What was the Houston arts community like before Hurricane Harvey hit?
Houston has a vibrant and diverse arts community. In addition to some of the larger organizations (Houston Grand Opera, Houston Ballet, Houston Symphony, Alley Theater, Museum of Fine Arts), there are many smaller theater companies, chamber music organizations, presenting organizations, and visual arts groups throughout the city. Many of the larger performing arts organizations operate in the same area of downtown (the Theater District). The opera and the ballet both operate out of the Wortham theater in its largest venue, and many of the midsized performing arts organizations and presenting organizations are regular tenants in the smaller theater at the Wortham and in Jones Hall (primarily used by the symphony).
How was your organization affected by the storm?
HGO’s home facility, the Wortham Theater Center, suffered extreme damage in Hurricane Harvey. The Wortham houses HGO’s theaters, offices, rehearsal spaces, and costume and wig/makeup shops. The basement level of the building took on 12 feet of water, completely destroying the costume and wig/makeup shops, as well as damaging a great deal of theater equipment and instruments stored in the basement level and in the orchestra pits of the theaters. The stages and auditorium level of the building also had water damage, and infrastructural systems for the building (electrical, HVAC, etc.) were damaged. As a result, HGO will be out of the Wortham Theater Center for an entire calendar year.
For the first few weeks during and after the storm, HGO’s website was down because our servers were trapped in the Wortham. We also had no way to access calls or messages to our office phones. This was a serious issue not only because it limited our ability to continue regular business operations, but it meant that we were unable to collect any income from ticket sales or donations through our website.
How were you able to respond in the immediate aftermath of the storm?
Because most of the city was shut down for a few weeks in the aftermath of the storm, and because I was fortunate to stay safe and dry at home during the storm, I was glad to be able to provide assistance to my colleagues and friends immediately after the storm. My partner and I went to the homes of several different friends to help remove damaged items and begin demolition within their homes. We were also able to collect and deliver items for local shelters.
For HGO, I was able to work on identifying alternate rehearsal spaces and getting our studio artist activities and audition activities back up and running, despite the fact that we were displaced from our building.
Have any unexpected partnerships or collaborations emerged?
Absolutely. Because I work in the artistic/production area, these partnerships are most apparent to me in our rehearsal and performance venues. We have worked with churches, event spaces, universities, athletic clubs and hotels to house all of our various rehearsal and studio program activities. These relationships have been a mixture of expanding existing relationships and developing new relationships. For example, an existing hotel partner that provides us with a corporate rate for our artists has begun to offer us the use of conference room spaces and the hotel’s pianos for rehearsals. A local church that we had not worked with previously is hosting our chorus rehearsals and in exchange, we have presented our performances for schools at their parish.
In other areas of the company, our Marketing team has partnered with Lyft to provide discounted rides for patrons to our new performance venue. Lyft is new to the Houston market, so this has been a win-win for both of our organizations. Our Development team has also cultivated several new relationships with granting organizations as a result of our storm-related damage.
Amidst the challenges, what is going well for you?
HGO is still operating and performing our season as planned, which is a huge win for the company given the challenges we have faced this season. We recently secured a rehearsal space in a former YWCA which allows us to hold some main stage rehearsals as well as studio activities. Having a consistent rehearsal space allows us to plan in a way that we had not been able to up until this point. We are also moving into a temporary office space this week that can accommodate all of our staff members in the same location (we had previously had different departments set up in different locations). Several labor organizations, whose collective bargaining agreements were up for renegotiation this season, agreed to extend their current CBA for an additional year without any increase in rates. In addition to these logistical wins, we have had some incredible national news coverage, including several New York Times articles and a segment on NBC evening news.
How would you describe the support from your community?
For the most part, the community support has been amazing. Sylvester Turner, the Mayor of Houston, attended HGO’s season opening performance. The arts community in particular has gone to great efforts to support other arts organizations. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Hobby Center (the Broadway venue in Houston) offered HGO a space to host our servers and our box office team so that we could get our website and ticket sales/donations up and running. The Houston Ballet has provided us with rehearsal rooms for auditions and rehearsals. The local music schools at University of Houston and Rice University have been instrumental in providing rehearsal space and equipment for larger projects. The opera community throughout the country has also been ready and willing to support HGO in its recovery. Several companies donated wigs for us to use in our fall productions.
What long term effects do you foresee the storm will have on the Houston arts sector?
Harvey will have positive and negative long-term effects on the Houston arts community. I’m sure that for many organizations, new relationships have developed as a result of the storm. This has certainly been the case for HGO. We hope that those new relationships, whether it be with donors, patrons, community partners, etc. will be an important part of our arts community’s future. A number of organizations have had to adapt their operations as a result of the storm, which will also impact how those organizations work in the future to protect themselves from future storms.
The financial loss to organizations as a result of property damage and lost income will be considerable, and the recovery will be a long-term process.
The best example I can share from HGO regarding the long-term impact of this storm is from our wig department. We estimate that HGO lost about $2 million worth of wigs. When our wigmaker (also a CCM grad!) began working with HGO over 30 years ago, HGO rented wigs for all of its productions. Over the course of her career, our wigmaker has created HGO’s entire stock of wigs. This is a huge loss for HGO, both artistically and financially, and it will take years to create the stock of wigs the company once had.
What lessons should the arts sector take from your experience?
Where there’s a will, there’s a way! When Harvey hit and we realized the extent of the damage both to the Wortham and to the homes of some of our employees, it seemed impossible for HGO to continue with its season. However, our staff and community came together and made the impossible, possible. We have produced a season that we are incredibly proud of so far, and we look forward to finishing out the remainder of our season strong. There have been a million road bumps along the way, but it has forced our staff to think creatively and develop new relationships, which will ultimately strengthen our organization.
That being said, arts organizations should be proactive in protecting their operations and assets from disasters and accidents. Have systems in place to ensure that your company can move forward if your business operations are interrupted due to unforeseen circumstances. Develop plans for protecting equipment, resources, etc. from natural disasters if you operate in an area prone to hurricanes, tornados, or earthquakes.
Anything else to share? / How can people help?
It is important for people to realize that although Houston and Hurricane Harvey coverage is largely out of the media, Houstonians will be struggling to recover from this historic storm for years to come.
If you are interested in helping HGO or other Houston arts organizations, there are many ways to contribute. Encourage friends and family in the Houston area to get out and support the Houston arts community by buying tickets and attending our performances. Be in contact with HGO’s costume and wig departments if your organization has stock items or equipment you can donate. Donate to relief funds for HGO to benefit both the company and staff members that have suffered losses at home: houstongrandopera.org/harvey