New Zealand / Covid 19

Auckland venues unsure of summer business as city moves to level 1

20:27 pm on 8 October 2020

Music venues and theatres say the looming threat of yo-yo-ing between alert levels casts a long shadow of uncertainty over the future of the arts sector.

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While Auckland establishments are pleased to be able to open fully since the city is back to alert level 1, they have endured more than six months of uncertainty, the inability to bring in large international acts, empty seats and closed doors for long periods of time.

Iconic music venue The Powerstation has hosted music royalty over the last three decades, including The Ramones, Radiohead and more recently, homegrown talent Lorde.

Owner Peter Campbell had opened the doors just three times in the last six months, as 90 percent of the shows scheduled for this year were cancelled.

"It's really decimated many businesses that are based around entertainment or facilities that rely on pulling numbers [of people] through that have not been able to gather for some time."

The venue was being modified so it could operate with social distancing and smaller crowds, but Campbell said it would take about two years for the business to be viable again.

The Wine Cellar, an underground music venue and bar on Karangahape Rd, had 40 percent of the scheduled shows go ahead. Of those shows that took place, most ran at half capacity.

Manager Rohan Evans said the second lockdown felt much longer than the first, especially for bars.

"The general morale of our corner of Auckland over level 2.5 was quite low. I think people were quite shocked to be going back into level 2 again and quite cautious."

A fundraiser for The Wine Cellar, along with nearby Whammy Bar, had pulled in more than $100,000 to help the two venues cover rent during the first lockdown as part of the Save Our Venues campaign.

This had kept the bar afloat from March to May, but Evans was not counting on another cash injection.

He said the November to March period was the bar's busiest, partly due to music festivals like Laneway.

But with Laneway cancelled, uncertainty around how the summer will unfold was creeping in.

"We've got to see what summer in the time of Covid will be like for New Zealand. It's a bit of an unknown."

'Not carrying on is not an option'

Auckland Theatre Company chief executive Jonathon Bielski said the move to level 1 was a big relief, but the possibility of further lockdowns had thrown a spanner in the works while planning shows.

"It does create really unique planning difficulty where making commitments and knowing where we will be in the future is impossible really," he said.

"As it stands now because of the pandemic, we don't know whether we will be able to perform our shows, or how many people we will be able to have in our theatre."

The company moved some shows online this year and its 2021 programme will be able to run with social distancing in place.

These workarounds won't necessarily turn a profit, but Bielski said the show must go on.

"For us it's critical we keep going because we have a whole community of people who rely on us for employment opportunities and creative opportunities, and a loyal audience who want to come to the theatre," he said.

"So not carrying on is not an option."

The Basement Theatre, an independently run establishment in the Auckland CBD where emerging artists often cut their teeth, had lost about $400,000 in revenue so far in 2020.

This was almost half of its annual budget.

Executive director Elise Sterback said the venue did open under level two for a couple of weeks, but this proved to be financially unsustainable.

She said the cancellation of shows could also wreak financial havoc on artists.

"The artists who use our space take all the risk in putting their show on. There is a lot of costs that you accumulate ahead of staging a live season. If you can't stage the season then you obviously can't recoup your costs."

The theatre is considering options to reduce the impact of cancelled shows, including underwriting to give artists confidence they'll be paid.

Auckland Art Gallery's Tania Stoyanof says visitor numbers had slumped by 40 percent but were now on the up, partly due to the loss of the international tourist market.

In future, the gallery will have an online feature for all exhibitions to cushion the blow of any possible lockdowns.