Priced Out of the Market

How Choruses Are Responding to the Concert Venue Crunch

Churches are the traditional performance venue of choice for many choral music organizations. But as rental costs rise and competition for event space becomes tighter, choruses are feeling the squeeze. Here are a few innovative, affordable solutions they’ve found.

Over the course of Jolle Greenleaf’s decade-long tenure as artistic director of TENET Vocal Artists, she’s seen the rental costs of performance spaces increase exponentially. Greenleaf, who mounts professional performances of early music all over New York City, says that in TENET’s first season, her budget for performance venues was no more than $2,000. By the fall of 2018, the organization’s 10th anniversary, the budget had grown to $10,000—for the same number of concerts. “Choral groups used to be able to book spaces through churches’ music directors, and they’d charge $200 or $250,” Greenleaf says. “Now, we have to fill out a form and provide proof of insurance covering up to $1 million in damages, and we have to pay 10 times the previous going rate.”

Earlier this year, Greenleaf, frustrated by the growing complexity and costs of booking sacred spaces, aired her concerns on Facebook. She expected to get no more than a few reactions. But a week later, her post was a 50-comment thread, with directors and musicians from all over the country chiming in with commiserations. Greenleaf had struck a nerve—and illuminated a growing national trend.

Churches have long been the venues of choice for countless choral directors because of their low cost, ample space, and good acoustics. But in recent years, choruses have been stymied by the growing costs and complications of booking performance space. Chorus America’s 2018 Chorus Operations Survey Report shows that program-related expenses consume almost 75 percent of the average chorus’s budget.

The increased challenges come as churches all over the country experience drops in attendance and receive fewer donations. In a 2017 Gallup survey, just 38 percent of Americans said they attended weekly services, compared to about 49 percent in the mid-1950s. And in a national survey conducted in 2016, six in 10 ministries reported flat or decreased giving.

Choral leaders from Minneapolis to Massachusetts, from Washington State to Washington DC, posit that it’s because of these dips in attendance and donor dollars that churches and other popular performance venues have begun to charge choirs more money to use their spaces. That growing need for operating funds, combined with a possible increase in business savvy, may also be why many churches seem increasingly eager to offer their spaces to community organizations as meeting rooms, event venues, and performance halls, driving up competition for space on weekday evenings and Saturdays.

“Since supply is limited and demand high, churches—many of whom have small congregations—have discovered that they can make a lot of money on these rentals,” says Magen Solomon, artistic director of the San Francisco Choral Artists and the San Francisco Bach Choir. “The prices have been going steadily up, especially in the last five years.”

As cost becomes a growing concern, choruses have begun to rethink the venue-booking process. The heightened financial crunch has pushed choral directors out of their comfort zones in searches for unusual spaces and creative workarounds. For many, the challenge has proven a blessing in disguise, leading to new spaces that reenergize singers, stoke excitement in community members, and inspire artistic leadership to explore new musical genres. From singing in cemeteries to striking deals with their local communities, here’s how a few choruses are persevering under pressure.

Discovering new spaces

For many years, Washington DC’s Kennedy Center and its resident choral ensembles had a shared understanding. “What we have is a football-style draft program,” says Tad Czyzewski, executive director of DC’s 170-voice Choral Arts Society. “The Kennedy Center gives us dates to choose from for the coming season, and we alternate which chorus gets first dibs on those dates.”

But in the last two years, Czyzewski says, rehearsal and performance dates for Choral Arts and other Kennedy Center affiliates have been a bit harder to come by, due in part to expanded programming at the performing arts hub. The Center now presents more pop concerts, comedy shows and live performances of video-game music than ever during its regular concert season.

The change means Choral Arts often finds itself being offered Saturday night and early weekday evening time slots rather than the Sundays to which its audiences have become accustomed. It’s taught Czyzewski and his colleagues to adopt a more flexible approach to season programming. “If the Kennedy Center is available at a time we didn’t quite anticipate, we’ll adapt the program, changing it to something popular like Carmina Burana or the Brahms Requiem to entice our audiences to switch to the new date and time,” Czyzewski says. “Rather than dreaming up three or four specific concerts a year ahead of time, we’ve learned to stay nimble.”

Another way in which Choral Arts stays nimble, Czyzewski adds, is by proactively searching for unique performance venues for its smaller Chamber Singers ensemble. One venue it’s trying out this season? Dupont Underground, a decommissioned streetcar station that’s recently hosted avant-garde light shows, yoga classes with live music, and experimental art exhibitions. The space comes with no piano, no heating and cooling, and no on-site bathrooms. On the other hand, it’s extremely resonant, it’s large enough to accommodate hundreds of patrons, and it offers a new and exciting concertgoing experience for audiences. The group’s artistic director, Scott Tucker, even composed a new piece specifically designed to accommodate the space’s 3.5-second sound delay. “The resonance in the space means we get to be creative with programming, since traditional pieces such as requiems or standard madrigals wouldn’t work or would seem out of place there,” Czyzewski says.

Three time zones away, another group has been similarly bold and flexible with its venue requirements. The Stockton Chorale, based in California’s Central Valley, found itself paying $700 for one rehearsal and one performance at a church with little parking convenience and wheelchair access. To save money and ease the parking burden, the ensemble turned to an unusual venue: the local mortuary.

They offered us free use of the chapel and waiting rooms in exchange for a full-page ad in our program,” says board member Glenn Pillsbury. “This has been the most surprising innovation of the past two years and has actually driven down our venue costs. And, while the idea of a choral concert taking place just the other side of a crematorium located in the middle of a cemetery might not seem intuitive, neither our audience or singers reported any discomfort during the trial run this past spring.”

Forget what you think you want

Cost isn’t the only factor driving choruses to look for alternative venues. Three seasons ago, Greenleaf worried that mounting a TENET concert of secular, and often suggestive, medieval music in a church could set the wrong tone or irk congregants, so she set out to find alternative spaces. She found the perfect setting, to her surprise, in a Japanese art gallery. “To listen to medieval music, which is quite complex at times, you have to get to a ‘zen’ place mentally,” she says. “In my mind, a clean-lined, spare gallery can get people in the mood for this music a lot better than an opulent and historic venue like a church.” The gallery is also less expensive than many comparable venues, she finds, but securing the times and dates she wants can be a challenge. When she explores options outside the world of church bookings, Greenleaf often finds herself competing for space with Manhattan families and film crews willing to pay five figures for weddings or on-location shooting.

In Chicago, Matt Greenberg has slightly different competition: rock bands. Greenberg is the executive director of Chicago a cappella, a 10-member group that each season ventures into the realms of pop, gospel, jazz, classical, and folk. He says he’s begun to see rental costs rise for many regular concert venues in the city—churches and concert halls, mostly—and that’s made him all the more eager to find unexpected spaces.

For the ensemble’s most recent season closer, a program of upbeat rock and soul music, Greenberg had booked two different venues: an elegant concert hall and a rock club. The first venue, Greenberg says, was in theory the perfect place for a respected vocal group. But in execution, it felt a little staid and dry. The second venue brought major challenges: The group had to use amplification for the first time; they had a food and drink minimum to meet; and the club managers had never worked with a small nonprofit ensemble before. But Greenberg’s willingness to book on a Sunday night, typically a slow one for rock clubs, fetched the organization a good deal—and subscribers and new audience members raved about the fun, festive experience. “It was a totally unusual venue for us, and we had all these things to work out, but it was a very exciting performance and ended up sounding great,” he says. “We packed the place. Everybody was drinking and having a good time.”

The experience taught Greenberg not to rule out nontraditional venues. He booked the rock club again for the coming season, along with a former movie palace. The decision might have been unthinkable a few years ago. Choosing a venue with a good acoustic has always been a top priority for Chicago a cappella, but Greenberg has recently learned that intimacy—a far more elusive quality—should occasionally take precedence.  “We realized that one of the benefits of a group that small is that audience members feel very personally connected to performers,” Greenberg says. “We want to leverage that connection, which you can’t do in a large hall.”

Let go of pretensions

Greenberg is one of many choral professionals who have discovered that a church or concert hall’s gravitas, traditionally considered a desirable quality in a concert venue, can sometimes keep potential audience members away. “Churches seem like such natural places for choirs to meet, because they’re purpose-built for a lot of what we do,” says William White. “But not everyone feels comfortable in that setting, and that’s a real challenge to face.”

That thought first occurred to White, who conducts Orchestra Seattle and the Seattle Chamber Singers, when one of his organization’s board members wondered aloud whether sacred venues were a turnoff for non-Christian Seattleites. That’s when White began to reconsider his options. He’d already seen costs rise steadily at the traditional venues his ensembles frequent. “They’re increasing our rent and adding extra fees every year,” White says. “That does make us look elsewhere for comparable venues. If we know we’re going to have to pay $1,500 at one of our regular venues, I think, let’s look someplace else that also costs $1,500 but could accommodate us better.”

White has mulled the idea of using high school or community college auditoriums—many of which have great acoustics, updated interiors, large capacities and affordable rental rates. “If the argument is that people who don’t attend church services don’t feel comfortable in those spaces, then there’s no better alternative space than a school,” he says. “Think about it: Everyone went to school. Schools are a relatable space for almost everyone.”

For many other choruses, taking up residence in area schools has been the perfect solution to venue woes. Belinda Rossiter, executive director of the Houston Show Choir, has mounted several recent performances in local schools and is happy with the results. In the past, she’d booked small local theaters at similar price points, but she found that few had a backstage area that could accommodate 100 costume-changing singers. Larger theaters with ample backstage space, Rossiter says, often ask for at least $6,000—more than three times the rental cost of a similarly sized school theater.

“A [small] theater might be fine for a stage production with a cast of 20, but impossible for a choir of 100,” she says. “Twice when we rented a college theater, we rented additional conference rooms that we repurposed as dressing rooms. Our current solution is to partner with high schools. The performance space may not be as fancy, but there is plenty of room backstage, between classrooms, cafeterias, and gymnasiums.”

Team up

Alysia Lee, artistic director of the Sister Cities Girlchoir, which serves Philadelphia, Camden, and Baltimore, has always found the venue search tough. The Girlchoir frequently partners with schools in classroom residencies, and Lee would love to make school auditoriums a go-to concert venue—but, she says, “our programming times make it difficult to use school buildings.”

Four years ago, Lee found a beautiful solution in Partners for Sacred Places, a national nonprofit organization that helps financially struggling churches find community partners who need affordable space. “We’re dedicated to the sound stewardship and active community use of the country’s oldest religious properties,” says Karen DiLossi, the director of Arts in Sacred Places, an arm of Partners. “We care about the future of these beautiful buildings.”

DiLossi has built several successful partnerships by engaging church administrators who are as focused on mission fulfillment as they are on making enough money to keep operating. Churches that strive to serve the larger community, she says, are more receptive to the idea of offering space to arts organizations at below-market value. “If your mission is to keep your space open to the community, setting overly high rental rates isn’t going to accomplish that,” DiLossi says.

The partnerships DiLossi has helped forge have proven mutually beneficial: Churches suffering from a decline in membership and donations are able to keep services going and keep the lights on, while artists are able to practice and perform in an affordable space. Lee says the alliance between the Girlchoir and First Presbyterian Church of Kensington, a congregation in urban North Philadelphia, has been ideal. “Partners was able to facilitate several meetings with sacred spaces in our preferred neighborhood, and they advised both parties on best practices for creating a lasting relationship,” Lee says. “We’ve had a mutually beneficial working relationship with First Presbyterian for four years now.”

Make community connections

Amanda Balestrieri is new to her role as artistic director of Colorado-based Seicento Baroque Ensemble—she’s just begun her first season at the helm after serving one season as assistant conductor—yet even in that short time, she’s seen a change in how churches book and charge for space. “So many church spaces are not only wanting to charge a little more, or in some cases a lot more, but they’re also overscheduling,” she says. Balestrieri recalls booking a church in downtown Denver for a concert only to find out on performance day that the church had also rented its basement to a group holding an awards ceremony with live rock music. Noise from the basement bled into the sanctuary.

While Seicento still performs in churches and will continue to do so—much of its repertoire is sacred and dependent on a resonant space—Balestrieri has turned to an industrial event space on Denver’s southern edge for one of the group’s fall concerts. The cost of renting the space, normally $4,000 or more, could cripple most arts organizations. But Balestrieri says she made it work by forging connections with the neighborhood. “Having sung there for a concert before, I knew the owner of the building was eager to support the local arts,” she says. “I approached him about having a concert there, and he agreed to rent it on a Sunday for a fraction of the regular price.” Balestrieri also negotiated with a local liquor store to provide free bartending in exchange for the cost of liquor. She even attended neighborhood association meetings to drum up excitement for the concert. “I reminded the neighborhood residents that I’d helped paint their bridge a few years ago,” she says. “I didn’t feel so bad about going into the meeting and saying, ‘Hey, does anyone want to help promote this concert?’ I think it’s important and helpful to have a connection with the neighborhood where you’re looking for an event space.”

New York’s Jolle Greenleaf agrees that in a world of rising rental costs, the community connection’s the thing. In endeavors to book churches at an affordable rate, she’s had success offering herself up as a ringer for Sunday services and offering free tickets to administrators and congregation members. “If you don’t have a lot of money, you have to have all kinds of other things to bring to the table,” Greenleaf says. She acknowledges that making these connections takes some doing, but says the payoff is worth it. “Not everybody has time or energy to build a relationship and come at this from a community perspective. But if you make time, that’s going to unfold solutions.”

Jill Kimball is a writer and media relations officer at Brown University. She devotes her spare time to choral singing, freelance writing, blogging, and traveling.