SMU DataArts - Cultural Data Profile


Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL. Photo by Michael Brosilow. Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Tracking the Initial Impact of COVID-19 on the Performing Arts in the U.K. and North America

The following is an excerpt from an insight report published on June 2, 2020, "Tracking the Initial Impact of COVID-19 on the Performing Arts in the U.K. and North America," that is part of a larger project, the COVID-19 Sector Benchmark Dashboard conducted by TRG Arts, which is helping arts organizations in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. understand how the COVID-19 virus has affected their operations.

Key Findings

  • The immediate and ongoing impact on the performing arts of the COVID-19 lockdown fell more in the U.K. than in North America.
  • In North America, comparative annual ticket sales collapsed by 71% during the week of March 16, 2020 and have not recovered.
  • In the same week, U.K. sales fell by 87% and then by 94% the following week.
  • U.K. sales remain flat, but the gap between the U.K. and North America is shrinking as there is no sign yet of recovery in the North American market, despite the accelerated release of lockdowns in many states.
  • In North America, the largest and smallest organizations are seeing sales decline most in a challenging market for all.
  • In the U.K., larger organizations are marginally outperforming smaller ones in an extremely difficult market.
  • A higher proportion of smaller U.K. organizations are choosing to shut their box offices for all sales.

TRG Arts and Purple Seven are no better able than any other organization or individual to predict whether we are now emerging from a global pandemic or simply reaching the end of the first chapter of a longer and even more serious and destructive phase.

This initial analysis was undertaken to answer the question, “How are the U.K. and the North American markets faring in the wake of COVID-19 and the temporary closure of performing arts venues?”

We have seen that the response and behavior to date of performing arts organizations and their supporters have been very different in these two major international markets. In North America, while most organizations have seen a catastrophic dip in sales, some have limited the immediate financial impact of COVID-19 by effectively engaging with their most loyal patrons and sustaining, and in some cases even increasing, sales for shows later in 2020.

In the U.K. ticket sales and revenue fell earlier and further. Almost all organizations are selling a tiny fraction of the volumes of tickets they would expect at the current stage of the sales cycle. Around 15% have taken a proactive decision to stop selling tickets until they have greater clarity on reopening dates and arrangements.

Despite being ahead of the U.K. in the process of releasing lockdown and planning for the reopening of venues, in North America customer confidence does not appear to be returning and comparative weekly sales continue to be in decline.

Answering one question poses several further queries and hypotheses we plan to test in future reports:

  • Who is booking and what are they purchasing? Initial analysis suggests “loyalists4” are a higher proportion of sales than we would usually expect in both the U.K. and North America. How much of the comparatively better sales in North America are down to more loyal audiences? How important have subscription sales been for those organizations who are outperforming their peers?
  • Where are we seeing confidence returning? How far in advance are customers booking? Are sales where we would expect them to be for autumn/fall? How is the crucial holiday period performing in both markets? Are we still seeing extended families booking to attend together, or is group size reducing?
  • Is new philanthropic income replacing lost ticket income? Many performing arts organizations, particularly in the U.K., have taken a strategic decision to stop selling tickets and instead focus on encouraging donations from their patrons. Is this proving effective? Are organizations achieving record increases in philanthropic income at the same time as witnessing unprecedented falls in ticket sales?


Purple Seven and TRG Arts are still welcoming new organizations to join the free COVID-19 Sector Benchmark and would particularly like to welcome organizations in Canada and the Republic of Ireland to establish benchmarks in these nations. To sign up and receive a free dashboard to compare your organization’s performance with your peers, visit


Download the Full Report


The COVID-19 Sector Benchmark Dashboard, developed by TRG Arts in collaboration with U.K.-based audience analytics company Purple Seven, launched in early April 2020. The dashboard, which is free, provides near real-time intelligence and advice to help arts leaders see results as they respond to the pandemic. The project is supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to SMU DataArts, TRG Arts' longtime partner in advancing the arts and cultural sector. 

When an organization signs up for the dashboard, an automated data feed is set up between the organization’s box office and the dashboard’s secure server. The automated feed provides a daily update on ticket sales, refunds and donations for the organization. In addition, data from all other organizations participating in the dashboard is aggregated in an anonymous format to create a national benchmark, which shows up on the dashboard and allows an organization to see how it compares with a large group of its peers. The dashboard is entirely anonymous, so no one else’s sales figures or customer data are identifiable to an organization. The dashboard provides daily insights for individual organizations that they can share with constituents and stakeholders; reveals sector trends in almost real-time, which can assist in short- and long-term planning; allows arts leaders and policy makers to track daily sales data across entire sectors; and by data gathering and benchmarking across the U.K., Canada and the U.S., gives a clearer picture of the effects of the virus on the arts sector and the recovery in each country. Monthly Insight Reports will be posted on the SMU DataArts and TRG Arts websites. Read more in the press release.

Is New Philanthropic Income Replacing Lost Ticket Income?

Read the Report