Layoffs and Cancellations Pummel Denver's Classical Arts Institutions

Last year, the Colorado Ballet was raising $2.5 million to pay for new sets and costumes for The Nutcracker. In 2020, the production has been scrapped and dancers are out of work until 2021.
Last year, the Colorado Ballet was raising $2.5 million to pay for new sets and costumes for The Nutcracker. In 2020, the production has been scrapped and dancers are out of work until 2021. Mike Watson
This has been a lousy year to celebrate Beethoven's 250th birthday.

Classical-music organizations had peppered plans for their 2020 season with concerts leading up to the composer's big day on December 16 — but COVID-19 subsequently ravaged those schedules. Now, six months into the pandemic, the concert, dance and opera stages remain dark; many performers are out of work; and leaders of many arts nonprofits are weighing how long they can survive.

In just the past 24 hours, the Colorado Symphony announced that it will be canceling all of its regularly scheduled concerts through December 3, and the Colorado Ballet revealed that it is scrapping its annual performance of The Nutcracker, a cash cow that keeps the organization on its toes, as well as Ballet Masterworks, and will be laying off dancers until January 2021 and cutting salaries for its staff.

"We are truly heartbroken that as an organization we've been forced to make this decision," says Colorado Ballet artistic director Gill Boggs in a statement announcing the moves. "While this reality is devastating for everyone at Colorado Ballet, we know that it is a temporary situation. We will get through this prolonged intermission together, and we will return from this in a position of strength on the other side of this pandemic."

One of the challenges hampering any future plans is that no one knows how long this "prolonged intermission" will be. If there is no vaccine, cure or sufficient herd immunity by the start of the new year, the return of large-scale live events in 2021 is so much wishful fantasy.

Both the Colorado Symphony and the Colorado Ballet, which have relied on performances to help pay the bills and also attract new funders in an increasingly competitive sector, are hoping that ticket-buyers for now-canceled events will donate their refunds, while longtime patrons with deep pockets rise to keep the companies afloat.

Meanwhile, other cultural organizations are also struggling to cover their unavoidable costs. Foundation resources have been stretched thin as the groups hand out emergency grants to struggling institutions and prepare to help arts leaders responsibly merge or dissolve their organizations, says Gary Steuer, head of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. His foundation bases grantmaking on how innovative organizations are, how they are addressing equity issues, and whether they're making the hard calls, such as laying off staff, to survive what are sure to be difficult years to come. Large-scale groups with deep-pocket boards are less likely to receive Bonfils-Stanton funding, he says, as smaller organizations don't have other donors to help.

The Colorado Ballet has set up an emergency fund and is offering virtual programming. It's also selling tickets for the 2021 season, its sixtieth, which currently is slated to include The Great Gatsby from February 5 to 7, The Wizard of Oz from March 5 to 14, and Giselle from April 9 to 18.

While the Colorado Symphony has axed its main season, it's still planning some pandemic-friendly concerts in the weeks to come.

"The CSA is committed to continue bringing limited-capacity, socially distanced concerts like the successful sold-out Acoustic on the Rocks series performances to our community for as long as possible," the orchestra says in a statement on the season cancellations. "We are grateful to have partnered with the Denver Botanic Gardens and Denver Arts and Venues to successfully program and execute nearly thirty live, in-person concert events during the pandemic. Along with our trustees and philanthropic partners, we will continue to navigate these challenging days with an unshakable commitment to create as many extraordinary live and digital musical experiences for Coloradoans as restrictions for public health and safety allow."

Here's the full list of the Colorado Symphony's cancellations:

September 8: Beethoven 2020 in Montrose
September 9: Beethoven 2020 in Grand Junction
September 18-20: Beethoven Symphony No. 5 with Olga Kern
September 24: Latin Beats: Sonidos de las Américas
September 26: The Doo-Wop Project
October 2-4: Shostakovich Symphony No. 5 
October 10-11: Alpine Opus – A Symphonic Ski Film
October 16-18: Barber Adagio for Strings
October 24-25: Disney Pixar's Coco in Concert
October 30: Cleo Parker Robinson 50th Anniversary Celebration with your Colorado Symphony
October 31: Halloween Spooktacular!
November 6-8: Wonderbound Dances Beethoven
November 12: Vienna Boys Choir in Concert
November 13: Dancing Queen: A Tribute to Abba
November 20-22: Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Joyce Yang
November 25 & 27: Disney's A Mupet Christmas Carol in Concert
November 28: At Last – A Tribute to Etta James
November 29: The Ten Tenors Home For The Holidays
December 4-6: All Beethoven – Symphony No. 5
December 7: Celtic Women – The Best of Christmas Tour
December 11-13: A Colorado Christmas
December 16: Beethoven 250
December 18: A Very DeVotchKa Holiday
December 19-20: Too Hot To Handel
December 23: Holiday Brass
December 31: A Night In Vienna 
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris