An empty theater, stock photo by Unsplash.


September 11, 2020, Editor’s note: Since this story originally ran on August 24,  Kali Baker of the Omaha Community Foundation clarified that no nonprofit arts organizations have yet received any of the $10 million in CARES Act funds allocated by Douglas County.

“No money has gone to nonprofits at this point,” she said. “No money will go to nonprofits until they go through our [application] process.”

Across the city, COVID-19 has silenced the arts. 

Whether its theater, comedy, visual art or music, the ability to engage in creative expressions has been severely limited. And while some have found workarounds, the loss of in-person performance has taken its toll.

“Since closing the Orpheum Theater and Holland Performing Arts Center in mid-March, we have canceled more than 400 performances and events,” Joan Squires, Omaha Performing Arts president responded in an email interview. 

On Aug. 11, the Douglas County Board of Commissioners granted $10 million in CARES Act funds to the Omaha Community Foundation to cover COVID-19 related expenses for the arts, cultural and entertainment sectors. OCF plans to distribute the money among 13 nonprofit arts organizations throughout Douglas County.

Altogether, OCF has allocated roughly $6.9 million, and OCF must give the remainder of the funds “to other worthy arts, culture and entertainment organizations…that have been impacted by COVID-19.” Among the largest recipients are OPA, at $1,952,293; followed by Omaha Symphony, $767,650; and Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority and CHI Center, $750,000. 

Kali Baker from OCF clarified that the nonprofits haven’t yet received any of the $10 million allocated by Douglas County.

“No money has gone to nonprofits at this point,” Baker said. “No money will go to nonprofits until they go through our [application] process.”

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Jennifer Boomgaarden, President and CEO of Omaha Symphony, which hasn’t had a performance since March, said these funds will help the arts get back on their feet. But while the money is bolstering some of the biggest names in Omaha’s entertainment community, smaller venues in danger of closing wonder if and when they’ll see a cut.

“The biggest impact is obviously closing down and having to reopen so slowly,” said Dylan Oakes Rohde, owner of the Backline Comedy Theatre, said in a text message. “We can’t do to-go orders on comedy, and online shows have been a tough challenge for making money when someone can just watch Netflix or TikTok.” 

The inability to hold live performances has taken away the largest source of income for OPA, whose most recent tax filings show that almost half of all revenue comes from ticket sales alone. Gifts and grants from donors make up a significant portion of their income as well. 

Other arts organizations, such as Omaha Symphony, rely more heavily on contributions to stay afloat. In Omaha Symphony’s latest tax filings, it shows that only a quarter of their revenue comes from symphony performances. 

Much of the CARES Act money will be used to make public spaces safe for occupation again.

“One of our obstacles to returning to the stage is the social distancing requirement which limits the number of musicians we can have on stage at a time as well as the number patrons we can invite into our concert hall,” Boomgaarden said.

Each organization has a plan for reopening safely, including significant changes to their facilities. The Omaha Symphony and OPA plan to upgrade the HVAC system inside Holland Center, as well as reconfigure event spaces to ensure socially distanced audience procedures. 

Protecting workers is another top priority. Each said that staff will be required to wear PPE, including face masks and gloves during their shifts. Kristyna Engdahl, Director of Communications for MECA, said that workers at CHI Center will undergo temperature screenings before their shift. 

“The current events have also forced our organization to reexamine all of our operations – from the back house of house to waiting line queues and plexiglass barriers,” Engdahl said. 

Donors for these organizations have provided some help to keep them afloat. 

Boomgaarden said donors were extremely supportive of the orchestra through gifts to the organization’s annual fund as well as sponsorships of upcoming performances, grants and ticket donations. 

MECA has also received donations to assist with their reopening efforts, like CHI Health which provided the organization with cloth face masks when they were temporarily hard to come by.

Even with the safety measures put in place, it’s going to be a while before people are comfortable attending large gatherings again. Engdahl said MECA anticipates things will remain slow until the public feels comfortable participating in large gatherings again.

Despite the challenges of adapting for public safety, these organizations are trying to stay positive. 

“We just keep reminding ourselves that this is temporary,” Engdahl said. “We’re trying to stay optimistic that eventually things will return to ‘normal.’ And when that time comes, we’ll be ready.”

But while large arts organizations are relieved to have costs covered by the CARES Act, smaller arts and entertainment organizations have been struggling to get by. One block up the street from Orpheum Theater, Omaha Performing Arts’ premier venue, is the Backline Comedy Theatre. 

The Backline Comedy Theatre at 1618 Harney St. Photo used with permission.

Backline owner Rohde said the slow return to having shows, the only thing that keeps them afloat, has come with a serious financial cost. He believes that the state’s failure to take “necessary steps” is making it harder for small organizations to reopen safely. 

“Bars across Omaha have over 100 people with packed dance floors,” he said, “And meanwhile we’re trying to be safe getting 20 people with 6 feet of distance and masks.” 

The lack of response from the state is particularly frustrating for Rohde because the local comedy community has been hit hard by the pandemic. 

“We have lost two members of the comedy scene in the last two weeks,” Rohde said. “One to suicide, one to COVID. We have to balance mental health and physical health in a community that normally struggles with both.”

The Backline has been fortunate to receive some government assistance including a Payment Protection Program loan to pay employees and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan to pay their bills. But the assistance doesn’t come without burden for Rohde, who said he’ll probably be paying off these loans for the next 30 years.

Like many other small businesses right now, the Backline is hoping that more assistance is coming. The Backline is proud to call itself a home for all comedy in Omaha, but comedy may be in danger of losing that home soon. 

“We have about one month to go until we need to figure out something else,” Rohde said.

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