On May 27, 2020, the Western Folklife Center Board of Trustees made in all likelihood the most difficult decision any governing body would have to make. After significant discussion and by a unanimous vote, the Trustees voted to cancel the 2021 National Cowboy Poetry Gathering due to obvious health and safety concerns as well as uncertainty regarding financial risk surrounding the coronavirus pandemic. Many Trustees have attended the annual event for decades. We reside in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Texas, Idaho, and Virginia. Five of us are local Elko County residents.
While we are a diverse group of poets, artists, folklorists, craftsmen, ranchers, and people with traditional business backgrounds, we share one overriding passion—and that is to ensure the Gathering endures for our next generation. There is no playbook for this pandemic, other than guidelines issued by federal, state, and local officials. Given the safety, health, financial and potential reputational risks associated with moving forward into this uncertainty, the Board made a prudent decision.
In our deliberation, the Board clearly recognized the impact cancellation would have on the local community, including those who have supported the Gathering financially. We reviewed three operating scenarios, all of which showed the Folklife Center losing substantial money (from $280,000 to up to $1.2 million) by proceeding ahead and trying to hold the Gathering. As just one consideration, current State of Nevada guidance prohibits live performances with spectators. Gatherings of up to 50 people wearing masks are, however, allowed. We took a look at what revenue could be expected with guideline limitations, using an optimistic assumption that performances might be possible with smaller audiences next January 2021. The Pioneer Building G Three Bar Theater normally, with a full house, nets about $10,000 per show. With social distancing guidelines, however, that number drops to less than $1,700 In revenue. The numbers just do not work for a non-profit organization that essentially breaks even every year.
The Western Folklife Center is exceptionally fortunate to have been supported by not just the Elko County community, but folks from all over who see the Gathering after 36 years as a national treasure. Unlike many non-profits, we are blessed with an endowment that helps us underwrite years where maybe things do not go as well as planned. But to be clear, the Board has a fiduciary duty and governance responsibility that can be shared with no other person, business, or government organization. Losing up to one-half of the endowment in one year by deciding to proceed in the face of uncertainty is simply irresponsible.
We understand that some of our local supporters do not like the decision and for that we can only say we are sorry. This is balanced by the overwhelmingly positive feedback we have received from artists, members and attendees. One group of 38 patrons from the Salt Lake City area attends just about every year. This group purchased $10,000 worth of tickets in 2020 and no one has expressed anything but relief at the news of the cancellation. While we are sympathetic to the impact this will have on the Elko economy, we must give priority consideration to the health and safety of our patrons, employees and volunteers.
Our sincere hope is that this pandemic is addressed by the scientific and medical community and government clears a path to normalcy in due time. We are fully committed to the 2022 Gathering and the benefits it will bring to Elko County.
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