Has performing arts employment in Illinois recovered from COVID-19?

New state-level analysis from the National Endowment for the Arts shows that employment in Illinois’ performing arts sector hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels, but the news isn’t all bad.

The new analysis also shows that growth in the overall arts sector in Illinois is outpacing that of other states, the Midwest and beyond.

About 1,000 fewer people report being employed by performing arts groups — meaning theater companies, dance companies and symphonies — than in 2019, the year before the COVID-19 pandemic prompted widespread shutdowns. For the arts, those closures lasted until 2021.

According to inflation-adjusted data, the performing arts industry generated an estimated $555 million for the Illinois economy in 2022, an 11% decrease from 2019.

However, according to the most recent data, in 2022, the overall arts and culture sector contributed 3.5% of the state’s total economy and employed more than 216,000 people, according to Patricia Mullaney-Loss, a social science analyst at the office of research. and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. It’s an improvement from a low point in 2021, and Illinois is doing better than its neighbors.

“When we look at the relative concentration of the arts and culture sector in Illinois, it ranks at the top of all the Midwestern states,” Mullaney-Loss said.

However, salaries in the performing arts sector have declined since 2020 and have not fully recovered, said Sunil Iyengar, director of the office of research and analytics for KTA. The average salary for performers in Illinois has dropped from $21.88 to $20.50.

So even with sector growth leading the country, there are still fewer jobs available, and those jobs often pay less money.


Actor William Rose II reviews the tab of his latest show, lifeless, at his home on April 18, 2024 in Chicago. Like many shophouse actors in Chicago, Rose has a day job to get by.

What does this mean for theater in Chicago?

Marissa Lynn Jones is executive director at the League of Chicago Theaters. Her organization represents 207 theater companies. She says one of the biggest changes to the local scene has been changes to the structure of the season.

“A larger theater could have had nine shows within their season,” before the COVID-19 venue closures, Lynn Jones said. “They may have cut them down post-pandemic to about five shows. Just to give you an idea, that could be anywhere from two to 50 performers per show who aren’t working, or union workers or designers who they’re not working.”

The shift to smaller seasons may be reflected in data showing fewer jobs and overall earnings that, after adjusting for inflation, have not returned to 2019 levels. Additionally, audiences have yet to return to properly increase ticket sales. Lynn Jones says theaters in Chicago are still seeing a 30% drop in audience attendance from 2019.

Some performing arts groups have warned that the arts were struggling even before the pandemic.

Joshua Davis-Ruperto, executive director of the Illinois Arts Council, said that in 2019, the performing arts, especially theaters, were already facing declines in corporate sponsorships and subscriptions. Many organizations were looking for new funding models. The pandemic exacerbated these issues, but did not create them.

Mid-sized countries, in particular, have been hit hard, Davis-Ruperto said. “Very big [theaters] there were donations and the little ones were nimble enough to adjust accordingly. Those mid-sized organizations had a really hard time surviving and we saw a lot of closures.”

Davis-Ruperto said his office has worked to ensure that state arts funding levels have remained stable; his group has also shifted funding models to ensure organizations have more flexibility in grant spending.

He thinks the key to success for the performing arts moving forward is to continue to respond to new audience needs – not focus on returning to 2019.

And Lynn Jones agrees.

“I think 2019 was a long time ago and we have to constantly change and be creative about the things we’re doing,” Lynn Jones said. This is pushing theaters to seek out new audiences and plays that reflect more diverse audiences and stories. “People want to see themselves on stage.”

Mike Davis is WBEZ’s theater reporter.

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