Cultural institutions cancel shows, empty seats amid COVID-19 concerns

Cultural institutions across the country are shutting their doors and calling off events because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving some concerned for the health of Canada’s arts scene.

The wave of cancellations Friday came as several provinces pushed to limit the size of gatherings to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The National Museums of Canada said its public institutions will be closed Saturday until further notice.

The decision impacts the Canadian Museum of History, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian War Museum, Ingenium and the National Gallery of Canada.

Following the federal museums, the Royal Museum of Ontario, Art Gallery of Ontario and Ontario Science Centre announced their own closures.

Some live performance organizations say they worry for their financial future as the COVID-19 crisis has left them with empty auditoriums.

The world-renowned Stratford Festival in southwestern Ontario announced Friday that it’s closing the curtain on all performances from April 11 to May 2, as well as public events in its facilities through next month.

Artistic director Antoni Cimolino said the COVID-19 outbreak presents the biggest challenge to the performing arts “in living memory.”

“The motto ‘The show must go on!’ is bred in the bone and it’s therefore very difficult to break out of that mindset,” Cimolino said in a statement.

“But sometimes the show cannot go on. It is extremely important for public health that we do our part.”

Executive director Anita Gaffney projected the cancellations could cost the festival and surrounding tourism economy of Stratford, Ont., millions of dollars, but maintained the move necessary to protect artists and audiences.

“Our hope is that the worst will pass and we will be able to launch our season to healthy and eager audiences soon.”

The National Arts Centre in Ottawa has also cancelled all performances and events through April 5.

In a statement, president and CEO Christopher Deacon asked customers to be patient as the organization works to exchange or refund tickets.

The National Ballet of Canada ended its run of “Romeo and Juliet” on Friday. The company said it expects its June season will go forward, but is monitoring developments.

In London, Ont., the Grand Theatre has suspended all programming for the rest of the season. The theatre asked patrons to consider donating the value of their tickets to the not-for-profit institution during this “time of crisis.”

The Canadian music industry is also pulling back many plans. On Thursday, the Juno Awards that were supposed to take place in Saskatoon over the weekend were cancelled, and on Friday numerous homegrown musicians postponed show dates, including Matthew Good, Sarah Harmer, and Chilliwack and Streetheart.

The SOCAN Awards, an industry event celebrating songwriters and composers set for March 30, was pulled from the schedule, though organizers say they are looking at how to mark the occasion “in an alternative way.”

And the Toronto Symphony Orchestra called off several performances this month. CEO Matthew Loden said patrons have the option of exchanging their tickets for an upcoming performance or a gift certificate, or donating them for charity.

“The consequences of the COVID-19 crisis on the financial health of charitable arts organizations like the TSO are unknown,” Loden said in a statement.

“While we are currently unable to provide you with the live orchestra experience, we encourage you to listen to the music that brings you the most joy and comfort.”

The concern among Canadian arts organizations is even being felt abroad as Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group temporarily suspended some of its touring shows.

The Montreal-based company said the move affects several of its big-top and arena shows around the world, including three with Canadian stops.

They are Montreal-bound “Under the Same Sky,” British Columbia-bound “Axel” and “Crystal,” which has an upcoming date in St. Catharines, Ont.

Pop culture convention Toronto Comicon, scheduled for March 20, was also scrapped.

Organizers say fans can either transfer their ticket to Fan Expo Canada in August with no additional fees, defer their purchase to Toronto Comicon 2021, or get a full refund. All photo ops and special events will be automatically refunded.

Also postponed was the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, which was set for April 30-May 10 in Toronto. Organizers say they remain committed to bringing the films to audiences and are investigating ways to do so at a later date.

Meanwhile, movie theatres are taking safety measures to help audiences feel more comfortable.

Cineplex announced that it’s reducing the capacity of its auditoriums by at least half at theatres across the country to encourage “social distancing” in its auditoriums.

The chain said it’s also rolling out “enhanced cleaning protocols” at locations across the country, and implementing policies to ensure hourly staff don’t suffer a financial hit for staying home.

The TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto will be selling fewer tickets per screening for at least the next four weeks in a similar policy. The theatre said moviegoers will be separated by three seats to give audiences space to safely enjoy the film.

On the small screen, “The Marilyn Denis Show” and “The Social” have shifted their formats to shoot without studio audiences, according to Bell Media.

The company says it’s monitoring the situation closely and will make decisions on a week-by-week basis.

Officials in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta have called for the suspension of large events and public gatherings of more than 250 people.

Ontario’s Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries Minister Lisa MacLeod said in a statement that the ministry is meeting with sector stakeholders to stay apprised of the economic impacts.

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