballet company wait in the wings for their cue to take the stage during a Thursday rehearsal of "The Nutcracker" at the Hult Center in Eugene.

As programming ramps up in the community, the new challenge is how to serve patrons.

"People are not fully staffed yet,” Ray said. “They’re struggling with hiring. That strain is still being felt, much like in the food and beverage industry, restaurants and hotels, in the arts sector as well.”

In the face of that hesitancy from patrons and from people applying for jobs in often crowded venues, the arts scene is rebounding with ambitious programming across the city. People are watching live music, playing music in the streets or attending the theater. For Ray, it’s what people need, now more than ever.

“When times are hard — especially when times are hard — we need joy, connection to our community, passion and enthusiasm and inspiration to stay the course, to be activists," she said. "The arts provide that for us. There will always be a need for arts and culture, especially when there's social unrest, war and many other issues. People are ready for that reconnection through the arts right now and need it.”

As consumer confidence grows, so too will being in groups feel more natural. Holly noted when the magician Justin Willman performed at the Hult in mid-March, Holly saw people laughing as one, not in front of a glowing screen, but laughing in community.

“The joy of people coming out of that hall was infectious,” he said. “It reinforces that feeling that you laugh louder in a group.”

Brendan O'Meara manages the Opinion section and reports for The Register-Guard. He can be reached at

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard: Eugene arts groups start performance despite job shortage